On the 18th of July, Google changed its search results so dramatically that it set Algoroo into red (which is a rare event). At the time we had no idea what this could be, but on the 12th of September a Googler Richard Gingras gave us a strong hint. According to his post, Google has introduced a new ranking signal – “original content”. While he doesn’t specify the exact date of the first roll-out, we know that this was done in multiple instalments and is still in progress.
Google’s ongoing commitment to reward original content focuses on two things: 1) higher position and 2) longer lasting rankings for original content, though what “original content” truly means is still a grey area. We’re assuming Google’s in the process of training their systems to get better at it over time.
Link to the Australian Digital Platforms Inquiry Report?
Just one month before the red spike in Algoroo, The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released their ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry – Final Report in which they (among many other concerns) flag the need for Google to reward original content (Section 5.3.6 Recognition, Page 249). We have no direct evidence that this report had anything to do with Google’s recent algorithm updates, but it’s definitely spot-on.
If you don’t want to read through the entire report, here’s the most relevant section:
From the report:
Digital platforms that offer search services do not reward media businesses that produce original content or break news stories with higher rankings, compared to media businesses that copy such content.
In the past five years, both digital natives and established media organisations have raised concerns with the publication of re-written material, generally noting the increasing incidence in online media. The ABC notes that while ‘all the media steal stories from time to time’, the issue facing journalism in the present day is that it can be done online on an ‘industrial scale’, where digital natives allegedly produce high volumes of re-written material from other publications.
Examples given include news stories being re-published within hours of the original article, including instances of relatively resource-intensive journalism such as court reporting and international investigations.
While digital platforms have not been the driving cause of issues arising from republication without attribution, they have a significant role affecting in the commercial incentives that impact on modern media business models, including how they rank and display such articles.
When consumers are exposed to links to news articles on social media platforms, search engines, or news aggregators, they are unlikely to know which article was the original. As such, media organisations that republish articles are able to compete effectively for online audiences with the content originators who may have invested significantly in uncovering and/or producing the story. This may potentially reduce the incentives for news media businesses to invest in investigative journalism and other news content that is costly to produce.
Stakeholders such as News Corp have claimed that original content is not rewarded with a higher ranking on Google Search results and that this reduces the incentives for media businesses to invest in original and diverse content. Instead, ad-funded publishers of reproduced content (which do not place content behind a paywall) can invest in search engine optimisation and re-write stories to accommodate the algorithms used by digital platforms in order to feature higher in search results than publishers of original content hosted behind a paywall. Chapter 6 discusses issues around the commercial incentives for production of news content in more detail.
As previously discussed, search engines use a number of signals as inputs to algorithms in order to select and prioritise results. Information on algorithms published by the digital platforms does not make it clear whether the status as ‘originator’ or source of a story is a variable that promotes a higher ranking. However, media industry stakeholders strongly believe such provenance is not given weight in the ranking algorithms currently used by search engines such as Google. They have also expressed the opinion that these algorithms even favour free ‘re-writes’ of content above the original content, particularly when the original content is behind a publication’s paywall.
Again, this may be symptomatic of the different incentives faced by digital platforms such as Google, and media businesses. For Google Search, the incentive is to provide search results responsive to a user’s query; whether the content provided is original or a re-write is unlikely to be an important signal in determining search results. This has adverse flow-on effects for media businesses, as it affects their chances to monetise original content. While it would appear reasonable for the original source of a news story to be a factor considered by a digital platform’s algorithm, the ACCC recognises that:
- digital platforms would need clear signals as to which article is ‘original’, and these signals may not
- originality may be difficult to establish in some cases, given that stories can develop and evolve, and
may include a mix of original and attributed content and original analysis
- if originality were used as a signal for the algorithm for the purposes of ranking items of journalistic content, it may be considered alongside other factors, and may not necessarily be the deciding factor.
In the absence of signals from media outlets as to which content was ‘original’, and in the absence of an agreed basis for defining and identifying ‘original’ news content, any attempts by digital platforms to unilaterally determine the originality of journalistic content for the purposes of ranking could be problematic. The ACCC does not consider it appropriate to require a digital platform to include such a signal in its algorithmic determinations.
Instead, the treatment and recognition of original content is better addressed through bilateral negotiations between digital platforms and media businesses. The ACCC recognises the stronger bargaining position of digital platforms relative to media businesses, as previously discussed. The proposed code of conduct will set out commitments and key principles by which these negotiations will occur. This is discussed further below.
The rest of the document continues to argue in favour of better algorithmic transparency. Good luck with that ACCC!
What does this mean?
My takeaway from the above recommendations is that the real motivator for the introduction of the “original content” algorithmic enhancements isn’t the blogging community or small business. It’s Google’s biggest customers – media companies. These are the types of businesses with real impact on Google’s bottom line. I’d say there’s a good chance of a direct collaboration between large publishers and Google.
Sore points: story hijacking without attribution and content re-writing / re-publishing.
I just hope that we can all benefit from the original content boost and not just big publishers.
Dan Petrovic, the managing director of DEJAN, is Australia’s best-known name in the field of search engine optimisation. Dan is a web author, innovator and a highly regarded search industry event speaker.
ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6886-3211