UPDATED May 9: Google News has removed a prominent news source which had faced questions over possible 'gaming' of Google's news gathering algorithm.
"To ensure a high quality service for our end users, we periodically review our index of news sources, particularly following user complaints, and have recently removed some sources that do not meet our criteria as news organizations, including Playfuls.com," a Google spokesperson told Texyt today.
Google News is generated by software which scours more than 4000 sources worldwide and displays the stories that it determines most newsworthy. A number of sources appear to have been dropped on or around April 26, they include Playfuls.com, a popular news website.
Until recently, links to Playfuls' news articles had been extremely prominent on Google News. The site ranked 16th amongst Google News' English-language sources, placing higher than many better-known news organizations according to Newsknife. However, on April 26, new links to Playfuls abruptly stopped appearing at Google News.
Online audience lost
Simultaneously, Playfuls suffered a dramatic fall in visits from web surfers, according to the Alexa Internet monitoring service. The site was previously amongst the world's top 5,000 most visited websites, according to Alexa, but has suddenly slumped to below 40,000, according to recent figures. This graph illustrates the magnitude of the apparent loss of audience.
Apparently based in Romania, Playfuls began life as a video games news site, but gradually expanded its coverage into other areas, including world news and entertainment news, over the past 18 months. The site's contact page lists more than 10 editorial staff – the senior editors and management all appear to be Romanian. Playfuls is associated with a Romanian-language site providing similar content, Jucaushii.ro.
The secret Google News algorithm
Google typically ascribes changes in the composition of its news pages to its engineers' tweaking of the algorithms that generate them, rather than to direct human intervention. News providers have complained in the past that the frequency and prominence of their inclusion in the Google's news pages has been adversely affected by changes in these algorithms or even by changes in their own website design.
Based on past performance, it does appear conceivable, albeit unlikely, that a source might disappear totally from the listing because of a change in these algorithms, rather than Google's deliberate removal of the source.
However, in the past, Google News has clearly removed news sources that consistently failed to meet accepted journalistic standards. Accusations leveled against Playfuls.Com online include claims that its staff appear to do little traditional reporting, and that they often simply rewrite stories from other news sources without adding original research or useful analysis to them. In the past, other news sites have faced similar charges.
Other than confirming that Playfuls and other sites had been removed because they "do not meet [Google's] criteria as news organizations", Google's spokesperson gave no further details, saying "As a matter of policy we don't provide details on individual source removals."
Among the other websites apparently removed by Google News on April 26 was PRbuzz.com, a press release distribution site.
Google provides almost no information about its news-gathering algorithms – apparently in an effort to prevent unscrupulous news providers from gaming the system. Google also turns down the majority of requests for inclusion in the index. Again, most of these rejections cite a lack of adherence to standard journalistic practices and editorial processes – in most cases, blogs and similar websites maintained by a single person are not accepted.
Google News provided Texyt with an explanation of its criteria for adding news sources (included at the end of this article). This appears substantially unchanged from versions of this document released in the past by Google.
Google News is a massive traffic source
Google News is a significant source of readers for news providers. On average, between 1.18 and 2 percent of all traffic to US news organizations comes from Google News, according to LeeAnn Prescott (photo), Research Director of web monitoring firm, HitWise.
In addition, Prescott says that relevant Google News stories displayed prominently on standard Google search results pages are also driving traffic to US news websites – as much as 5 percent of the websites' total traffic might derive from Google's decision to display these News results more aggressively, she suggests in a recently published report.
"The most important driver of all readers [to our site] is Google, except for people who know us and come directly," Edward Roussel, of the UK Daily Telegraph told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. "It plays a critical part of exporting our brand, particularly to the U.S.". Boosting a news site's ranking in the search results is "something of a dark art," he said.
Playfuls has not yet replied to an emailed request for comment on this issue.
Update May 9: 1 Alexa now gives a ranking for Playfuls between 40,000 and 50,000 - updated the article to reflect this.
Update May 9: 2 Added comments from Google spokesperson confirming recent removal of sites. The article was partly rewritten based on this new information, and the title was changed.
Additional Information: Google statement on the criteria for acceptance into Google News:
"Regarding source inclusion, we use a set of guiding principles to help determine which sites qualify as news organizations. Google strives to be as inclusive as possible, without regard to political viewpoint or ideology, while also providing a high quality experience for our users. Some of the things we look for when evaluating news organizations include:
- The source offers information that is updated regularly
- It is managed by an organization (not an individual) and includes organizational information on its site
- The source does not include hate speech or pornography
- The source does not allow open posting of content without editorial review
- The source's website is technically conducive to inclusion"