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PR rules, OK? Google ducks promised news policy pledge

Can't tell, won't tell

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The secretive search engine Google is blissfully unaware of the backlash it faces with its continuing debasement of the word "News".

On Friday, the corporation confirmed that it included PR pollution in the data stream. Our weekend mailbag reflected a major loss of trust in the once apparently benign, and well loved search engine.

The written policy statement we were promised on Friday, eluded us on Monday.

"But I never promised," Google Inc.'s spokesman said. He then insisted, with some urgency, that we speak to Google Inc.'s Director of Consumer Web Products, Marissa Mayer, in a great hurry, because she was about to be whisked away to an airport and hence, wouldn't be seen for days.

So we caught up with her and discussed the News Policy for a full 18 minutes, until she complained about a bad line and promised to call us back in five. Needless to say, she didn't, and after a couple of hours of leaving messages on the number - the PR's mobile - we received an email from its owner:-

"Your first story you highlighted a bug in Google Inc.'s 'Google News'. [sic] We did not clearly mark the RIAA press release for our users. We appreciate you bringing the issue to our attention and apologize for any misconceptions it may have created."

Uh-huh.

Press releases "are an important resource that offers our users a valuable perspective on the genesis of a story," explained Google.

They certainly do, if you have publications bold enough to examine this relationship.

However, what's all this "genesis of a story" business? Many of the most important stories, especially in the trade press, and no - we are human and no one is innocent - do begin with an official "statement".

But many stories of great importance do not.

I'm fairly sure that when Thalidomide was first introduced, its arrival wasn't accompanied by a press release entitled "Don't reach so far! Wonder drug makes limbs shorter!"

And I'm also fairly sure that Henry Kissinger didn't announce the CIA's involvement in the overthrow of the elected Allende government in Chile with a release garnished "Cut Red Tape! State Department fast tracks anti-teacher policy".

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, did it not warn us in advance, "Japan whacks competitors with 76 per cent reduction in naval capacity".

I'm sure it didn't.

If the press sucks, then it's your obligation to fix it - perhaps by stealth measures such as infiltration. Often it helps to remind us of our lameness - and Register readers do this well. You can't run or hide from Register readers. Or perhaps salting the "Journalism schools" (as they are called in the United States) with anti-personnel mines would thin the ranks of the incurious and dim-witted, leaving a keener and more news-hungry, less processing-orientated corps to fight the good cause.

Was Not Was

The Google corporation's Consumer Product Manager failed to provide the promised written News Policy, but she did let slip another qualification that we are obliged to report.

(By the way, you've probably spotted this already, but Google Inc. regards News as a "Consumer Product").

Google Inc. has a written Privacy Policy but no written News Policy. Or more accurately, as Ms. Mayer told us, it has a News Policy but it's for internal consumption only, and cannot be revealed to Google users.

"Google News" policy as explained to us by the Consumer Product Manager, excludes not only hate and pornographic press releases (oh, the puritan spoilsports), but PR from organizations describing talking about er, themselves.

"We exclude releases where one of the key pieces of subject matter is also the author."

What does that mean?

"So if you read the press release it's about Google - but it's written by the Google PR staff. Which it makes it implicitly biased. So that's how we define it," said Ms Meyer.

"If one of the key entities being written about is also the author, and obviously there are some self-referential columnists who would also fall under that rule."

What?

"But generally releases are ones that follow that form."

Sounding very confused [MP3 to follow] we interrupted to ask, but which form?

"The key entity being written about in the piece is also the author."

Right. And your policy with that is, what?

"Things that we tag as press releases."

Until our story on Friday, no one seemed to notice that Google News was polluting the news stream with PR, so "tagging" for Google is a major step. It hopes that's the end of the story.

But it isn't.

Eyeball boost for the lazy and greedy

One aspect of this semantic expansion of the word "News" to include all kinds of payola crap has been widely overlooked. Lobby groups and corporate press releases already have their spaces on the web: sites such as BusinessWire and PRNewsWire that us professionals need to check.

But these are specialist sites, visited by very few trade hacks.

Never before has the public relations industry been given the keys to the great vistas of a global consumer audience. This is something to be proud of - if you're a PR.

So the door's open. Google welcomes you in. You can now attempt to "game" or buy your way into Google News in the way that Weblog-Lobbyists successfully hijacked the powerful phrase the second-superpower and reworked it to refer to the computer elite.

Never before has corporate America been given the right to plant unadulterated, "written by the author" information into the datastream: a quite unique pollution.

For which we must thank Google, Inc. ®

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