Google News Blames The Messenger (That Would Be Us)

from the just-trying-to-help dept

Google News has included Techdirt as one of its sources for a few years now. It doesn't bring much traffic, to be honest, but it's nice that we're included. For some unknown reason, Google News changed something on July 6th, so that all of our stories appearing in Google News now show up with the headline "Permalink to this story." We hadn't made any changes to our site, and Google News had always performed flawlessly in the past. We figured the folks at Google News might want to know about the glitch, so our VP of Product Development Dennis Yang emailed them a friendly note pointing out that something on their end appeared to have broken. What followed was a series of emails from Google staff (much of it sounding like boilerplate "canned" responses) that in almost every case blamed us for their own glitch. That's what we get for trying to point out a glitch to them.

First, they told us the problem was that we had failed to put the title of the article in the title tag. This is false -- as we've always had the title of our articles in the title tag (which seems like a fairly easy thing to check). In response, Google News staff then told us that it was still our fault, because within the article page itself, we had a link to the page with the "Permalink..." text. Of course, that's the same as most major blog platforms -- and you would think that Google's algorithms would be smart enough to understand the difference between a title and a link that says "permalink." However, since Google indicated the link that pointed to the same URL as the story itself was more likely to be chosen as the title, Dennis then added a link in the title itself on the article page to the same article page. Google News then responded by telling us again that it was our fault -- this time it was because (you guessed it) the title link linked to the same page. Yes, they now blamed us for the change they had just suggested we make.

Dennis then responded (nicely, as always) going through the facts of the case (everything worked fine, we made no changes, suddenly it wasn't working), while highlighting how we followed every one of the rules they had suggested might be the problem in previous emails. Even though this was clearly an issue on their end, he asked if they wanted us to change anything on our end to help fix their problem. They gave us one final response, saying that hyperlinks on the page sometimes fool their algorithm and there's nothing more that they can do. In other words, they admit that their algorithm is broken, but it's not like they're going to fix it or anything. Once again, the traffic we get from Google News is somewhat minimal (we get much more from Google and Google's personalized page) so we're not complaining. Hell, it's their site, they can set it up however they want. However, we figured it would be nice of us to point out that whatever change they made on July 6th introduced what appears to be a bug that hurts the usefulness of their own site. We didn't realize that we'd be repeatedly blamed for the problem, and then told that there was nothing that could be done to fix the broken algorithm. So much for trying to help...

Either way, it's clear that Google News' algorithms have some problems. It was particularly disappointing that they made it seem like we needed to make the changes to fix this -- especially after their director of search, Peter Norvig, so adamantly talked about how Google can't expect webmasters to configure things to Google's liking. Apparently that only applies to the regular search engine, not the News one. We're not the only ones to have this problem, of course. Today, InfoWorld is complaining that Google News considers their blogs a news source, but not their actual news articles. Google's response? Again, they blame their own algorithm. Of course, this inability to control their own search bot may get them into legal trouble too. While it seemed silly, when AFP got upset that their sources were included in Google News, Google promised to take them out (which actually upset AFP's partners). However, now, AFP is furious again, because they've discovered (thanks to InfoWorld, by the way) that their content is back in the news search results. So, sources that want to be included aren't. Sources that don't want to be there are. And those of us just pointing out that the system can't accurately find a title are told it's our fault. Seems like Google News might need some work.

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  1. identicon
    anonymous, 20 Jul 2006 @ 7:43pm

    target audience

    This is news? do I post an article on cnn everytime I need to figure out a new linux command? aside from that, if you are reading this post: the article doesn't apply to you because your link worked. is it my imagination or is the quality of these news sites plumeting lately? or has it always been this bad and I just didn't notice?

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