In the past 12 months something very interesting has happened to web search giant, Google. It has become a publisher. By acquiring first Zagat, which publishes crowdsourced restaurant recommendations, and more recently the venerable US travel guide publisher Frommer's, Google has become the owner of two businesses that have historically made money from publishing print books.

While this might seem like a strange strategic move for Google, an article recently appeared on Publishing Perspectives that puts the acquisitions in a different context. Instead of buying publishers for their content the author, argues Google instead saw these businesses as readymade stores of metadata that it hopes will add value to its search results.

"Frommer’s reputation rests on its ability to identify and describe physical places — be they tourist attractions or hotels — with editorial integrity. Over more than 50 years the company has been slowly assembling a kind of taxonomy for the travel experience, with the result that every year millions of travelers visit museums or book into hotels on the basis of a Frommer’s recommendation.


"It’s this layer of contextual information that Frommer’s put over the real world that I would say makes the company so attractive to Google. The search giant is desperate to maintain its market leadership in search by making the results its engine returns to users more local, social and richer in context.


"And to see what will eventually happen to all that guidebook information, we need look no further than Zagat, the publisher of crowdsourced restaurant reviews which Google bought last year. It quickly folded all the information that Zagat possessed on restaurants across 70 cities (location, contact details and ratings) into its Google Maps and Google+ Local services. This acquisition wasn’t about Google becoming a publisher, it was a clever play to make its local and social products more attractive to consumers. Google never really saw the value of Zagat’s books, or even its website. It bought its content to transform it into a store of metadata that would give people a reason to use Google+."


This argument suggests that the future for some publishing businesses, especially those that operate in non-fiction or reference categories like travel, could be very interesting. Currently their business models are predicated on bundling content into book form and selling it to people who want to know definitively when the Empire State Building was built, or where you can find the best pastrami on rye in New York. What if, however, the editorial content publishers have worked so hard over so many years to create, has a second-life in store as metadata? Could there be a future in publishers who specialise in providing authoritative, trustworthy information about the real world in bitesized chunks as and when we need it, and where consumers find that information simply via an internet search? It's an intriguing concept.