Last summer, Google began an experiment with journalists and authorship, linking writers’ identities and their work by placing author headshots and links to their Google+ profiles next to news results from Google search. Late yesterday afternoon, it extended the effort, announcing that it will begin rolling out the producer-and-product connection to its news platform. “When reporters link their Google profile with their articles,” Google’s Eric Weigle wrote in a blog post,
Google News now shows the writer’s name and how many Google+ users have that person in their circles. For the lead article for each story, Google News also shows that reporter’s profile picture and enables readers to add them to their Google+ circles right from the Google News homepage.
The move is an extension of a pilot project launched this summer, one that gave authors’ (Google+) identities placement in Google search returns. (We at the Lab have been part of that experiment.) “Authorship is a great way to identify and highlight high-quality content,” Google’s Sagar Kamdar noted at the time. “Plus, the web is centered around people. People discovering content on the web often want to learn more about its author, see other content by that author, and even interact with the author.”
All true. And this week’s extension of the author layer to Google News is largely — largely — to the good. As Kamdar, announcing the new feature yesterday (on Google+, natch) noted, the Google News extension has been “one of the most requested features for authorship.” Journalistic transparency is almost always good; same deal for the features that allow for connections between journalism’s producers and its consumers.
But then: An intermittently author-ified search platform — the kind we had in Google’s experiment with authored-up search returns — is different from a blanketly author-ified news platform. Consumers come to Google.com and News.google.com with, often, quite different intentions. News is not quite information, and vice versa. A Google News populated by headlines and journalistic imagery is quite different from a Google News populated by headlines and journalistic imagery and also imagery of journalists. And it encourages in consumers a slightly different way of seeing the news itself: not just as a product, but as a product of, you know, someone. As Google put it, cheerily: “We hope you enjoy learning more about the faces behind the news.”
More accurately, of course, they hope you enjoy the Google-ized faces behind the news. Google is expressly not linking to journalists’ Twitter profiles or Facebook pages or personal websites or what have you; it’s linking to their Google+ pages. (And, per changes it made last week to how it displays rel=author markup in regular search returns, it’s publishing journalists’ “in circles” counts — essentially, their Google+ social rank — right on news pages.) On the one hand, that’s what you’d expect — Google Plus, after all — but you could also read the Google News update as yet another move to position Google+ as the social backbone of the web, with journalists as the willing pawns.
Though Google News will be rolling out its reface-ification efforts over the next several weeks — there’s not much evidence of it that I can find at the moment — it’s easy to imagine what the Google News homepage might look like when the rollout’s complete (and fleshed out, ostensibly, by more and more journos jumping on the Google+ bandwagon). It’s easy to imagine a collection of information that blends the news, and the people who produced that news, into one seamless presentation. It’s easy to imagine an environment that encourages consumers to do their consuming with an eye toward those who did the creating — an environment in which stories don’t speak fully for themselves, but also for the people who wrote them. Google, with its wealth of author data, could have easily broken Plus down into different sections, akin to Facebook’s personal Profiles-vs-professional Pages divide. Perhaps that will come later — Google+, and its presence on the Google News page, are still in their infancy — but, as things now stand, yesterday’s tweak seems to suggest yet more infrastructurally enforced blending between journalists’ personal and professional identities.
Again: Largely to the good. Transparency, hooray! Still, there’s something just slightly ominous in all this. Alex Howard summed it up well: When it comes to distribution on Google, he wrote, “media now have a choice before them: join Plus to connect profiles with their stories or stay out of the social fray.”