Google Search to Highlight In-Depth Articles - Censorship, REALLY?

By Peter Bernstein August 07, 2013

Let me preface my critique of Google’s new feature that will highlight in-depth articles related to queries on selected topics by saying the views here are my own and do not represent those of TMC. 

In case you missed it, or do not have a Google Alert set up on the term “Google,” there was an item posted on the company’s blog “Inside Search: The Official Google Search Blog” on August 6 by Pandu Nayak,  a member of the technical staff, Discover great in-depth articles on Google, that qualifies as a must read. It is short and gets right to the point. 

What Nayak revealed is that, after research and testing, it turns out that 10 percent of people’s daily information needs when researching a broad topic fall in the category of “sometimes you need more than a quick answer.”   As a means of accommodating those seeking more detailed information on a topic of interest, i.e., a quick way to get to a longer answer and, in theory, deeper insight, Google is accommodating that need with a new feature that will showcase on the search page results three items under the banner “In-depth article.”

Source: Google Inside Search

Nayak even concludes by stating:

I’m happy to see people continue to invest in thoughtful in-depth content that will remain relevant for months or even years after publication. This is exactly what you’ll find in the new feature. In addition to well=known publishers, you’ll find some great articles from lesser-known publication and blogs. If you’re a publisher or webmaster, check out our help center article and post on the Webmaster Central blog to learn more. 

It all seems benevolent enough on its face. Google wants to make it easier to find really good stuff without wasting time going through potentially millions of links given how broad some of the subjects they select for in-depth treatment turn out to be. And, if you click the two links, you will find Google has even provided helpful tips/rules about how to increase your chances of being one of the lucky three results. These include:

Plus, while not exactly a disclaimer, Google does say that, “These results are ranked algorithmically based on many signals that look for high-quality, in-depth content.”

Censorship as an example… REALLY?!

It is hard to know where to begin here. You might find this as troubling as I do.

First. Let me say that Google has limited real estate that, as we all know, is incredibly valuable. I have not seen recent numbers, but, if memory serves, 75 percent of all traffic from Google searches originates from links that appear on the first page. Cutting down the available real estate only makes it that much more valuable. On this one, give Google credit for having a nice monetization strategy at work. 

Second. The statement that somehow items that will be posted will be algorithmically based on many signals that look for high-quality in-depth content just is not plausible. For starters, Twitter has proven that short can be insightful and tremendously relevant. More importantly, quality is subjective and not objective. 

If, for example, some malicious actor decided to follow the rules for getting noticed (figuring out how best to game the system) for a term like MORTGAGES, it is going to take human intervention to remove the “lesser-known” publishers. Even if deletion in this case were done in a timely manner, given the speed at which things go viral these days, one would think that, from a liability standpoint alone, Google would be cautious here.

Third. Putting liability and pay-for-rankings aside, the prospect of Google, whether manually or automatically, deciding whose voices are superior to others flies in the face of the Internet culture of everyone having an equal voice, for better or for worse. In addition, why are there only going to be three recommendations? I would hate to find out I was the fourth that, for some strange mathematical reason, did not make the cut.

This point is probably just a pet peeve of mine. However, I have related experience. For the past five years, I have tried to engage a series of Public Editors at The New York Times (the folks responsible for critiquing the paper’s best and worst practices) in a dialog. I cannot figure out why published authors or celebrities of almost any ilk appear on their extremely valuable OpEd page to the exclusion of virtually anyone else. In fact, check it out since I’m sure you will be confounded as well. 

I have pointed out to them that their readership is comprised of many extremely informed people whose ideas and insights would be interesting to read in long-form rather than be confined to their Letters section where they get a little more room than a tweet. I am now on Public Editor number four who has refused to respond. 

The first thing Google is likely to learn is the old saying that, “Where one stands depends on where you sat.” For every person who is grateful for getting Amazon-like recommendations to helpful information, there are going to be those who question the prominent recognition of the source materials featured as in-depth. Again, you would think Google would be sensitive to this given what it deals with daily regarding all kinds of postings, especially on Google+ and YouTube.

Finally, it is stunning to me that, of all the examples that Nayak could have used, censorship was the example that the Google legal and public relations departments -- who seem to be quite competent -- would have had the biggest beef about. It can only be assumed this was note vetted by them.

You may not agree with me, since Google is an enterprise that is free to use its property as it wishes, but picking winners and losers on some type of quality scale based on a gate for the number of items that will get preferred treatment is asking to be perceived as a poster-child for creative greed at best and smacks of censorship itself if viewed less favorably.  Not only are we more than likely to see the usual suspects appear as recommended but there will be the additional perception, even if Google portrays the selection process as being even-handed, that it cost somebody something to get that space.

In fact, the one thing you can bet on is that lots of eyes are going to be keeping score. Google is not the only place where advertisers place their ads, and those articles being recommended are not likely to be ad free. 

Google is good at providing recommendations for free, so here is one in return. You need to rethink this in-depth.




Edited by Rich Steeves
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