September 24, 2004

More on Google News and Yahoo News

I was just interviewed by phone by Jon Gordon (who’s just up the road in Alameda here in the SF East Bay), host and producer of Future Tense, a daily tech show on about 80 public radio stations and XM Satellite Radio. We talked about my article in OJR yesterday on Google News, Yahoo News and how and whether political bias enters into online search.

It will air Monday or Tuesday, and the show airs at different times in different markets. (Here’s the RSS feed.)

Meantime, still getting lots of feedback on the article. Some of the more noteworthy missives:

In additioin to Ethan Zuckerman’s theory about why small sites like ChronWatch and Michnews.org keep popping up in Google News’ search results, a reader emailed me this morning with another theory: that the left-of-center sites use nicknames for President Bush, like Dubya or Shrub, while John Kerry doesn’t really have a nickname. And thus, the derisive articles about President Bush don’t score as high.

Ryan K. claims (and I’m not able to verify or dispute this):

I know why Google News is slanted to the right and the reason is an important story that has never been covered in the mainstream press (as far as I know). The reason is that right-wing lobbying groups have put enormous pressure on Google News to not include progressive and far-left news sources. As soon as a left-leaning news source publishes
a story critical of Israel, right-wing lobbying groups report them to Google News as being “anti-Semitic” and they are removed. Google has a history of bending over backwards to not upset certain groups. Far from being “all-inclusive”, as their PR people claim, Google News is actually quite exclusive.

If you are interested in persuing this story, or know someone who is, I can provide you with documentation and have you talk with people who know the whole story. Google is great at spinning themselves as impartial data distributors, but the truth is they are very influenced by politics and they have slowly developed a policy of stonewalling certain news sources from inclusion. Considering how important Google News has become, I think this is a vital story for the public to hear.

Scott Meenen of Liberty Feed Radio writes to say: “I must point out that anyone who provides a free service is not obligated to be fair.”

I don’t agree. There’s a certain public trust with being the No. 1 company in any media field. As I wrote two years ago in a story that praised Google, the public is drawn to Google because it is fair, aboveboard, and won’t accept secret payments for keyword searches and other payola that’s now routine in the search industry.

Kevin R. Vrieze, a resources librarian, emailed to suggest that Yahoo News displays political bias in its news coverage: “I would guess, had you done some sort of due diligence, Yahoo demonstrates nearly the same bias ‘but with a human touch’.”

Later: The article has been pimlicodrive“>Slashdotted, with 240 comments so far.

There are smaller conversations about this taking place in the SearchEngineWatch forums and the OJR forums.

Meantime, SearchEngineWatch’s Danny Sullivan writes:

I’d be curious how many people browse rather than keyword search. I’m a keyword searcher, myself. If I wanted to know about Kerry, I’d type in his last name. I rarely read the “front pages” of either Google News or Yahoo News. But I know many people do, and it’s interesting how that behavior can inadvertently shape what they might see. …

It wasn’t clear whether you felt Yahoo News and the others were also showing that leaning compared to Google News. You started with the cites from Google in August, then mentioned it seemed to continue carrying on but never actually said that you also looked at Yahoo each time to see how it also measured up. But I did get the impression you thought it was doing better.

However, the part about this being due to humans? Nope, not in my book. Yes, I love, love that Yahoo has a full coverage staff. But if I go to Yahoo News and do a search, I’m not going to hit just the Full Coverage material by default nor the Yahoo news partner search. I’m hitting the entire crawler-the-web-just-like-Google results. I doubt most people change this setting.

And that’s the real issue here, that Yahoo’s news search algorithm — not its humans — do better for a john kerry search. If I do this search and then this this search, the top results at Yahoo are far more from mainstream pubs than at Google (don’t know if they were “balanced,” as I was merely scanning for sources.

For George Bush, it was a mix at both, but Google seemed to have more smaller pubs. Daily Kos stood out to me as one. This is a blog source that Yahoo News doesn’t appear to carry (I couldn’t get the same headline to come up there).

Another thing I noticed is that many of the Yahoo sources were like this: AP via Yahoo! News – 1 hour, 21 minutes ago. What that’s telling me is that Yahoo News is probably giving a ranking boost to content hosted on its own site. In turn, that may help reflect Yahoo’s human editorial voice to come out, which perhaps is leading to either more balance or more likely, more presence of mainstream pubs.

Google’s weakness is definitely that it relies so much on automation. Yahoo human side does help, but I suspect the differences are more to do with keeping their sources more tightly limited combined with highlighting content on their own site. That means on some other issues, good news on smaller sites might not get found. This is all on the keyword search side, of course. When you start talking about click-to-browse news, Yahoo’s human element is much stronger (and welcomed, in my view).

Excellent points from one of the keenest observers of the search engine scene. A couple of points are worth making:

- I was originally going to add my own observations about Yahoo News doing a better job of providing balanced political news coverage, but then I thought, well, how valuable is that, coming through my own political biases filter? Let people make their own judgments about that.

- I told NPR that I actually would prefer a news feed that’s a mix of Google News and Yahoo News. Yahoo, to alert me to the most important news and significant breaking-news stories. Google, to offer a wider range of offbeat and serendipitous news sources.

September 22, 2004

Takeaways from the ONA seminar

Last night I attended an Online News Association social gathering and panel discussion at CNet headquarters in San Francisco. Lots of familiar faces there: Paul Grabowicz, Bruce Koon, Jai Singh, John Roberts, Jeff Pelline, Neil Chase, Scott Rosenberg, Barry Parr, Susan Mernit, Mary Hodder, Anastasia Goodstein, many others.

Also got to meet cartoonist Mark Fiore and Bill Gannon, Jeff Birkeland and John Briggs from Yahoo!

A few highlights from the sessions:

Mark Fiore showed off some of his animated cartoons. I asked why he doesn’t blog, while other cartoonists like Tom Tomorrow do. He told the audience it’s because he likes his work to speak for itself, and because of time constraints. He also said the music he uses is license-free, and he does most of the voices himself, with occasional help from some friends.

Jeffrey Veen from Adaptive Path spoke about technology trends in online media, emphasizing the power of buttom-up, emerging media such as Metafilter and Wikipedia and collaborative tools such as upcoming.org (see who’ll be attending events in your city).

Jackson West, editor of the 2-month-old site SFist.com (a San Francisco-based arts & entertainment version of New York’s Gothamist.com) and Technorati’s Mary Hodder held forth on the power of blogging and independent media, with the CBS forged-documents fiasco a popular recurring theme.

Couldn’t stay for all of the last session, which featured Gannon (Yahoo’s editorial director), Chase (ME of CBS MarketWatch), Pelline (editor, CNet News.com), Rosenberg (ME of Salon) and Tim Olson, interactive director of KQED.org.

Later: More writeups on the evening from Mary Hodder and Niall Kennedy. And here are Niall’s photos of the event.