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.