Google have dominated the internet and have consistently created well-designed cleverly conceived services for hundreds of millions of people, reaching well beyond their original role as a numbers driven search engine. They are gradually becoming a publisher.
Publishing is the process of gathering, ordering and disseminating information and publishers have important legal obligations for the material they make public.
For at least a century, there has been a distinction between services that are carriers of information, like traditional phone companies, who bear no responsibility for what people say in their conversations and pubishers who have chosen to bring particular content to users.
Publishing consists of selecting source material, usually via an author, preparing that information for publication, editing, then making it available to users, either in the private or public domain.
Google’s newer services are much closer to traditional publishing activities than the sorting service provided by search and this is becoming a sensitive area.
Google Finance provides a well structured site with information about thousands of companies with features familiar to public users of services like Bloomberg, Stock Exchanges internationally, financial websites and some newspapers. There’s a ‘stock picker’ allowing the user to screen lists of business according to several criteria – market capitalisation, P/E ratio, Dividend yields and a year on year price change. It works extremely well and is a simple mathematical tool. The information about individual companies is equally well ordered, including a chart that works better than many of Google’s competitors and a dozen or more pieces of information specific to the stock and some basic data about other businesses in the sector. All this is reminiscent of the information sorting that Google have always argued ensures its search engine is outside ‘publishing’.
Google Finance also includes a description of each business, republishing the introductory paragraph of the company description by Reuters. A link will take users to the Reuters site and the rest of the business profile there. It is not immediately clear how often these profiles are updated, but the introductory paragraph is very much a partial description, even in the context of a summary.
Where Google’s active role as a publisher emerges most strongly is the selection of ‘news’ about each company, which is then tagged on the share price chart. Company news comes in three varieties, official statements and comments by the business, formal statements by the authorities and comments by business partners and competitors, then the various media reactions to that news, such as it may be. Google’s ‘news’ fudges these categories, particularly featuring little from traditional media, who are very careful about phrasing their comments about businesses for legal reasons, but Google Finance carries a great deal of links to material from the ‘blogosphere’, some good, some poor quality, which are then tagged as ‘news’ on the share price chart. This is where Google becomes a ‘publisher’. The criteria for selection are not clear, so Google has assumed the ‘publisher’ responsibility for highlighting the texts they link to.
Are there errors of fact in the articles they link to? Yes. Among those I have noticed include simple errors like mistaking the country where a business is based, omissions in describing business’ holdings and commercial activities and misleading assertions about the context of business activities. Errors are inevitable from time to time, but much of the blogosphere is prone to exaggerated claims, or arguments which are so contentious as to be misleading. I find it surprising that Google chose the sites they select for prominance as sources of company news. If investors were to act on the implications of the company ‘news’ from Google they might well be at risk of losing money. Most financial websites are extremely cautious about the articles they carry, often limiting them to official statements from the business. Perhaps Google might argue that their system generates these links passively, but the very presence of these sites links within Google Finance necessarily has a distorting effect on their web rankings, if only because Google Finance users are likely to click on the links to find out what other users are being prompted to read – a vicious circle of poor quality information.
Maybe Google should take another look at the way they give prominance to postings from the blogosphere, or accept their obligations as publishers and stand by the material they choose to highlight. Either way, there’s an issue to be addressed.
UPDATE: Since these comments were originally posted there does seem to have been a change in Google Finance’s linking. It will be interesting to see if this is sustained, or is merely a reflection of search priorities over the weekend.