Google’s announcement last week that it would begin prioritising original news content in its searches is getting positive reaction from news executives, even as media insiders close to the publisher-platform relationship say there are nuances beyond this move. 

Richard Gingras, vice president/news for Google, announced in a blog post that the company would improve the guidelines it uses to gauge how well its algorithms are working toward prioritising original news content in searches. 

“While we typically show the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results, we’ve made changes to our products globally to highlight articles that we identify as significant original reporting,” Gingras wrote. “Such articles may stay in a highly visible position longer. This prominence allows users to view the original reporting while also looking at more recent articles alongside it.”

Google's September 12 announcement.
Google's September 12 announcement.

The change has gone into effect for Google Search and will soon roll out to Google News and Google Discover. 

Publishers are viewing the move hopefully, even if it doesn’t address every one of their concerns.

“I welcome this move from Google,” said Espen Egil Hansen, CEO and editor-in-chief at Schibsted-owned Aftenposten in Norway and a member of INMA’s Digital Platform Initiative Committee.

While surfacing original content has been paramount, it is only one of several ongoing issues that have been talking points between news publishers and Big Tech companies since the two worldviews began intermingling at the dawn of the Internet. 

Other issues are likely to be the subject of future dialogues, including: 

1. Local news surfacing 

The New York Times pointed out it is not clear that small- and mid-sized news outlets will receive the same treatment as larger sources. Google’s response can be summarised thusly: Original reporting is, well, original reporting — whether it’s local, national, or international, implying that all reputable original reporting will all be treated the same way 

2. Ranking of stories that require a subscription to read 

“Locked stories are usually relegated by algorithms in search findings because these stories record higher bounce/rejection rates,” said Robert Whitehead, author of INMA’s upcoming report, “How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship.” “It doesn’t talk to the bounce rate issue. Search algorithms hate being bounced by paywalls, so relegate that content so it doesn’t annoy users.” 

Hansen added: “It is crucial that paid content is not discriminated against. Much of the most valuable journalism will be made by news brands with a paid subscription.” 

Google’s response is that it prioritises subscription content sold by publishers when users employ “Sign-In with Google” at a reasonable revenue-split that just covers its costs and that it shares more data with publishers than other Big Tech companies. 

3. Removing copycat copy

“The Google announcement about original reporting … does not say anything about removing copycat content from the rankings,” said Grzegorz Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and head of the association’s Readers First Initiative. 

“We can just logically reason it’s going to be downgraded in the ranking and such a change will funnel much less traffic to them, as the first links (where hopefully original reporting will appear) get the majority of clicks,” Piechota said. “So we can say that Google perhaps is removing the financial incentive to copycat original reporting. Having said that, Google doesn’t police the copycat content nor punishes publishers of copycat content for their alleged copyrights infringements.”

Publishers are anything but sanguine about this topic, and the strength of their reaction suggests they may want this issue addressed more explicitly. Aftenposten’s Hansen said copycat Web sites have gained large audiences and made a business model of copying quality journalism and original content. Whitehead added, “They should be hounded out of the ecosystem.”

Algorithm change happens nearly daily at Google. As the company approaches the topic, search algorithm refinement is a necessarily unstable evolutionary process involving small, often unnoticeable changes. 

Usually, that instability doesn’t work so well for news publishers who are on the receiving end of ever-changing standards and practices — especially when they come without notice.

Although algorithm change is part of this move, Google has more than 10,000 human “raters” around the world who are guided by “search rater guidelines.” These “allow raters to better understand and assess the unique characteristics of content that appears in search results,” and help them make judgments that Google uses to evaluate and improve its algorithms.

They look for E-A-T: Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. It is these guidelines that Google has changed to favour original quality reporting.

The raters’ feedback doesn't change the ranking of the specific results they’re reviewing, Gingras wrote. Rather, “it is used to evaluate and improve algorithms in a way that applies to all results.”

He continued: “To illustrate the update, in section 5.1 of the guidelines, we instruct raters to use the highest rating, ‘very high quality,’ for original news reporting ‘that provides information that would not otherwise have been known had the article not revealed it. Original, in-depth, and investigative reporting requires a high degree of skill, time, and effort.’ 

“In addition to recognising individual instances of original reporting at the page level, we also ask raters to consider the publisher’s overall reputation for original reporting. That update in section 2.6.1 reads: ‘Many other kinds of Web sites have reputations as well. For example, you might find that a newspaper (with an associated Web site) has won journalistic awards. Prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize award, or a history of high quality original reporting are strong evidence of positive reputation.’”

Google’s move to surface quality, original journalism from respected news outlets — and to keep it surfaced in the onslaught of follow-up — is meant to solve the problem of quality brand journalism getting buried. This is true from legitimate, copycat, and less savory sources. 

The standards for determining what original reporting actually is remain neither absolute nor fixed. Google says that means an ongoing evolution in its processes — which means more frustrating changes absorbed by publishers. But it is a step forward. 

As Whitehead noted, “If this change works effectively, it could be a model for others.”