The big picture: Google has changed the way it ranks stories with updated guidelines for the people that help in training the search algorithm. The move is meant to help publishers keep their original content at the top of the search results instead of getting buried under a pile of newer but often not better articles.
For years, news publishers have been struggling to get back some of the power they lost to tech companies that have been doing news aggregation. Google recently announced its latest initiative in "elevating original reporting in Search," which essentially means the company will give more prominence to original sources that start a major news cycle.
According to Google's VP of News Richard Gingras, this is also meant to encourage publishers to focus on quality and fresh reporting as opposed to simple rehashing of the source material. He further notes that the changes are a way to reward news organizations that take "significant time, effort and resources" to compile their stories and require "reporters to engage in deep investigative pursuits to dig up facts and sources."
Google has made two major updates over the last few months, the first of which involved adjusting the search algorithm to be more effective in surfacing original news and keeping them in a visible position for as long as possible. The company recognizes that original reporting can be a difficult concept to define, so it's trying to prevent organizations from gaming the system by being vague about what it actually means by it.
The second update has to do with the guidelines used by over 10,000 people called "Quality Raters," who are helping Google get a sense of how it can train its search algorithm to discern original reporting in the ocean of articles that appears in search results. The company asks them to give the highest rating to articles providing "information that would not otherwise have been known had the article not revealed it," and that in turn educates the changes made to the algorithm.
It's worth noting that Google will also consider a publisher's "overall reputation for original reporting" as an important factor in rating content, so that Raters can point out the most authoritative source for a particular story. This is likely to cause some controversy, but less so than the vague definition for "original reporting." Google exemplified what it means by using only articles published by big news outlets, so it's not clear if small and medium-sized publishers were ever considered in the company's plan.
For the last few years, Google has typically displayed "the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results," and now it appears to want to reverse that. In doing so, it risks encouraging publishers to churn out breaking news before it's properly researched and put less emphasis on ensuring accuracy and context in their presentation.
Good reporting can often come from publications other than the original source, with proper credit attributed to the organization breaking the news. Some publications compile and correlate information from multiple news sources to offer perspective and add more insight for readers. Others choose to distill the information down to what is relevant for a niche audience.
In any case, Gringas says Google plans to continue fine-tuning the algorithm. The effort is part of a broader initiative announced last year when Google committed $300 million to combat poor quality journalism and the spread of fake news. Facebook similarly wants to use humans to curate its upcoming News tab, and is investing a similar amount of money into supporting quality local news coverage.
The big picture has both Google and Facebook under pressure ahead of the 2020 US Presidential election, which means the two companies are trying their best to stay out of regulators' crosshairs, who are teaming up to probe every aspect of their business. Also, they'll have to adapt to a new Copyright Directive in the EU that will require them to pay a "link tax" and take responsibility for user-generated content, among other things.