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The Vast Algorithmic Conspiracy

By Brian | June 15, 2005 | Share on Facebook

Internetweek is complaining once again about Google News:

When America Online announced this week that it would give IM users free email, Google News was all over the story.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with a link to InformationWeek.com were such lesser-known technology news sites as Techtree.com, Netimperative, and Kashar News from Pakistan. At one point in the coverage of IBM’s attempt to simulate a brain, gossip site TheBosh.com got the lead spot over articles from News.com and Forbes. In a real puzzler, Google ran verbatim copies of a “puppy” Linux from five different sources, including in Singapore and Australia, without linking to the original story file on TechWeb.com.

All in a typical day’s work at Google News. The company–so beloved as a search engine for its wide range and knack for always knowing the most relevant Web pages–often does just the opposite when it comes to selecting stories for its news pages. Sources that would be considered authoritative brush up against stories from Web sites most people have never heard of, with no clue about which one is a higher quality than another, or a so-called “expert” site, which Google is so fond of making much of in the pure search-engine side of its business.

Right tool for the job, guys. Right tool for the job.

Google News is not where you go when you want authoritative sources for news. It’s where you go when you want to see a wide variety of sources with a wide variety of opinions. The goal of algorithm-based editing is to eliminate the advantage of the big guys, and show the user the most relevant stories based on content, rather than reputation.

I turn to it when the mainstream media seems to have reached an opinion about a story, and I’m not sure the opinion is universally shared. For instance, reading about Michael Jackson’s recent acquittal in the MSM, one gets the sense that he was really guilty, but got away with it due to incompetence on the prosecutor’s part and/or his status as a celebrity. Turning to Google News (with sources such as Toronto’s Fashion Monitor, AZ Central.com, the London Mirror, and Workers World), I learn that most of the world is focusing on the fact that he’s sworn off sleeping with children, that the prosecutor is having a hard time dealing with the defeat, that the accuser’s family is rumored to be considering a civil suit (where the real money is, I guess – cf. the O.J. Simpson trial), and a discussion about whether MJ can resurrect his music career after the trial.

All of this adds a certain texture to the story that you won’t find on Reuters.com or nytimes.com. I’d encourage you to check out the recent Newsweek hubbub, and the war in Iraq on Google News as well. A lot of the stories/opinions are the same, of course, but there’s definitely a diversity there that you don’t see elsewhere.

Bottom line: most of us are smart enough to look at the article and the source before determining what to believe. And depending on the subject matter, a reporter at the Wyoming News might be more interesting to read than the editor of the Washington Post.

Topics: News and/or Media, Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The Vast Algorithmic Conspiracy”

  1. Jeff Porten says at June 18th, 2005 at 10:58 am :
    I think you’re being both too harsh and too lenient on Google.

    Too harsh: Google News is a good place to go for definitive stories. Saying that the Washington Post is more authoritative than Asahi Shimbun presumes that any one media outlet can have the right side of the story. This, I think, is manifestly ridiculous.

    Too lenient: no question, Google News gives some weird results. And is it too much to ask that they stop showing me all 683 media outlets that ran the same wire copy?

    Going back to the point I made a few years back — to me the revolutionary thing about Google News is how it gives most Americans their dosage of international perspectives on the news. Sometimes you have to go far out of your way to learn what country the text you’re reading originated from. Given the narrowness of American news perspectives and political debate, I see this as a Very Good Thing.

  2. Brian says at June 19th, 2005 at 12:05 am :
    And so, we agree here.

    What you’ve called “too lenient,” I’d just call beta bugs. Granted, it’s been in beta for years now, suggesting that no one’s in any hurry to get it fixed/released.

    If you’ve gotta have a bug, though, too many copies of the same information is far better than leaving something out…

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