Can Trust in Journalism Be Boiled Down to Meta Tags?

Google News Launches Experimental Source Meta Tags for Publications

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Google has released a couple of meta tags it wants news publications to use in order to indicate original and syndicated reporting to Google News. To be fair, the company says it is "experimenting" with the tags, but this seems like an experiment that is destined to fail. 

Do you think this experiment will work? Tell us what you think

Don’t get me wrong, the concept behind the tags is noble enough – get proper credit to those who deserve it. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, no magical meta tags are likely to accomplish this at any consistent level. 

First, off here’s what they are. There’s one for "syndication-source" which is designed to indicate the preferred URL for a syndicated article. In cases where there are two versions of an article, Google wants publishers to use the tag to point them to the right one they would like Google News to use. It looks like this:

<meta name="syndication-source" content="http://www.publisherX.com/wire_story_1.html">

The second one is called "original-source". Google wants publishers to use this one to give credit to a source that broke a story. It looks like this:

<meta name="original-source" content="http://www.example.com/burglary_at_watergate.html"> 

"In both cases, it’s perfectly valid for a metatag to point to the current page URL," Google software engineer Eric Weigle and Publisher Technical specialist Abe Epton explain in a blog post.  "It’s also fine for there to be multiple original-source metatags on one page, to indicate a variety of original reporting leading up to the current article. If you’re not sure of the exact URL to provide in either case, just use the domain of the site that should be credited."

"Although these metatags are already in use by our systems, you may not notice their impact right away," the duo adds. "We’ll need some time to observe their use ‘in the wild’ before we can make the best use of them. But we’re hopeful that this approach will help determine original authorship, and we encourage you to take advantage of them now."

The Potential for Abuse

The approach may help Google determine original authorship in some cases, and it just as easily may totally mislead them, and more importantly it may mislead readers. 

Matt McGee at Search Engine Land makes two great points: "Meta tags are, in some circles, an invitation to spam. And there’s nothing to stop Joe’s Search Blog from scraping and re-publishing this article, while also using one or both of these tags to claim that his is the original version. Worse, there’s also nothing to stop a high-trust, authoritative site from using — or misusing, to be more accurate — these tags."

Would "authoritative" sites ever do that? I can’t imagine. I’m sure Search Engine Land can’t either. You may recall earlier this year when Danny Sullivan called out a bunch of publications for failing to credit him as a source.

Is it possible that Google asking publishers to use these tags is simply pointing out the flaws in the Google News model? The whole thing comes down to reader trust, and it’s hard to trust an algorithm. People trust humans (certain ones anyway), which is why social is becoming such a big factor in search. It’s also why many news consumers are increasingly relying on curation from sources they trust, whether that comes in the form of a site like Techmeme (which typically seems to do a fairly good job at this [though not always perfect either] without any special meta tags), or simply following someone’s Twitter list (or creating their own, for that matter). 

Google clearly understands the power social has on relevancy. They just launched a recommendation engine for local search based on this very principle. 

Eerily, I can’t help but be reminded of some words Bruce Clay shared with us in an interview at Pubcon last week. "I don’t believe we’re going to get into a situation where Google’s going to pass on an opportunity to control the flow of news," he said. "Whoever owns news on the web is pretty influential on the web. It is an excellent opportunity to direct people where you want them to go, to cause things to happen the way you want them to happen."

The fact of the matter is that if a publication is trustworthy enough to credit the original source in a meta tag, they’re going to be trustworthy enough to credit them in the article itself, in most cases with a link. It is highly doubtful that all of the trustworthy people out there covering stories will take the time to insert these extra steps into their routines just to make Google’s job easier, especially when social networks like Twitter and Facebook are playing an increasingly large part in how people are getting their online news. And the system is not even for Google as a whole. Just for the much narrower Google News. 

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I just don’t see this catching on to any large degree. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Can Trust in Journalism Be Boiled Down to Meta Tags?
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  • http://hobbsontech.com David Hobbs

    I agree that the temptation to try to cheat here will be too great. As always with metadata, metadata is only as good as the explicit (to the consumer) functionality that uses it. So I think the extra metadata will only work if it’s widely used and explicit for everyone to see in functionality (perhaps in new browsers). Otherwise the original source information can’t be trusted.

    • Chris Crum

      I think it opens up the doors for a lot of disputes about who had a story first, and if it comes down to the AP vs. lesser-known entity, who wins? There are a lot of unanswered questions as well about if more than one publication gets the same info from the same source simultaneously for example – whether that be an email from a company, a press conference, a tweet on Twitter, an eyewitness account, or whatever.

      • http://www.searchnewsmedia.co.uk Dale Lovell

        Hi Chris, thanks for the post. This is an interesting development with Google News and I can see some big problems developing in terms of who ‘owns’ a story or not.

        We write daily news content for a number of different websites – ranging from ezines to etailers – and we always write original news content for each website.

        But as you say, we get our information for news from many of the same sources as other publications and cover similar topics to many, too. So when writing a unique piece of content, with a unique angle, we would naturally attribute this content to the website we are publishing on.

        In theory a good idea, but I am not sure how it will work in practise.

  • http://www.minibizweb.com Hanna

    Just an atempt to introduce such tags is proof in case of desperate fight of search engines to sift off garbage from original information. In battle for attention and advertising $ thousands of pages just aggregate and disseminate info created by others, who have something meaningful to say.
    Yes, tags can be falsified and sources hidden, but any help in crediting original authors is a step in right direction to maintain credibility of search engines themselves. It’s not just Google challenge, Bing and others have ongoing programs to address this issue, too.

    • Chris Crum

      Keep in mind though, this is just an experiment for Google News (not the rest of Google), at least at this point.

    • http://www.newsuperhuman.com Guest

      So all content is either original or garbage in your eyes? In your black and white world? You think it is that simple? You should work for Google.

      Boycott Google and stop their despotic control over the free flow of information.

  • sofakingdabest

    Google could sell unique meta tags.

  • http://www.cmsbuffet.com/ CmsBuffet

    I think Google is trying to resolve the same issue Danny Sullivan complained about (he called out a bunch of publications for failing to credit him as a source).

    The temptaion to “cheat” and tell the world you are the “syndication-source” will be there, and would probably be abused 8-(

    • Chris Crum

      The publications that aren’t going to bother to link to the original content or even mention the original source right in the article are most likely not going to do so in the meta tags.

      • http://www.newsuperhuman.com Guest

        Google is now telling us that it cannot determine duplicate content and will force us to do so with meta tags. Is Google really so stupid? They think all content is either original or junk? Have they ever heard of content spinning?

        Google has been overreaching it’s power for a long time and needs to be stopped. Why can’t people see that Google is destroying the Internet, destroying the free flow of information by becoming a monopoly?

        Are people really that blind? O well, the Americans did vote for Bush.

  • http://www.dotponto.com Steve Masters

    No no no! I can see what Google is trying to do, and applaud the sentiment, but why must publishers bend over backwards to re-engineer content management systems to fit this criteria that (as you will say) is destined to fail.

    I thought Google was supposed to be brilliant at indexing websites no matter what they are. Matt Cutts has often talked about how Google can index pretty much anything really well? Why can’t it just continue to judge page content based on what the public sees instead of telling us to create new tags just for Google.

    Is the W3C convention on HTML and CSS coding not good enough for it?

    This would be a step backwards for everyone, not forwards, if people start taking this up.

  • Guest

    I am bit worried that Google stopped fighting spam thinking that a meta tag will easily sort out the problem for them.

    Google is incapable of finding the original news source and their duplicate content filter has been completely messed up. Links from duplicated news or articles all count now. Needless to say that links from duplicated blog posts (generally paid) count more than human edited directory links. Paid blog links are pushing the spammers up in the rankings but Google calls this social media.

    Google needs to work harder in fighting spam.

  • http://www.travelbloggersguide.com Travel BLogger

    Webmasters shouldn’t need to add extra tags to a site to help search engines. We have seen what a fiasco “no follow” has turned into. can’t see the good of new meta tags. Surely Google is able to tell where an article was published first.

  • http://www.transportmedia.co.uk StefTM


    I agree with “potential for abuse”.

    I do not see so much difference between these meta tags and the keywords meta tag that Google officially do not consider (because they know that in many cases the keywords used where not reliable). Why should these tags be different? As long as they are in the hands of web designers and web masters they are not different, in my honest opinion.

    I hope that one day (hopefully soon) there will be another way to determine who wrote/created what and when, stopping forever the plague of plagiarism and unauthorised copying (yes yes, I know I am dreaming!!).

    I think these tags are just unreliable, untrustworthy. But let’s see what will happen!!

  • http://www.milatova.com Mel

    What I do not understand is whay Google does not simply run every duplicate content and check their submission date.

    Obviously, the first one on-line is the original, the other ones are just copies.
    Why put the burden on the news provider, without providing any guarantie that this so-called proof is not going to be misused, abused and turn out detrimental to the news provider who does not have the infrastructure to protect his copyright?

  • Guest

    May help: a plugin exist for WordPress publishers adding “original source” meta tag to posts – articles and pages http://bit.ly/8YQeQE
    Enjoy !

  • http://www.armanihair.com salon

    I agree it comes down to reader trust. I think that yahoo really abuses the headlines and meta tags, the result is that I do not usually read their posts anymore.

  • http://www.newsuperhuman.com Guest

    What Google is experiencing is a paradigm shift, where the rules of original content are being tested, and in most cases, destroyed.

    The question is, what is the next step? How do you determing original content?

    You can’t. Stop the Overloards and Fascists like Google who want to control information. Google is becoming Big Brother.

    You have been warned.

  • http://www.newsuperhuman.com Guest

    Metatags, or keyword stuffing as it used to be called.

    When will Big Brother Google start selling meta tags through third party firms for additional revenue, once they have passed the “Google Authenticated” test?

    Don’t you people see what is happening? Google is attempting to control the free flow of information. This is what Fascist goverments like China – and the domination of multi-national corporations – do.

    When was it decreed that Google should decide anything about the free flow of information?

  • http://africatopforum.com Guest

    This will be a challenging thing to do holding to the fact that it invloves an extral work. But who really care?

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