15 Oct 2009 11:46 pm   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

Internet pollution

This afternoon, I considered writing a blog post about Jaycee Dugard, the 29-year-old kidnapping survivor who’s on the cover of People this week. Pursuing a photography angle, I Googled some phrases related to Jaycee Dugard images.

Do not do this! Unscrupulous web site operators, exploiting the popular interest in Dugard, have seeded Google with stinking heaps of rotten stuff connected to this poor woman’s name. I clicked on a link that looked like a profile of Dugard, but the site launched a cascading series of virus warnings and then tried to transfer an executable file to my computer. (I clicked no and got out of there.) Google Images brought me to a horrific white supremacist message board that happened to have a picture of Dugard on it. And of course, I found all sorts of “news” sites that were just re-posted snips of text from other sites, wallpapered with blinking and irrelevant ads, tapping the gushing sewer pipe of Internet advertising.

I eventually decided not to write the post, for a variety of reasons. But this is a good occasion for another one of my occasional strolls around the Internet media landscape. It looks polluted. We’re having a quality crisis.

This morning, I learned that The Huffington Post—the fast-growing political news site—copied the headline and two sentences from one of my recent stories and re-published them on a new page. Flattering. Huffington correctly attributed the story and linked back (to one of my company’s partner sites), which is considered fair dealing on the Internet. But it still reeks of laziness. Why not at least have a blogger write a new top for the facts I dug up? Doesn’t The Huffington Post have it’s own voice and point of view? Can’t some editor muster even smidge of human personality? Or is the site engineered by robots?

We know Google is. Which brings me to another interesting thing that happened today. Google released a very upbeat earnings report. Given the sad condition of everybody else in advertising right now, Google is kicking butt. Their business depends on getting Internet users to click on as much stuff as possible, and wrapping contextual ads around that stuff.

The result of Google’s success, as we know, has been a disaster for the news media. Not just from an economic standpoint, but from a quality standpoint. CNET founder Shelby Bonnie summed it up nicely in a TechCrunch article called “Let’s Kill The CPM”, writing: “At some point, publishers decide that if all clients care about is impressions, then OK, we’ll give them impressions. The output is an industry that overproduces shallow, superficial, commoditized impressions.”

SEO works, and the bad guys use it. Bad sites—Objectively bad! Virus-infected! Racist!—are stinking up Google’s search results. Any writer who posts original reporting online risks having it ripped off by someone more slavishly devoted to search algorithms. These problems aren’t exactly new, but we’ve grown spoiled lately. For years, Google has been superb at separating quality sites from bad ones. But the bad old days seem to be coming back. In the arms race between quality and gimmickry, quality is losing.

Of course, anyone can play this game of SEO witchcraft. But most of us “content creators” would rather devote our energy to creating content. We’d rather write good stories than tinker with scripts that automatically build topic pages. Google is not my boss, and I don’t answer to it.

But to some people, Google is God. And when you worship Google, it rewards you. Google worshipers, whatever their ideological or business motivations, are now controlling the media diet consumed by millions of people.

It’s finally happened. Google is being evil.