Google: Is all the news fit to post?

Nestled among headlines on Google News from thousands of newspapers and wire services are press releases that aren't clearly distinguished from actual articles.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
Nestled among the headlines from the thousands of newspapers, magazines and wire services that appear on Google News are press releases and government statements that are not clearly distinguished from actual news articles.

Press releases that companies distribute through commercial services and that appear on federal Web sites currently receive equal billing with legitimate news sources, a practice that Google on Tuesday said it would change.

In response to a query from CNET News.com, a representative for the popular search engine said that Google would in the future differentiate corporate and government statements from news articles. "It is not our intention to list press releases without clearly marking them as a press release," the representative said. "I will notify the team about the issue...and we will work to fix the problem."

Google began indexing press releases in its Google News search--introduced last year and still in beta--about two months ago.

Press releases from PR Newswire and Business Wire have been clearly labeled, but not those originating from many other sources such as Yahoo News, individual companies and government agencies. Examples include press releases from the Recording Industry Association, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. government's Voice of America operation.

Google News areas "where press releases are included but not clearly marked are bugs," a Google representative said. "We appreciate you bringing the issue to our attention. Google News is still in beta, and we are constantly working to improve the service." Google would not say how many corporate and government sites are searched for press releases.

Including corporate and government releases on a site called Google News has the potential to mislead visitors, said Search Engine Watch editor Danny Sullivan, adding that proper labeling is vital. "I don't think a press release is legitimate news," he said.

"It may be useful to let people have an option to filter all that stuff out if they don't want one particular kind of source," Sullivan said. He added that deciding what is or is not legitimate news could be a very difficult task: "When it comes to other sources, like the Voice of America, do you label it propaganda or a government source? One person's propaganda is another person's truth. Do I label The New York Times as left-leaning? Do I label Bill O'Reilly's as a right-wing conservative view?"

Google already has encountered some criticism over what sites it chooses to include in Google News. For instance, the company first included Infoshop.org, a site that exists "to promote all forms of anti-capitalist anarchism to the greater public," and then removed it from the news database.

In a March 20 e-mail message to Infoshop.org, Google said: "We have reviewed Infoshop.org, and we cannot include it at this time. We are not accepting sites where all articles are produced by one individual. We are looking for sources with current news written by a staff of reporters and edited by a staff editor."

But on Tuesday, after protests by irate anarchists, Google backed down and quietly added Infoshop.org to the index once more.

Bill Frantz, a veteran computer security consultant in Los Gatos, Calif., said that indexing press releases and not labeling appropriately could legitimize the products advertised. One such release--from PRWeb.com--that appears on Google News does not explicitly state that it is a press release.

"I would say that this is a fine example of snake oil," Frantz said, referring to the extreme claims the company made about its encryption product. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."