Image via CrunchBase
In an effort to repent for the sin of being a professional journalist, I've been following Jeff Jarvis' blog, BuzzMachine, which is a good deal about what idiots professional journalists are and how cool Google is. OK, I exaggerate. But Google has made Jarvis rich, compared to most Americans, and he doesn't even work there. He is the author of What Would Google Do? I don't know if his book is any good because I haven't read it, even though you can read it for free online. (I am now only reading books whose authors pay me.) But I do read Jarvis' blog, and it is provocative, and sometimes I even agree with him.
The other day Jarvis wrote about another blogger's essay. The other blogger was writing about Google's influence on the news business and, among other things, how people like Jarvis think it's a good thing, when in fact it's not. (Meta alert: I am now writing about a second writer writing about a third writer who is writing about the second writer.) Jarvis contends that, by its very existence, his own blog post about the other writer's essay proves Jarvis' point. To understand this, and I'm not sure I do, you need to read Jarvis' post. True enough, though, is that Jarvis writing about this other essay caused me to read the other essay, too, and reading the other essay enabled me to conclude that Jarvis is, actually and in point of fact, wrong in his assessment of the other essay.
The third writer, being correct, deserves his own paragraph of introduction, and I urge you to read his blog post, a small portion of which I quote below. He is Josh Young. The blog is called Networked News, and his essay is titled, "Not By Links Alone."
Among other points, Young disagrees with the general theory held by Jarvis and others that search engines are good for journalism.
Today at least, Young writes, search engines treat news reportage as something it's just not, namely something whole, like an encyclopedia entry, when, in fact, news is by nature incremental and fragmentary.
When building news Web sites, a great deal of effort is devoted to search engine optimization — making pages hospitable to the robot "spiders" that crawl sites to index them for search. Sometimes this means making the content friendlier for software robots than for human readers — in composing headlines, for example. I've always wondered why Google doesn't adjust its algorithm to accommodate the Web sites instead of the other way around. Isn't that their job? Young agrees:
Google wields massive power over the shape and structure of the Internet's general landscape of Web pages, Web applications, and the links among them. Virtually no one builds even a semi-serious Web site without considering whether it will be indexed optimally. For journalism, most of the time, the effects are either irrelevant or benign.
But think about [Google executive] Marissa Mayer's Senate testimony about the "living story." Newspaper Web sites, she said, "frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content." Because those similar pages share links from around the Web, neither one has the pagerank that a single one would have. Mayer would have news Web sites structure their content more like Wikipedia: "Consider how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity."
Setting aside for the moment whatever merits Mayer's idea might have, imagine the broader implications. She's encouraging newspapers to change not just their marketing or distribution strategies but their journalism because Google doesn't have an algorithm smart enough to determine that they should share the "authoritativeness."
Young makes a great many other good points and observations that I think raise serious questions about our inclination to accept the link-obsessed cyberspace that is exponentially magnified by Google as being inherently not evil, or at least not harmful. To be sure, search engines are the new reality for journalists. They account for more than half of any given news Web site's traffic. But that doesn't mean we can't ask ourselves if the tail isn't wagging the dog.