Google recently ruffled some feathers when a post from Breitbart News, the controversial news outlet associated with the alt-right, appeared in its “Top stories” section on a search for “great barrier reef.”
“How on earth is @BreitbartNews getting the #1 slot in Google results when it comes to Science/Nature News,” Cody Brown wrote in a tweet that went viral, and sparked a discussion about how Google ranks news sources.
There are a few things in this incident worth noting. The first is that Google’s not apologizing for it. Google says the job of its search engine is to present a wide variety of news and views (opinions).
Not necessarily the news
On its face, “Top stories” certainly looks like a straightforward section where Google picks the top news articles on a given topic and presents them to you. (Until just a few months ago this separate “carrousel” of links and images, which appears at the top of Google’s desktop search results, was literally even called “In the news”).
But Google considers “Top stories” to be part of Search, which uses different criteria than Google News when choosing which articles to show readers. Web search results uses broader standards to include news “and views,” and in this case, a Breitbart column that is definitely not a news report.
Now whether Google’s search engine should be ranking Breitbart’s “views” about the Great Barrier Reef so high in any kind of web results is a separate debate. It’s worth noting that Google has also repeatedly struggled with its web search engine promoting tons of conspiracy theories.
But leaving that issue aside, it’s clear that Google’s “Top stories” section continues to be very confusing for users at a time when many users are struggling to discern between objective information from reputable sources and the so-called “fake news” proliferating on the web. Google’s confusing nomenclature is especially problematic because Google has an editorially-vetted news product called Google News, which is wildly popular and totally separate.
So then the next question is, would Breitbart show up as one of the top stories in Google News?
To be in Google News, publications first need to go through a human approval process to be labelled a legitimate news site. The first thing to note is, yes, Breitbart has been let onto the Google News platform. If you search for Breitbart in Google News, it’s there.
But even though Breitbart is on Google News, I personally haven’t noticed it showing up near the top of any my Google News queries, nor have I seen any hand-wringing over that online. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t, however, or won’t in the future.
The inner workings of Google News, and how it ranks news sites, are kept secret by Google. But last month, Business Insider published a set of recollections of people who used to work vetting sites for Google News. Three separate people with direct knowledge of the process confirmed that, at least a few years back, there was a method to let publications onto Google News and then manually de-rank them so they wouldn’t show up prominently. This would happen if a site was considered, by the human reviewers, to be biased or untrustworthy, but technically fit the criteria of “news.” The site wouldn’t be informed that it have been internally flagged and lowered in Google’s rankings.
Google has denied that such a process exists.
But it will be interesting to see, as time goes on, how prominently sites like Breitbart show up in Google News results, especially versus how they show up in Google Search, including the “Top Stories” section.