Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Is Google killing online exclusives?

That's the fascinating thesis in this article by the UK's Independent. It argues that Google News, by favoring the largest and most recently updated sites, ends up putting the site that broke the story at the bottom of the list. An excerpt:

That means no one sees the publication or the journalist(s) who got the story. And in the world of online publications, "clickthrough" is all. Web servers allow editors and publishers to examine in minute detail what sort of stories work and which don't, because they can see exactly how many people read it, and whether they clicked on adverts on the page, and whether they looked at other stories on the site, and whether they continued to the next page in a long story. They also know if people have come there from a news site, or by searching from a search engine such as Google. The "referrer" logs, as they're known, are voluminous - and analysed as minutely as any newspaper circulation returns.

And what they've discovered is that with Google News, it's not enough to be first. Quite the opposite; it's best to be last, because then your site will top the list. If you're acute enough to spot someone else's exclusive and reword it, Google News will reward you by giving you more clickthroughs.

Now, one salubrious effect of this is that sites, as the Indepdendent puts it, "rejig" a story to move it back to the top of the list. This is a good thing if the new version seeks to advance the story and keep it current. It's a bad thing if all it is is a "rejig."

Google spokeswoman Debbie Frost told the paper that Google does take into account who broke the story first and "does not just compile stories based on time." But others say they've noticed the effect.

Yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. At the same time we make journalism more accessible to the people, are we killing the competitive drive that at its best pushes us to uncover stories like Watergate? Or, perhaps a more positive spin, we're putting less emphasis on the craziness that at its worst produces any number of OJ Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Scott Peterson, etc. feeding frenzies?

We already do enough feeding off each other, and the biggest fear, however, may be that this just encourages more of that.


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