This post on the Google News blog has not had the attention I think it deserves. It’s a small item with large implications.
At first sight the note simply sets down an announcement that a Google team made at the recent Online News Association conference. News publishers can now “tag” (or flag) journalism which they think is particularly special or “standout”. There’s limit to the number of times they can do this with their own content (seven times in a week) but no limit to the frequency with they can bestow the accolade on someone else’s content.
Google News has been wrestling for years with a dilemma which gets worse as the mountain of unsorted online information grows higher and higher. How do you find the information which is of the highest value to you? Google’s most basic algorithm, the foundation of the firm’s fortune, ranks links by the number of connections any given item has. The more links, the higher the place in the list Google returns. But that is a crude sorting mechanism which has long been open to gaming and manipulation.
Google News is plainly very keen to avoid any suggestion that they are choosing between news outlets, despite the fact that its engineers have been tinkering for years with ideas about ranking and sorting journalism for “quality”. It’s a minefield, for obvious reasons. But news is increasingly swapped in social networks. Can Google get involved (especially to help their own new Google+) while staying out of the judgement business? This commentator from TechCrunch thinks not (but note the disagreements in the comments).
The reason I think this modest changes matters is that it’s a sign of what’s to come. Digital communications allow the consumers of news to sift, recommend or criticise news at the level of individual items. Prior to news going online, most opinions were about the newspaper or broadcast programme as a whole. Did you love or hate the Daily Telegraph or the Today programme? Now those bundles and editorial brands are gradually losing their hold on how people choose as they swap individual items rather than overall allegiances.
The search engines matter here because they can sift such huge quantities of data and they don’t always tell us exactly how they’re doing it. In this case Google is not doing the selecting and the tagging is out in the open, which is the best place for it. But I doubt that it will stop there. I think tagging is Google’s first tentative step towards rating journalism.
And talking of more people being empowered to deliver more judgements about journalism, have a look at these stickers. (Hat-tip: Gavin MacFadyen).