NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Major media companies are increasingly lobbying Google to elevate their expensive professional content within the search engine's undifferentiated slush of results.
Many publishers resent the criteria Google uses to pick top results, starting with the original PageRank formula that depended on how many links a page got. But crumbling ad revenue is lending their push more urgency; this is no time to show up on the third page of Google search results. And as publishers renew efforts to sell some content online, moreover, they're newly upset that Google's algorithm penalizes paid content.
"You should not have a system," one content executive said, "where those who are essentially parasites off the true producers of content benefit disproportionately."
Last November John Kosner, ESPN's digital-media senior VP, renewed the charge at a meeting of Google's Publishers Advisory Council, a small, invitation-only group for professional publishers to pow-wow confidentially with the search giant. Members include BusinessWeek, ESPN, Hearst, Meredith, The New York Times, Time Inc. and The Wall Street Journal. "This wasn't the first time that it had been raised, but John certainly put a bright spotlight on it," said one person in attendance.
Then in January, Martin Nisenholtz, New York Times Co. senior VP-digital operations, got up at the annual Online Publishers Association summit in Florida, an event closed to the press, to blast both the algorithm and the results presentation on the screen.
He'd just run a search for Gaza, which had been at war with Israel since Dec. 27. Google returned links to outdated BBC stories, Wikipedia entries and even an anti-Semitic YouTube video well before coverage by the Times, which had an experienced reporter covering the war from inside Gaza itself.
Search results for "Gaza" on March 20 began with two Wikipedia links, a March 19 BBC report, two video clips of unclear origin, the CIA World Factbook, a Guardian report and, most strikingly, a link to Gaza-related messages on Twitter.
And every item looks about the same, whether it's a link to Vanity Fair or to FreeGaza.org, undermining the power of known brands. That's especially ironic given Google CEO Eric Schmidt's charge to magazine publishers last October, when he said brands were the way to sort out the "cesspool" that the net is becoming. "Who's actually driving people to these secondary, tertiary and Looooong Tail sites?" one big-time publisher said. "It's Google."
Publishers said they're not asking for a leg up over amateurs and link-happy bloggers. "This would in no way mean that only professional content publishers would get an advantage," one said. "It really just says that the original source, and the source with real access, should somehow be recognized as the most important in the delivery of results."
Google says it's trying but can't just flip a switch to deliver pro publishers' dreams. "There's absolutely value to original content," a spokesman said. "There's value to derivative content, too. We look at this in many ways from the point of view of the user. But the truth is there are so many shades of gray even within, quote, original content."
Not everyone supports the publishers' push. "It's the plaintive cry of people who have lost their monopoly trying to scrounge a little of it back," said Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair columnist and founder of Newser, which aggregates and links news from around the web. "Sometimes it's true that you'd rather get what The New York Times has to say about something rather than a host of bloggers. But more interestingly it's not always true. And it is in fact less and less true."
Publishers are nonetheless looking forward to the next closed-door meeting of Google's Publishers Advisory Council on April 30, when many hope to get some solid response from Google. They don't just want "We'll fix it." They want more insight into Google's black box of data and decision making.
They're also beginning to cast around for new leverage. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly adopting the Automated Content Access Protocol, which intends to tell search engines what they can use and how. It's focused on copyright, but widespread adoption might give publishers new clout with Google.
Some publishers concede, however, they could help themselves more too. "Google has designed an algorithm," one said. "They don't owe us that we show up a particular way. They do publish a whole lot about how to make your site show up as much as possible. If people haven't taken action on it, that's their own damn fault."
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