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Google's Bias for Bigness

Could the popular search engine's quest for news quality leave alternative sources in the dust?
 
 
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So you need a news fix....

You grab some caffeine, jump online and head to Google News to search for the latest news about, say, New York City's planned Freedom Tower.

It crawls across some 4,600 publications, finds news stories and ranks them from top to bottom.

In this case, the morning of June 29, the page flickers and, bam, Google has found and ranked the stories you need: as its top Freedom Tower story it presents a piece by The Minnesota Star Tribune, followed in downward order by The Los Angeles Times, London Free Press, Xinhua news agency (the official service of the Chinese government).

London Free Press? Xinhua? Does this seem somehow off? Google execs seem to think so, but reports of their proposed fixes raise as many questions as they answer. The company is reportedly concerned about biased or incorrect news stories getting ranked above more quality news. As a fix, they have filed a patent for a new technology that ranks a story by the quality of its source. But for a company that commands a superpower level of control over global Web-surfing behavior, even small changes have a huge effect.

Google doesn't comment on its present or future ranking criteria, but its news stories seem to be ranked based on relevance to search words and timeliness, not the reputation of the news source. But for alternative online news services, from CNET to AlterNet, B2B trade publications, and thousands of small radio and television stations that rely on Google News-related traffic, the company's patent application offers reason to worry about just how shallow a pool of sources the site will draw from. It says the new ranking system will consider:

...[The] 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 a writing style used by the news source.

Would this value-laden code pass judgment on the passive voice? Will it consider contract writers in staff size? Will the "breadth of coverage" criteria take into account that niche-market publications often drill into topics -- be it military procurement or schools funding regulations -- more thoroughly than further-reaching news sources like CNN? Or the fact that these publications often break stories that are then picked up by CNN and others?

Brian Dominick, editor of The NewStandard, an online newspaper that lands a fifth of its daily traffic from Google, writes in his blog that for several reasons the proposed Google News changes would "bury" his publication. He recoils at the idea of assigning a "breaking news" score.

"[That's] like rewarding your boyfriend for climaxing first," Dominick writes. "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."

Though Google News has prided itself on ranking news without human intervention, the patent says its future "human" assessors might evaluate a news source based on its age or, in the case of newspapers, how many Pulitzer prizes it has won.

Feel the tilt yet?

"What concerns many is not so much the supposed increase in objectivity Google painstakingly aspires to create," writes David Miller, a staff writer for WebProNews, a Kentucky-based online journal that would likely be snubbed by Google's proposed algorithms. Miller says the real sin is that "the filtering is taken out of the minds of the users and given to the hands of computer-generated objectivity."

Chris Tolles, vice president for sales and marketing for Topix, a website that helps users find targeted news stories, says Google's plan is conservative and "kind of boring." The impulse to check sources and establish authority, he says, while understandable, assumes the source of a story is more important than the event.

"It shows they have the underlying opinion that the source is a primary driver of value," Tolles said, adding that Google "is taking the editorial point of view of top sources."

The upshot is that Google's proposed change isn't just a misguided and disheartening quest to mainstream online news. It's a demoralizing metamorphosis from a catch-all (mostly) uncensored news aggregator with egalitarian undertones to a purveyor of corporate-driven coverage suitable only for what Lawrence Weschler, formerly of the New Yorker, calls the "temporal frenzy that has come to characterize the increasingly peg-driven, niche-slotted, attention-squeezed, sound-bite media environment of recent years."

"Of course there are ownership issues in mass media with fewer companies owning more and more," says Gary Price, editor of Search Engine Watch. "That is the same with search engines. It's important to have many different voices."

While Google is the most popular search engine, it is not the most popular news service. In fact, last summer Google News ranked far behind Yahoo News, which uses human judgment in its story rankings, according to the latest Nielsen/Netratings. The firm reported that Yahoo News reached a unique audience of nearly 21 million Americans at home and at work in June of 2004, while Google News reached just 6.3 million.

Google is no stranger to complaints about its news retrieval and ranking. Technology consultant and former Reuters executive Vin Crosbie last year pointed out last year that Google News leaned toward a handful of the same sources on its main news page. In blogs and articles, Crosbie claimed that in many cases Google limits its findings to the same dozen or so sources. And within those, Crosbie writes, are several sources owned and operated by governments, including the U.S. (Voice of America), China (Xinhua) and Qatar-owned Al Jazeera.

If Google News follows its patent plans, those sources can likely expect to keep their top billing, while establishment-loving algorithms step over diversity's smaller voices.

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who lives in Washington DC and Latin America. His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Prospect and other publications.