Is Google to Blame for Its Own News Pollution?

    July 30, 2010
    Chris Crum

Search Engine Land Editor-in-Chief Danny Sullivan points out how poorly Google handles those gaming Google News, using Google Trends as a starting point.

Do you find Google News to be too heavily polluted? Share your thoughts.

He found a blatant example when the term "chocomize" became listed as "volcanic" on Google Trends. When clicking for the results, he found several sites serving Google ads that presumably only created posts about the term because it was trending (as a way to get some easy traffic, and potentially ad clicks). In fact, some examples came from sites that were clearly aimed at entirely different niches, such as a horror movies site and a TV/Anime site. The biggest problem from the user’s perspective is that there was nothing immediately indicating why the term was trending.

The real reason the term was trending was apparently because CNN ran a story earlier in the day about a company called Chocomize that makes custom candy bars (a pretty cool concept, I have to say), but when looking at the Google News results, Sullivan had to really dig to find that story.

"The pollution within Google News is ridiculous," Sullivan says. "This is Google, where we’re supposed to have the gold standard of search quality. Instead, we get ‘news’ sites that have been admitted — after meeting specific editorial criteria — just jumping on the Google Trends bandwagon, outranking the actual article causing the term ‘chocomize’ to be popular, polluting the news results and along the way, earning Google some cash."

Google Trends  - The Cause of Google News' Pollution?

Earning Google some cash indeed. There is no doubt that this goes on all the time, specifically with AdSense sites. Interestingly, in a story grouped with Sullivan’s on TechMeme, the Wall Street Journal has some words from Eric Schmidt talking about Google’s famous "one trick pony". Schmidt is quoted as saying, "But if you’ve got a one-trick pony, you want the one we have. We’re in the ad business, and it’s growing rapidly. We picked the right trick." The piece goes on to talk about how that trick is going to pay off greatly in the mobile space as well, as more and more people gravitate to the Android operating system.

Schmidt has said in the past, as Sullivan reminds us, that the Internet is a cesspool (referring to an excess of useless content). So, to be fair, Schmidt doesn’t come across as being very enthusiastic about the sites that take advantage of Google Trends to game Google News. Still, there is money to be made, and if sites meet the criteria of what it takes to get into Google News, there’s a fine line Google has to walk, regardless.

Can it all be so simple?

Sullivan says, “It shouldn’t be that hard for Google to police what shows up in response to what it publishes on Google Trends. Spam sites ought to be nabbed. AdSense sites ought to be shut down. News publishers abusing the very lucky position they have of being in Google News, by routinely tapping into Google Trends topics that aren’t relevant to their publications, should get the boot.”

While I greatly respect Sullivan, and value his analysis and opinions, I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. We’ve all seen how the mainstream media sites turn to blogs to get their stories (sometimes without giving credit or links), just as the sites in question appear to have done with CNN. We spoke with Sullivan about this not too long ago after he became a victim of such a scenario.

It’s hard to say that just because you use Google ads, you should be penalized. That’s not to say there isn’t an issue, but while there may be plenty of “garbage sites” there are some pretty highly respected publications that serve ads by Google. The horror movie blog pointed to, does appear to generally offer horror movie related news (while crediting sources), based on a quick glance of its most recent content.  But if the Chocomize story on that blog doesn’t credit its source, that is a problem. Maybe this is a “garbage” site, maybe it’s not. From Google’s standpoint, determining that can’t be easy in all cases.

Looking beyond the credit issue for a moment, when it comes to topic-spam, who’s to say what a publication would find of interest to its audience? I’m not sure that I agree that a blog mainly focused on horror movies, for example, should not be able to blog about chocolate or another off-topic subject every now and then. That’s up to the publication and whether they want to risk alienating their own audience, if you ask me. Again, I’m not saying Sullivan is wrong about this particular site’s practices. I’m just looking at the bigger picture.

Maybe Google could do more to look at story sources, but that’s got to be a difficult task across all publications, and there would no doubt be plenty of room for debate between publications about who broke a story first.

I’m not saying this is what happened either, but hypothetically, what if the horror movies blog actually talked to the Chocomize people first and had the story first, and CNN just happened to find it and find it newsworthy themselves, and do their own piece. Now, that’s an unlikely scenario in this particular example, but it’s not outside of the realm of possibility in other examples, such as the one Sullivan experienced recently himself.

Regardless of that even, it’s hard to say "you can’t have content about this topic because we posted it as a trending topic."

There is clearly a problem with Google Trends. Sullivan is right in that the result doesn’t help explain why the topic was trending. He’s also right in that the original source (CNN) should be more visible. However, cleaning up the "pollution" might not be such an easy problem to conquer. It’s hard to say if Google is allowing such pollution to go on so it can make more money or if the problem is just too difficult for the search giant. It could be a combination of the two.

What do you think? Comment here.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.