Google: Drop the AP first

Forbes quotes AP head Tom Curley sabre-rattling in negotiations with Google: “Curley warned that if Google doesn’t strike the right deal with the AP soon, ‘They will not get our copy going forward.'” This is more than mere negotiation. The AP has been making noise about trying to force Google to favor it and its members in the search engine’s algorithms.

Forbes explains:

The AP, a 163-year-old cooperative owned by news organizations, won’t discuss its talks with Google, but plans to create landing pages and Web-based “news maps” directing users to original AP stories (and away from secondary sources who post material “borrowed” from the AP). To do this, the AP needs Google’s help. Most likely that means Google creating search protocols similar to those created from the licensing deal the AP inked with Google in 2006.

Since that deal was struck, Google has paid the AP undisclosed fees to carry AP content on the Google News section of the site. Search rankings on Google News give priority to recognizable news brands like the AP. But Google applies no such algorithmic discretion to general searches. The broader search rankings spread AP content out across the Web, says Curley, encouraging misappropriation by other sites. Curley wants Google to “protect content from unauthorized use and pay us for the longtail.” By “longtail,” Curley refers to the thousands of small sites that collectively drive vast herds of traffic using AP content.

THe AP is trying to play victim here, saying that Google is pointing to sites that steal its content. Name two. When I search for news, I can’t remember being taken to a thief. I’m often taken to the AP, which rewrites news and cuts the links to original journalism and thus cuts off the value of links. But not reputed thieves.

Now, apparently, the AP wants to start to rectify its role in the link economy by creating these news maps. OK, I’ll agree that there must be more linking directly to journalism at its source. But I don’t know why Google needs the AP to do that. It could improve its algorithms not to favor certain brands but to favor original reporting wherever it occurs, at the AP, at newspapers, or at blogs.

So it’s in the sense that I’ll suggest Google should cancel the AP contract first – not as retribution but as a service to journalism. Now GoogleNews runs full AP stories it licenses from the wire service, taking traffic away from AP members’ sites and pointing to rewrites of reporting rather than original reporting. If what we want is an ethic of linking to original journalism, then Google should consider no longer presenting full AP stories and, for that matter, linking to AP rewrites. That would serve original reporting. But we have to wonder whether serving journalism or the AP is the AP’s real strategy in these negotiations.

Danny Sullivan links us to an explanation of the AP’s tactics at AllThingsD earlier this month:

This has been construed in some quarters as a plan to create a search engine or news portal. But it’s really just an attempt to upgrade the AP’s search engine optimization strategy — that is, trying to get its stuff to show up higher on Google’s (GOOG) search results. It will do that via “search pages,” or “topic pages,” which are par for the course in the Web world….

If the search page plan works, the pages will be generating plenty of page views when people land on them, and it’s possible that the AP will sell ads on that inventory, Kennedy says. But their real function is to shuttle searchers to the original source material from the AP’s members.

So Google could cut out the middleman – the AP – and just link to the original journalism itself. But being bullied into linking to the AP and its members is not the way to go.

Sullivan explains:

Google’s web search quality team — which has nothing to do with Google’s business folks — generally does not take well to people suggesting they’re somehow going to own the search results. AP content probably will start ranking well for some things, but if it started showing up Wikipedia-style for everything, people outside the AP would start complaining about favoritism.

That’s what makes the Forbes piece so puzzling. AP chief executive Tom Curley (who the AP told me was “unavailable” to talk; nor after nearly two hours, does anyone else seem available) sounds naive enough to believe he can force Google into a deal that would give AP preferential treatment in regular search results….

Google News doesn’t give “recognizable news brands” a boost. I’ve never seen them say this, nor have I seen it actually happen in real life. Google News includes large and small news sites and lists a diverse collection of stories. I know lesser-known news sites do well because I run one of those. At times, I can have a headline story that beats the AP or other mainstream outlets in Google News….

Certainly if Google starts ranking brands better than other content, they’ll have issues. Brands do not equal trust. Enron had a brand; AIG has a brand — being a brand doesn’t mean that you are more trustworthy or deserve an automatic ranking boost. From my perspective, Google’s algorithm has continued to change over the past few years to reward trusted sites. Many brands have sites that Google has decided are trustworthy, but some don’t.

Curley is foolish if he thinks he’ll browbeat Google into somehow changing its algorithm in web search to reward AP as part of this deal. Google’s search quality engineers wouldn’t stand for that, any more than a journalist would stand for a newspaper CEO marching into a newsroom and demanding that certain advertisers get favorable stories written about them.

There’s the irony: Journalists would never stand for what the AP is allegedly trying to do on behalf of journalism. If an editor walked into a newsroom and told reporters: ‘I want you all to quote only big-company and government officials from this approved list and stop quoting little people,’ there’d be a proper revolt. Google’s engineers will protect the authority of their algorithm just as self-respecting journalists would protect their own independence and reputation.

So, Google: Resist the bullying and blackmail. Drop the AP. Perfect ways to link to and thus support journalism at its source. That is the better service to the public and news.

(Full disclosure: I’m a partner at another aggregator, Daylife. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve discussed both there and at GoogleNews the need to link to and thus support journalism at its source, wherever it occurs.)

: LATER: In the comments, Paul Colford of the AP corrects me:

AP sells only a selection of its staff-generated international and national news stories to Google and other commercial customers. A very small slice of this — less than 2 percent of the mix — comes from member newspapers, typically scoops that are credited to the papers.

Stories from member newspapers make up a much larger piece of AP’s state wires — but the state wires are not available to Google and others outside the AP membership.

I stand corrected. But then I would also say that the AP now has an unfair advantage over its members by selling its content to Google to distribute in full. Google does this only for wire services, not for anyone else. And I don’t want it to do this for others, because someone will get left out of the mix. So I still think Google should link instead, and link directly to original journalism.