Google Plan To Refine News Search Finds Early Critics

Google has filed a patent application for improvements to its widely used news search and aggregation feature, one that some say will result in a future version of the still-beta product favoring corporate-backed news sites.

Currently, Google’s news search returns results based on how recently a story was posted online and how closely the story appears to align with the keywords in related stories. However, the search giant has filed for a patent on an improvement that seeks to filter stories by certain measures of quality as well.

Critics are already noting that the approach might be flawed or at least misleading. Short of having news stories read by experts who could rank them based on quality, the technology will instead rely on pre-determined factors such as the reputation of a news site, how much Web traffic it generates and how old and large the organization that produced the story is in terms of news bureaus and employees.

You Beta, You Bet

Critics say the result will inevitably be a ranking that favors established news sites and could put an end to the current level playing field, where individuals’ blogs often appear alongside reports on the same topic from the New York Times, CNN and other news outlets, helping to generate significant traffic to sites that otherwise would go unnoticed or be forced to invest in traffic-generating endeavors.

The patent has yet to be granted to Google, though the application dates to September of 2003. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Though already a centerpiece of the overall Google Web landscape, Google News has been in beta form since it launched, leaving open the possibility that it would change substantially if not dramatically before Google finalized it.

The tool quickly grew in popularity, rivaling the once dominant Yahoo News offering. Some analysts say one of the appeals of the services is that they return a range of news sources, from well-regarded news gathering outlets to one-person blogging operations.

However, that democratic approach has also been called into question, with criticism ratcheted up during the 2004 presidential election, when blogs from conservative and liberal perspectives, where little editing takes places and few standards for what constitutes news exist, appeared alongside stories that had been carefully vetted.

Small news outlets might lose out in the new scheme, even if they are niche publications that target a specific industry or subject area — and therefore have a level of expertise that a larger outlet can’t match.

Alternative Media Worried

Brian Dominick, an editor at The NewStandard, an online news site, called the patents “absolutely horrendous news for alternative media sites.”

Dominick goes on to say that the planned improvement appears to conflict with Google’s own mission statement for its news product, which says that the lack of “human intervention” in its story-selection algorithm ensures that users are able to “see how different news organizations are reporting the same story.”

He also argues that efforts to ascertain “quality” of writing with technology seem bound to fail. The patent application, for instance, mentions giving higher ranking to sites where spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct.

“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,” Dominick wrote in his blog. That’s important for small publishers like him. The NewStandard relies on Google News for as much as one-fifth of its daily traffic. “In some ways, those are our most valuable readers” because they often represent users who have not visited the site in the past, he added.

Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times that Google is constantly seeking to improve its search technology in any number of ways. The search giant is unlikely to want to completely weed out blogs, and in fact has embraced the medium and a potentially lucrative landscape for its contextually sensitive advertising.

Blog You Later

“Building a better search tool helps ensure users come back again and again,” Li said. “If Google stops refining its product, its rivals will slowly pick off consumers.”

One possible and likely scenario is for Google to eventually give users a choice of what types of news searches to include, in other words to create a truly customized news search that also relies on the enhanced filtering capabilities to return specific results.

In fact, Yahoo and MSN have already begun to offer such personalization features, using the technology known as Real Simple Syndication, or RSS, to give users access to hundreds of different news feeds from blogs and niche sites to well-known media outlets.

Dominick believes small publishers will eventually band together to pressure Google to back off the plans laid out in the patent application.

Google has found itself angering some constituents more often lately as it rolls out new initiatives, even those that have a philanthropic bent. Last week, European librarians signed onto a plan to counter Google’s ambitious plans to digitize key libraries in order to avoid having the Web dominated by U.S.-centric literature chosen by the search giant.

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