Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TA publishers want to bend Google rank

Nat Ives, Media Giants Want to Top Google Results, Advertising Age, March 23, 2009.  (Thanks to Glyn Moody for the alert and his comments.)  Excerpt:

Major media companies are increasingly lobbying Google to elevate their expensive professional content within [what they consider] 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." ...

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...."

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...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."


  • Newspaper publishers seem to be leading this cause.  Academic publishers are not as riled, although Jorge Cauz, President of the Encyclopedia Britannica, voiced a similar complaint back in January.  I haven't heard TA journal publishers criticize Google on this ground yet.  But they might start if anyone had evidence that the versions of articles in OA repositories tended to have a higher Google rank than the original versions in TA journals.  Because I suspect that the evidence is ready to grab for anyone who digs for it, here's a present thought on a future complaint.
  • If you wanted to read a TA journal article, and it was equally easy to read the publisher's version in the original journal and the author's peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository, you'd probably read the journal version.  I would, unless the journal version were abridged or had frozen the author's data into unprocessable images.  But if you were writing a blog post about the article and wanted to link to it, and had the URLs for both editions, you'd probably link to the OA edition.  Some would link to both (my usual practice at OAN), but most wouldn't bother.  No one should be surprised if the OA edition eventually acquired more incoming links and a higher Google rank than the TA edition.  Publishers inclined to think that this practice sends readers to inferior quality should consider that there is more than one kind of quality.   An EC-commissioned report made precisely this point in early 2006 when it urged researchers and research institutions (in Recommendation A3) to find more comprehensive and nuanced ways to measure journal quality, and in particular to include "quality of dissemination" among their criteria.  For most users, a direct link to full text is far more valuable than a link to a pay-per-view screen. 
  • Moreover, of course, uncorrupted Google rank is very informative and useful.  If publishers only want their TA version to be clustered with the free version(s), Google Scholar already does so.