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Sept. 26, 2011, 11 a.m.

With its Standout tag, Google News is giving publishers a new incentive to credit the competition

How the algorithmic news aggregator is turning generosity into currency.

This weekend, in a session at the Online News Association conference in Boston, Google News announced a new content tag for its US edition: the “standout” tag, meant to give publishers a new way to signal their best content to Google. And to give, as Google News likes to say, “even more credit where credit is due.”

The tag has so far gotten some comparisons to Editors’ Picks, the Google News feature that lets selected publishers share hand-curated content in a standalone section of the Google News page. And with good reason: The standout tag is definitely another small step in the overall, if incremental, humanification of the Google News algorithm. But the more direct antecedents of the standout tag are, of course, Google News’ previously-rolled-out content tags: its original-source and syndication-source (now: canonical-source) tags.

While those other tags have been about claiming ownership — about telling Google, behind the scenes, “This is my stuff, and this is the stuff that’s informed it” — the standout tag has a broader mandate: It’s about claiming not only ownership, but excellence. “Every day,” Google’s David Smydra and Justin Kosslyn explain in a blog post announcing the tag, “news organizations and journalists around the world dedicate significant time and resources toward some of the most critical types of coverage: exceptional original reporting, deep investigative work, scoops and exclusives, and various special projects that quite clearly stand out.” The newest tag, they write, “will help us better feature this ‘standout’ content.”

Standout is only one signal among many — it won’t on its own influence stories’ placement on Google News — but it’s one way for news orgs to tell Google, essentially, “This is our best stuff.” (And then to ask Google: “Um, could you please highlight it?”)

Standout’s trying to collapse news outlets’ self-interest into the communal needs of the news ecosystem.

Publisher-provided tags can be a convenient method of sending signals to Google’s algorithm. But cyborgian statements have some pretty significant drawbacks, as well. Martin Moore, commenting on Google News’ original tags, put it like so: “Meta tags are clunky and likely to be gamed.” And while Moore may have a dog in the fight — as the director of the UK’s Media Standards Trust, he’s helping to develop hNews, a competing microformat — he makes a good point: Metatags can be problematic as signals not despite their reliance on humans, but because of it.

The problem with the tags as they’ve existed so far is that publishers haven’t had much incentive to use them to give credit unless they’re actually hoping to use them to get credit. Why tip your hat to competitors who might not, in turn, tip their hats to you? Especially when the credit (and thus the good deed) isn’t public-facing? The news industry is full of nice, kind, generous people; on the business level, though, it’s hard to imagine those people giving credit to competitors — which is to say, sending competitors a share of the worldwide billion clicks a month that come from placement on Google News — simply to be nice, and kind, and generous.

Then again, though, it’s not impossible to imagine that. As we noted when Google News rolled out its first pair of content tags, the whole proposition of systematized credit-giving offers some valuable insight into publishers’ willingness to act not just in their own interest, but in the interest of the ecosystem. Can linking out to fellow publishers — which, as Smydra and Kosslyn note, “is well recognized as a best practice on the web” — be divested of its prisoner’s dilemma-driven overtones? Especially in a news economy that maintains clicks as currency?

The standout tag says yes. Standout’s not just about highlighting extra-good content; it’s also trying to collapse news outlets’ self-interest into the communal needs of the news ecosystem. It’s trying to turn the link economy — a social space — into something more like an actual economy. It’s trying to bring economic incentives (and disincentives) to the social currency of the hat-tip.

Standout, most obviously, carries a penalty for excessive self-promotion: If a publisher claims more than seven stories a week as standouts, “it may find that its tags are less recognized, or ignored altogether,” Smydra and Kosslyn write. (And yet! Tellingly! “A news organization may cite standout stories from other news sources any number of times each week.”)

So that’s the negative-reinforcement side of things. The positive? The standout tag explicitly rewards community-mindedness. “The way we’ve designed standout is that when it’s used both ways — for calling out their own work and calling out the work of others — that builds our trust in that source,” Smydra
at ONA. The tag, in other words, in trying to systematize credit-giving, is trying to incentivize credit-giving. And it’s doing that not on a story-by-story basis, but on the broader level of publisher reputation: It’s treating a news outlet’s willingness to link to others as an overall vector of trust. (And, presumably, the more trusted the source, the more algorithmic authority it carries in Google’s eyes — and, thus, the better placement its stories get in the aggregate.) Essentially, a hat-tip to fellow publishers becomes a signal unto itself. Generosity becomes commodified.

“We want to enable publishers to build this news ecosystem,” Smydra later told ONA student journalist Anum Hussein, describing the dynamic give-and-take of citation he’s hoping will come with the new tag. He added: “Our algorithms will be able to detect which publishers are using the standout tag as good contributors, good citizens.”

It’s a smart scheme that will, for better or for worse, depend entirely on publishers’ willingness to adopt it. Competition (again, for better or for worse) can be a more powerful force than collaboration, particularly in an environment that finds news organizations struggling — mostly against each other — to subsist on a diet of clicks. “We recognize the importance of giving credit where credit is due,” Smydra and Kosslyn note, “and believe this tag can be a step in the right direction.” And yet: “It will only succeed if the publisher community helps it succeed.”

Image by flickr_lisa used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 26, 2011, 11 a.m.
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