Thursday, November 13, 2003

Google and Spin

News management and opinion management requires careful google-spinning

originally posted November 13th, 2003
The marketing value of search engines has been obvious to many for ages. If you are selling spangled wangles, you want your website to appear near the top of any google search. Webmasters are constantly looking for new ways to trick google into giving them a higher ranking than they deserve.

As people (including journalists) rely increasingly on googling to find out what is going on, then news management and opinion management also depend on google spinning. There is often a systematic bias in the material that is presented to the googler. This bias may be contrived, or it may be an inevitable consequence of the economics of truth.

Here are some examples from my own googling over the past few days.

The British home secretary recently made an announcement about biometrics. When I searched for biometrics on Google, I found hundreds of pro-biometric websites, from vendors, industry consortia and government bodies. There are undoubtedly also websites that present a more critical stance on biometrics, but these don't rank highly on Google, and I didn't have the patience to page down and find them. (As it happens, I had other ways of reaching the material I wanted.)

A member of the British Royal family recently denied some allegations that had been circulating on the Internet. If you search for this story now, you are presented with a lot of news items reporting the denial and discrediting the source - before you get to the allegation itself. This creates a different context for the allegation, and many people will read the allegation differently as a result.

A few days later, the British minister for children unwisely and perhaps inadvertently attempted a similar tactic, when she described one of her critics as "extremely disturbed". Many years previously he had been a victim of child abuse when living in a children's home for which she had had overall responsibility.