Can Trust in Journalism Be Boiled Down to Meta Tags?

    November 18, 2010
    Chris Crum

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="">

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=""> 

"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.