Hey Google News: What’s With This Goofy ‘Source’ Classification?
TL;DR: The Google News redesign has resulted in Google News search results being cluttered with spam ‘Source’ labels. Keywords such as ‘Canada’ and “Coronavirus’ have been taken over by spammers — the result is that end users are often just one click away from massive amounts of spam content. Some of this spam content is pilfered material from legitimate news organizations. Hard to believe this is Google News in 2022.
I really should set up a dedicated blog for these kinds of issues. A lot of my Medium posts are a lot of emo ramblings that just sort of meander around before getting to any kind of point. But not today!
Take a look at this bullshit:
Not, at first glance, you might be asking yourself: “what am I looking at?”
Well I’ll tell you.
This of course is Google News, which controls a gigantic amount of global internet traffic to news sites. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or are too young to be aware, controversies related to the power that sites like Google News wield are common. Google News is for me, as it is for hundreds of millions of others, a daily stop as I catch up on the news of the day. I would say that there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t check Google News or the Drudge Report for news.
The implications of this “gate keeper” dominance on traffic to news sites by Meta and Google are pretty clear. If you haven’t read about Australia’s conflict with Meta and Google, you really should.
Now, unlike others, I am all about the keyword. I really don’t want to know what the algorithms say I should be reading. I want to see what kind of weird article I can find by searches for “used condom” or “cocaine smuggler” or “severed penis” or whatever.
I usually head to Google News on my iOS or Android devices and search using a keyword while not logged into a Google account.
I’ll look at the Headlines or the Fact Check section, and then I’ll usually run around 8 different keyword searches. I run these searches, even on mobile devices, because I like to type, and search, and see what I find. I’ll run the gauntlet of the usual searches, and then I will always try something like the exotic keywords I described above.
This has worked fine for me, for years and years and years.
Now, tech companies are tech companies, which means that they’ve got to completely redesign things from time to time, usually with zero input or say from actual users or from the sites that they are connected to.
As Google News just formally announced, they recently launched a redesign of the site. I have to say that while I have noticed unusual things with Google News over the years, this redesign has REALLY brought some of these oddities to the forefront. While Google just announced the redesign in a recent blog post, some of these features have been implemented over the past year.
An example: as I wrote about earlier, Google News was displaying the fact that the “Ku Klux Klan” was a reputable “news source” after the term “Ku Klux Klan” was searched for in the Google News search box. Having a racist white supremacist group being given the incorrect designation of a legitimate “news source” was an example of SEO tomfoolery and a lack of manual testing and oversight at Google News.
Now, I can tell you exactly how this happened, but unless you want to hear boring engineering and search engine optimization jargon, I’ll forgo the explanation at this time.
Long story short: Google News, which controls what hundreds of millions will be exposed to as legitimate news, needs to do more manual testing and needs to make reporting such issues easier. Especially in instances where Google News search results (for common terms) are taking users to results linked to spam websites that utilize stolen content from legitimate news sources. More on that in a moment.
First, let’s take a look at this example that was mentioned above. This is a keyword search for “Canada” at the moment on Google News. This is using the iOS app (version 5.57) on an iPhone while NOT signed into a Google account:
So what are these results? Well, the top recommend official “source” for “Canada” is the Nigerian spam site of gistforafrica.xyz.
This site has managed to get Google News to index ditties like this article into Google News search results:
Here’s the same article, in Google News search results:
Google even provides a share feature to link to these results!
The motivations for why some of these sites are engaged in this type of tomfoolery are pretty clear. Gistforafrica.xyz is also engaged in immigration scams:
One could think of any number of ways where this could be weaponized by a foreign adversary — or made to make Google look especially stupid — by a bit of organized tomfoolery. Imagine waking up one day, and 15,000 pro-Chinese Communist Trolls are linking to the official Taiwan “source” on Google news that says that Taiwan wants to become part of the mainland. A small amount of Saul Alinsky tactics could conceivably result in a lot of free news coverage.
I’ve found a number of head-scratchers, including the trusted “sources” for Twitter:
But by far the example that I found that really kind of encapsulates the problem of bad classification and the abuse of legitimate news sites is from the “coronavirus” keyword. Let’s take a look at what happens when one searches for “coronavirus” on Google News at the moment.
And remember, you’re thinking like a baby boomer age consumer, not like a jargon spewing engineer.
The headlines are from The Guardian newspaper. The suggested website (something called corona.gbahacks.online) is copy/pasting news articles from a blog section of The Guardian newspaper in the UK.
What to do? Well, if I get the notion, I will draft an email to The Guardian’s Legal Department in order to alert them that something called corona.gbahacks.online has stolen their content and managed to trick Google News into directly linking to it.
I’ll also alert Google News using the difficult to find and use feedback feature.
But, for the time being, I think it would be wise for Google News to simply suspend the “Sources” feature — especially since it doesn’t seem to be working all that well.