Is Google Going To Rescue The Newspaper Business? [News Report]

by Avinash Saxena

In 2007, two years into the launch of the Huffington Post, cofounder Jonah Peretti coined a term for news sites that disguise how little investment actually goes into most of their content: the mullet strategy. Named after a much-mocked hairstyle that’s short and neat in front but long and unkempt in back, mullet strategists maintain a spiffy, well-groomed front page they can show to advertisers while serving most of their actual page views on a constellation of low-quality discussion boards, sexed-up celebrity news bits and user- or auto-generated content.

But the mullet could soon get clipped. A change in the wayGoogleGOOG – news – people ) ranks news stories in its ubiquitous search system not only threatens to devalue the lucrative dark arts of increasing online readership–from search engine optimization to aggregation and content farming–but also promises a boost for the besieged newspaper industry, which Google helped to destroy in the first place.

That’s not how Google sees it, of course. Matt Cutts, the engineer charged with reworking Google’s search algorithm, articulates his mission differently. “Does the user end up happier when they land on the page of the result we show?” he asks. “That’s the rough mental model we use.”

There’s arguably no more important person in the news business right now than Cutts. As the head of Google’s antiwebspam team, he’s rewriting the complex set of rules for ranking Web pages based on their relevance to a given query, which is the company’s DNA, its single most important product and a trade secret more closely guarded than the recipe for Coke. In the past couple years the algorithm has been bedeviled by companies that use tricks to drive their pages to the top of Google’s results. Sometimes these pages are straight-up spam–disguised bait for porn sites, for instance. Many others are the work of so-called content farms, which enlist armies of low-paid writers to crank out articles on the cheap and skim profits selling equally inexpensive ads. The result was clutter. “It didn’t violate Google’s guidelines, and yet it was kind of unsatisfactory, like fast food when what you want is a real meal,” says Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, which chronicles the business.

The algorithm update is Google’s answer to the problem. And it could turn out to be a whole lot more. In recent years CEO Eric Schmidt and others have repeatedly emphasized the need for a thriving press, both as a matter of public interest and of Google’s self-interest. For Google to make money by connecting users with useful material, creating it needs to be profitable. “Google benefits when there’s an ecosystem that produces quality content,” says Krishna Bharat, distinguished research scientist and creator of Google News.

But the same migration of readers to the Internet that turned Google into a $185 billion (market cap) Goliath has been disastrous for the traditional media, especially for newspapers, whose reporting is still the primary engine driving the industry, from broadcast TV to talk radio to blogs. Collectively, U.S. newspapers have seen their advertising revenue fall by nearly 50% since 2005, to $25.8 billion last year. Digital revenues, while growing, aren’t doing so at the rate required to replace losses from print, forcing most papers to cut staff and quality. Others have been driven out of business altogether, including major dailies in Seattle, Denver, Tucson and Honolulu.



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