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May 1, 2005

Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

I just read a terribly demoralizing (and sickeningly slanted) article in the latest issue of New Scientist, reporting that the folks at Google intend to modify the ranking system used by their remarkable news search engine. This is absolutely horrendous news for alternative media sites like The NewStandard.

Google's plans involve establishing a supposedly "qualitative" gauge of a news outlet's "credibility" by measuring features such as the size of the organization's staff and how long the publication has been in existence.

It took me a while, but I finally dug up the international patent application for Google's new "method." It reads, in part:

The method may include determining one or more metric values for the news source based at least in part on at least one of a number of articles produced by the news source during a first time period, an average length of an article produced by the news source, an amount of important coverage that the news source produces in a second time period, a breaking news score, an amount of network traffic to the news source, a human opinion of the news source, circulation statistics of the news source, a size of a staff associated with the news source, a number of bureaus associated with the news source, a number of original named entities in a group of articles associated with the news source, a breadth of coverage by the news source, a number of different countries from which network traffic to the news source originates, and the writing style used by the news source. (emphasis added)

I highlighted the criteria I found particularly disturbing -- not just because it will bury The NewStandard and so many other great independent online publications, but also because it's just plain poor criteria. Factors having to do with scale are almost meaningless to an individual news story.

Consider "breadth of coverage," for example. More often than not, as a rule of thumb, I would suggest that a specialized or local news outlet will cover a given issue better than CNN or The New York Times or the BBC or any other global operation. If all you do is report on genetics or Africa or hometown politics or video games, wouldn't it stand to reason you should fair considerably better in search results on that topic than an organization that dabbles in everything? That is not to say that a news source cannot be broadly focused and still be very good -- after all, we're trying for just that model -- but why not let an outfit shine where it excels?

Also, the idea of providing a higher rating to outlets that offer more breaking news is like rewarding your boyfriend for climaxing first. Breaking news is inherently subject to the most errors and the worst journalism. So it might be good to know that an outlet typically has something early on, but that is not a reliable method for evaluating the quality of its reporting.

And while we're on the subject of quality, how do Google's "human" assessors intend to evaluate each source? Here's one idea they have:

Evaluation of news sites by other agencies may be also used (e. g. , newspapers can be compared based at least in part on the number of Pulitzer prizes the newspapers have won, etc.).

Or, while we're on that tip...

Moreover, the age of the news source may be taken as a measure of confidence by the public...

And here's my favorite -- the ever-ambiguous, all-powerful "evaluator":

In another implementation, evaluators may be shown a selection of articles from individual news sources and asked to assign each source a score.

The whole idea behind Google News, ironically, is captured in their own description from the About Google News page:

Google News is a highly unusual news service in that our results are compiled solely by computer algorithms, without human intervention. As a result, news sources are selected without regard to political viewpoint or ideology, enabling you to see how different news organizations are reporting the same story. This variety of perspectives and approaches is unique among online news sites, and we consider it essential in helping you stay informed about the issues that matter most to you.

Looks like they've decided to scrap that bullshit... If they don't think their proposed criteria are going to determine "political viewpoint or ideology," they're sadly mistaken.

Really, if you review Google's plans, it is obvious that the move is toward favoring establishment media outlets and hobbling alternative and independent outfits, at least within Google's considerable domain.

There are sensible criteria one could apply to improve search results for more objective factors of quality... were that one's actual goal. A few of those appear in Google's patent application. For instance, it makes sense to favor outlets that name their sources over those that simply assert "truths." And it makes sense to favor hard news over commentary, if that were what they mean by writing style, since it's called Google News and not Google Views.

But part of what Google is referring to as "writing style" is less valuable. Consider, for instance:

Automated tests for measuring spelling correctness, grammar, and reading levels can be used to generate a metric value that reflects writing style.

I'm not sure that grammar and spelling should matter, though that doesn't upset me terribly, since at least an argument could be made that better editing goes hand-in-hand with better proofreading. But "reading level"? So Google is now trying to drive away users who read at lower levels? As much as I'd love to see justice done to Rupert Murdoch's neanderthal news network, I cannot support this criteria, either.

So why am I getting all worked up about this? At present, a full fifth of our daily traffic arrives by way of Google News -- and in many ways those are our most valued visitors, along with others who arrive via the main Google search engine (another fifth) and Yahoo! News. Every day about half of our visits are from people who have bookmarked our site (that's "favorites" for you Internet Explorer users), made it their homepage or received our Daily Dispatch mailing of the day's headlines. Those are people who are obviously familiar with us and are prone to check in from time to time.

The rest are pointed our way by links on other sites, of which search engines make up the lion's share. Because our mission is to reach out well beyond the audiences of other progressive sites, and to compete with the corporate media, those search engine referrals are crucial. Losing them simply because our staff and budget are miniscule compared to CNN and BBC, or because we have only been around less than two years, would be simply devastating.

I suspect that before long alternative media activists will develop some kind of campaign to pressure Google to cancel their plans, or at the very least to offer an alternative search that ignores their ridiculous "credibility" criteria. I'll be updating this blog when I learn more about what others are doing to stop Google from taking this ridiculous turn against the public interest.

Comments...

Benjamin Melançon: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

I'm in favor of a campaign to keep Google on the side of the forces of light, but I also think that with the IPO it's time to recognize that Google is going to increasingly favor corporations and the establishment in everything it does. We need an open source alternative to Google, whether it survives its coming war with Microsoft or not. Hard to imagine now, but maybe a technological innovation like distributed processing will make possible a replacement (that and killer search algorithms), the same way cheap computers in clusters, programming genius, and near-ideal site design made Google's rise to dominance possible.

Craig: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

Great, now there will be even more Voice of America articles on there.

msszczep: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

Benjamin.

History may remember this post as the start of something big. You've just given some of us an amazing homework assignment:

"We need an open source alternative to Google, whether it survives its coming war with Microsoft or not. Hard to imagine now, but maybe a technological innovation like distributed processing will make possible a replacement (that and killer search algorithms), the same way cheap computers in clusters, programming genius, and near-ideal site design made Google's rise to dominance possible."

I work in software development for a living. I don't know if you have any computer skills (it sounds like you do), but would you be interested in getting the ball rolling on developing some open-source Google equivalent or near-equivalent?

That goes for anyone else reading this post. Do you have any computer skills? Are you a fan of open source? Interested in taking on Google? Email mitchell@chicagomediaaction.org and let's get something started.

RS: send an email to google

from here: http://www.google.com/contact. maximum length of message is 1000 characters.

I argued that because of media groupthink [leaving out the propaganda model, of course], by sorting the media giants to the top, they would end up with 10 versions of a news story that all say the same thing. then I said, why should I bother with google news in that event? Just do CNN and BBC and be done with it. right?

maybe they'll listen.

but an alternative google WOULD be fantastic, of course.

isolde100: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

If Google favors large news organizations, they open the market for another search engine. There are enough VCs in Silicon Valley who will fund the *next* Google. And you know how easy it is to switch to another search engine. Muniwireless.com, my blog which is dedicated to municipal wireless broadband networks, would lose out but so would Google because it is on specialized sites like mine that advertisers want to place ads. I don't know if I believe that this is what Google is planning to do because it seems really stupid from a search/advertising point of view.

msszczep: RS: This reminds me of a story...

RS,

I once looked through Google News to research stories about a (then new) internet virus. I must have found some 150+ articles found by Google News. And as far as I could tell, nearly all of them were reprints of the same _two_ articles.

Two. That's it. Two.

The more I think about this, the more we need an OpenGoogle (or whatever we name this thing).

I'm told that there was an attempt to do this very thing in the mid-nineties called Freesearch. For more, please see (especially the comments):

http://chuck.mahost.org/weblog/?p=930

Anyone interested in getting involved in this incipient project? The offer still stands to get something going. Possibly change the world and the face of internet searching (emphasis on the "possibly" part). See post above for contact details.

geomat: Google Delivers another Nail in the Coffin of Mass Advertising

The best way to head off this silly move by Google is to hasten the demise of mass advertising. It is a hangover from the Industrial Age of advertisers treating people like mindless sheep. The 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto have already been nailed to their door, and the first is the most important: the markets [in the information age] are conversations.

Mass advertising is a one-way yelling at us and has no place no on the net. The Adblock of the Firefox browser is one huge step in the direction of eliminating the mass advertisers. (And another big reason why we need to make sure Firefox becomes the browser of choice.)

Another big step (hopefully) is our It's Over! campaign which is currently in the comment/review stage at www.itsover.org

Check it out and let us know what you think.

Once we get rid of the mass advertisers, we can get back to our conversations.

marcus99nd: Blog cited

E-Commerce Times has written an article about critics of google's plan to change its news site and Brian's blog above is quoted liberally. Google Plan to Refine News Search Finds Early Critics By Keith Regan 05/04/05 10:53 AM PT http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/42864.html

marcus99nd: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

I now see that it was the lead story Wednesday on their top page and was their most read story. I have asked them to link to TNS in the story so that might also happen.

As to the open source google idea, that is fantastic! I am going to write a friend about soliciting some help with this project.

Brian Dominick: Talk about favoring corporate media...

I just submitted the following letter-to-the-editor to E-Commerce News:

Dear Editor:

I appreciate that reporter Keith Regan chose to quote so extensively from my recent criticisms of Google's plans to prioritize corporate media in its future news search operations ("Google Plan To Refine News Search Finds Early Critics," 5/4/05). But it's more than a little telling that you managed to link to Google's and Yahoo!'s stock quotes, as well as to the Google apologists at Forrester Research, but you managed to get our name wrong (it's The NewStandard, 2 words not 3), and you somehow failed to link to our independent news outfit, The NewStandard -- which your readers can find at http://newstandardnews.net. We're not publicly traded like those that received links, but I guess independence and integrity get you nowhere in the "e-commerce" business.

Sincerely, Brian Dominick

marcus99nd: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

I got this reply today: Hello Marcus, I've manually inserted a link to the NewStandard, and corrected the spacing in the name. Thanks. Kevin FitzMaurice

stevemonty: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

WikiNews is a good open source based news website. http://en.wikinews.org

This site needs support from people to write and edit articles

I'm not sure but the software behind it may be available for other to develop a similar website with.

MangoMundo: Check out www.activista.org

For those looking for an alternative to google, check out www.activista.org. It's not as extensive as google, but might be a good place to start from. It offers search capabilities for alternative news, media, politics etc. Try searching for George Bush in google, then in activista.org. One goes directly to whitehouse.gov, the other goes to a page about Bush, GMOs and world hunger. This could be revolutionary....

Brian Dominick: Activista Appears Passive

I checked out Activista (it's actually at http://activista.org) and couldn't even find The NewStandard on it. Some search engine. This was days ago. I "added" TNS, but so far it has not shown up. Lots of places ignore TNS, actually. Just look at the links list on Common Dreams! We've written them countless times, but they refuse to so much as reply. And here's another "alternative" search engine that ignores TNS:

http://www.alternativemediagateway.com

I submitted our site to them. They were handing out leaflets promoting their site at the Nat'l Conf. for Media Reform, so I know they still consider themselves active. After several days, still no mention of TNS, though Agence France-Presse, BBC and The Guardian made their list. Go figure...

BlaineCook: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

Hi Brian,

I'm one of the people working on the Activista project, and we're definitely not ignoring the NewStandard - the moderation queue is quite long, and the few people working on clearing it out are busy with many projects. I've added the NewStandard, and it should be in the index by early Monday. Please let us know (info@activista.org) if there's anything that we can do to improve the site!

thanks,

blaine

jwray: Google News Looks to Favor Corporate Media

Brian,

I run a pretty busy entertainment and world news site and have noticed Google News have already implemented this new system.

Our traffic from them has dropped around 80% since July 4th, when I think they changed the system.

We do still headline on it but only now and again. 20 or so large newspapers now dominate it.

In some ways it is a good thing as cuts out the likes of gambling sites and such, who run a few stories just to get some cheap traffic. But it will kill smaller news outlets I am sure, certainly those very reliant on the service for traffic.

Luckily our overall traffic is going up anyway, but this has had an impact and makes me wary of developing any original world news content too much. Especially when they start applying this to their search results as well, which I think they have said they will.

I would bet they will make some further changes shortly.

James


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.