On Tuesday, Google took another step toward improving its sometimes hostile relationship with the press.
"News publishers and readers both benefit when journalists get proper credit for their work," wrote Eric Weigle, a software engineer, and Abe Epton, a publisher technical specialist, on the official Google News blog.
"That can be difficult," they continued in their post, "with news spreading so quickly and many websites syndicating articles to others. That's why we're experimenting with two new metatags for Google News ... the aim is to allow publishers to take credit for their work and give credit to other journalists ... We're hopeful that this approach will help determine original authorship, and we encourage [publishers] to take advantage of them now."
So will they?
"We have no current plans to implement this feature on WSJ.com," said Ashley Huston, a spokeswoman for The Wall Street Journal, which doesn't exactly have the best rapport with Google.
Meanwhile, The New York Times declined to comment. As did The Washington Post. As did the Tribune Co., publisher of The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and about 10 other daily newspapers.
But Chris Gaither, a Google spokesman, confirmed that Tribune has been testing the feature, as has IDG, which publishes dozens of international technology news websites. He said Google has had conversations with "a few other" publishers about the metatags, but declined to specify which ones.
The Huffington Post is also on board. "HuffPost will be implementing the new feature shortly," said Mario Ruiz, a spokesman. "We will be monitoring it and working closely with Google in order to help showcase our original content." He added that HuffPo would use the converse metatag for identifying content it syndicates, such as AP articles.
Here's how it works: One of the metatags goes on "syndicated" articles and points Google News to the URL of the original source. So for instance, if, say, Yahoo News runs a breaking news item from Reuters, the goal of the tag is to give the Reuters piece a higher search ranking. (To disclaim the obvious, Yahoo is a direct competitor of Google's in the market for online content.)
This procedure applies only to syndication relationships between news organizations, not to aggregation. The other metatag goes on any articles that constitute an "original source" of reported information, in which case Google will likewise know to rank those items higher.
There are a few catches. For one thing, the onus is on publishers to embed these tags themselves--basically on an honor-system basis. And here's where things get murkier: "The notion of 'original source' doesn't take into account incremental advances in news reporting, such as when one publication advances a story originally broken by another publication with new important details," writes CNET's Tom Krazit.
Gaither, himself a former newsman from The Los Angeles Times, clarified:
You may choose to use the original-source tag if you were first to report on a story, or if your article references another as the source that broke the story. The use case isn't for something everyone is covering, like a press conference or earnings report, but rather for scoops that others will follow. It's always a balancing act; we want to provide credit to the publication that broke a story, and these metatags may help us do that. But we also want to benefit users by allowing story clusters in Google News to evolve as other publications add new reporting. When we put them fully to use, the metatags will be one signal among many we'll use to determine ranking, but we hope they'll help us better identify original reporting.