Is Google helping journalists, or co-opting them?

November 4, 2011

Over the past few months, Google has been rolling out new features for search results that allow writers to tag their profiles and blog posts and have them show up in Google with a photo and other information attached. Now the web giant has announced that these will also show up in Google News searches, but there is a catch: The new features are only available to writers who have created and linked to a profile on Google’s new Google+ network. Is the search company helping authors get discovered more easily, or has it crossed the line by trying to promote the use of its own social network over others?

In a conversation about the new features on Twitter on Wednesday night, Emily Bell — the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and a former head of digital at The Guardian — made it clear that she didn’t like Google’s approach at all, saying she was “appalled,” and that the requirement to use Google+ profiles smacked of “coercion.” Bell elaborated on her opposition in a blog post, saying the move felt like similar attempts by giant corporations such as Microsoft to use their dominance in one area to force users into adopting services in another. Bell added:

By telling journalists that their visibility will only increase (a good thing) by using a particular social platform which demands specific protocols, it is a form of coercion. Profiles on publishers own platforms will not be featured. Neither will profiles on Facebook or Twitter.

Blogger and programmer Kevin Marks made a similar point during the Twitter back-and-forth with Emily and others, including O’Reilly writer Alex Howard. Marks said that linking only to Google+ profiles was too restrictive, and that using thumbnails or links to other profiles on competing networks as well would be more “web-like.” As Marks pointed out, there are a number of ways that Google — which has been a firm advocate of open-source software and interoperability in other areas, a stance that has caused clashes with Facebook in the past — could do this, by using open standards such as hCard, rather than giving preferential treatment to its own network.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that GigaOM was approached by Google early on in the roll-out of the new author tag features, and I took part in the beta trial by adding a link from my WordPress profile to my Google+ profile (which I already had). This caused my blog posts to appear in search results with my avatar photo attached to them, and other information — such as a link to my Google+ page and the number of “circles” that I have been added to on the service. A screenshot is embedded below:

From the point of view of a writer and journalist, having a photo and a link to my profile appear on search results is a positive thing — as Alex Howard also noted in his post on the topic. At a time when journalism is hopefully becoming more human-centered (despite attempts by media organizations to prevent this from happening with close-minded social-media policies), having those photos and links helps to build trust and a personal brand with readers. I created a profile on Google+ for the same reason I create one on almost every social service or network: because I want to be found, and I want people to read what I write and then tell me what they think.

That said, however, I share some of Emily Bell’s discomfort with the way that Google has done this. It’s good to have a profile appear in search, and it may even be good to have the number of circles I appear in show up in those results as well — but the fact that this gives Google’s own network a boost rather than the other networks that it competes with feels wrong. It may not be enough to contribute to an anti-trust case against the web giant, but it feels as though the company is trying to put its thumb on the scale and give Google+ a leg up in the social-identity race, which is heating up.

That was enough of a concern when the results just showed up in search, but Bell’s point is that now these enhanced profiles are going to show up in Google News, and that’s going to create a number of issues: for one thing, it could make it look as though certain writers are preferred by Google simply because they have Google profiles. And for another, it could give the impression that Google is also trying to tell users of the service what news they should read, which I am not a fan of for a number of reasons.

I think Google needs to reconsider how it has implemented these new features, and add support for links to other services as well. Whether it will do so or not remains to be seen, but the message behind these and other moves is clear: Google+ is not just a social network, it is an attempt to create a unified social backbone for all of its services — and the full implications of that are only just beginning to become obvious.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

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