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Google's battle against sponsored content: Heavy-handed, or long overdue?
The internet search giant tells publishers to keep marketing messages masquerading as journalism off of Google News
 
Advertiser-paid content is sneaking into your top story search.
Advertiser-paid content is sneaking into your top story search. Screen shot

Google is fighting to rid Google News of sponsored content, articles paid for and/or created by advertisers that look like traditional editorial content, but come laced with a marketing message. The search giant has warned publishers recently to keep these articles — also referred to as branded content or native advertising — out of Google News, saying it's "not a marketing service." And Google has reason to keep its eyes peeled: Sponsored content is growing increasingly popular, as web publishers search for new ways to bring in revenue. Spending on it rose by 56 percent in 2011, and by another 39 percent in 2012.

Branded content is "one of the most promising lifelines for beleaguered publishers," says Jeff Bercovici at Forbes. Google shouldn't just yank it away. Publishers already have enough to worry about trying to stay afloat in a struggling industry. Instead, the company should let Google News users vote with their clicks, deciding which bits of paid content are legit, and which aren't.

To be sure, readers go to Google News for information, not to be marketed at. But at a time when digital publishing experiments are happening at every point on the spectrum from pure editorial to pure commerce, there's something unsettling about the idea of a single massively powerful entity appointing itself the arbiter of what is and isn't news...

Consider, for instance, the burgeoning phenomenon of sports teams that employ their own beat reporters to cover them, often with a high degree of independence. Google News treats [those reporters'] work as news. But how different is that practice, really, from the growing number of companies in other industries that employ writers to generate content about their products and push that content out through their websites, social media channels and other publishing platforms? [Forbes]

Wow, you'd expect "journalists who take their job seriously" to give Google a round of applause, says Andrew Leonard at Salon. Instead, Bercovici "muddies the waters" with his reference to sports-team-employed beat reporters, while failing to mention that their work is usually published in outlets owned by their teams, not "infiltrated into ESPN or The New York Times or Salon and represented as something that they are not." Besides, the fact that such a muddy area exists "doesn't mean we should open the floodgates wide open so that every last drop of bulls--t rolls right through unabated."

Bercovici finishes his piece with a question: "If Google News users think some sponsored content is news, who is Google to say otherwise?" For a media reporter, that's simply stunning. Sponsored content is a scam, an attempt to fool people, an effort to profit off of publisher desperation. Bercovici is saying that if advertisers are successful in duping readers, Google shouldn't blink an eye. [Salon]

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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