Google to publishers: We’ll take your data

Earlier this week, Google announced a pilot program to make data more discoverable in search. Billed as a way to increase the exposure of data journalism, the feature allows tables to appear directly in search results:

By structuring their data in a more machine-friendly way, publishers get to play a part in making search results more useful. However, Google may benefit from this change at the expense of the news organizations it’s partnering with.

Google wants to answer questions itself, rather than sending you someplace else. It’s been doing this with “featured snippets,” cards that appear at the top of search results with information like what date Mother’s Day falls on, how many ounces are in a pound and other pieces of information that don’t have an authoritative source. However, the search engine has run into trouble with conspiracy theories, as The Outline reported: Featured snippets have claimed that five U.S. presidents were in the KKK and that Obama was the king of America, along with many other examples of dubious results. With the fallout the company faced from these cases, it’s no wonder they’re eager to hand the responsibility of gathering and structuring data off to journalists. For now, the pilot program only affects tabular data. But this sort of initiative could expand to include all sorts of information that Google wants to extract more efficiently.

More useful, more accurate search results are obviously good for Google’s users and good for business. But this technique has the potential to hurt the publishers providing all this data. Websites make their money from traffic, something Google takes away when it extracts the most valuable bits of information onto its own site. Consider the case of CelebrityNetWorth, also reported by The Outline, which cut half its staff after Google started pulling its data into featured snippets. The site got no compensation, and often no credit, for the valuable data it provided to the search giant. For some news organizations, especially nonprofits, the chance for increased exposure is a no brainer. But for many, lost advertising or subscription revenue should be cause for concern.

The data contained in news stories has value, something Google recognizes but is disinclined to pay for. Publishers deserve more than free exposure for sharing their work in search results.

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