by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks

ACAP, or Automated Content Access Protocol, is one of the latest buzzwords in the debate about how the Internet is affecting traditional publishers. The protocol, being developed by the World Association of Newspapers, the European Publishers Council and International Publishers Association allows for publishers to easily communicate to search engines what content they want those search engines to have access to. It has gained attention since Rupert Murdoch said he was thinking of locking his newspapers away from the crawling eyes of Google and also when Microsoft reportedly pledged about $200,000 to fund development of ACAP.

The idea is that by controlling what search engines, specifically Google, can index, publishers will be better able to monetize their content online.

Regardless of if that goal is successful, something like ACAP is a useful tool for anyone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want part or all of their content accessible to search engines. The proponents of ACAP admit hiding content from search engines has been possible since the beginning through a protocol called robots.txt, but claim ACAP modernizes and expands on robots.txt. ACAP accepts instructions in plane language and then converts them into instructions to web-crawlers automatically. Purportedly, ACAP also allows publishers more granular control over what content can be accessed.

But better control over search engines can only be a small part of better content monetizaton. It is well reported that it is delinting ad revenue, not readership, that is causing the problems for big, traditional media outlets. They simply can’t demand the same ad rates online or in print that the once could. The sheer amount of ad real estate created by the web, has driven down the price of advertising in print and online. Creating a closed environment for your content doesn’t, in and of itself, raise your ad rates.

Of course, the proponents of ACAP probably plan to implement a subscription service. Yet traditionally subscription rates have been a small portion of newspaper and magazine revenue compared to that of advertising. This is not to say a subscription model can’t work, just that probably rates would have to significantly higher than what consumers have been used to paying. If the content is unique and compelling enough, a critical mass of users may agree to the rates, but that is uncharted territory.

The media landscape is still changing quickly. A couple of years ago, paying for journalistic articles was largely considered unreasonable and unnecessary. But now that so many papers and magazines have shuttered, their are murmurs from many that 24 hour blogo-twitter-sphere often feels…well, a bit trivial. I think there is a growing group of people that would consider paying for access to a lot of high quality journalistic articles online. But the value must be clear–any subscription service must keep them informed above and beyond what they can get elsewhere, access must be easy and the cost must be reasonable. If all three of those criteria are met, a big if, than ACAP could help usher in a new way of thinking about, and accessing online content.

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