Google’s Faces of the Stranger: The Babysitter

It’s a sporadic posting week; yesterday I was in Kansas City, MO for a few hours before heading to DC. This column continues last week’s series about Google’s Faces of the Stranger (the reference being to Billy Joel, not Camus).

As always, it’s originally published on MediaPost, and there’s more in the extended entry. I feel like I need a better sign off phrase. Is "good night and good luck" taken?

David

Google’s Faces of the Stranger: The Babysitter

Is Google a technology company? A media company? An incubator?

The incubator analogy may fit best, with Google nurturing a few
smash hits (the search engine with AdWords, the AdSense network), some
successes that still face a crowded competitive landscape with no
runaway market leader (News, Gmail, Maps), some struggling also-rans
(Froogle, Checkout), and a handful of discontinued bombs (Answers, the
Google Video store for TV show downloads). This doesn’t include the
extensive portfolio of acquisitions and investments.

With such a roster, the verb "to Google" can mean many things to
those actively watching the search engine — I mean, whatever it is you
want to call it. That’s why instead of exploring the company as a
whole, last week
and this week we’re exploring three of Google’s faces individually. We
previously met the Banker, we’ll meet the Babysitter this week, and
next week we’ll conclude with the Broker.

The Babysitter

A babysitter has a couple of important jobs. One is to pay attention
to the needs of the children under his or her purview, and provide them
with a voice when he or she sees fit.  Another is to prevent strangers
from getting into the house. When Google News allowed subjects of
recent stories to submit carefully screened comments, it became a media
babysitter.

Google created two controversies with this one announcement. One is
that it’s getting into a challenging, labor-intensive business,
especially for what’s supposed to be a technology company. The other is
that, at the time of this column’s submission, it doesn’t allow other
search engines to spider Google News. Now that Google News will have
original content, it’s creating walls on the Web that work against the
free flow of information.

Why would Google enter this territory? Is this what its Stanford
engineers are now doing — verifying comments? What’s especially curious
is that Google’s version of a letters to the editor page is only for
the newsmakers themselves, and these are generally people with some
degree of influence. Why leave everyone else on the sidelines?

As part of this columnist’s ongoing pro bono service to search
engines of offering unsolicited advice, there is another way Google
could do this while promoting one of its own services. It could provide
a link with every roundup of news stories to a related discussion board
on Google Groups. By opening up news commentary to the masses, this
would be more in keeping with Google’s aura — if not its mission.
Groups could be automatically created, and people would be required to
use a Google account to comment. While these boards wouldn’t be
actively moderated, posts could be flagged and repeat offenders could
have their accounts banned. With a combination of technology filters
(think of how Gmail filters spam) and self-policing, even by opening
this up, it could still require fewer editorial resources than Google
requires to allow comments on news stories.

Whatever Google’s ambitions are here, as soon as it has one fake
Steve Jobs commenting as the real Steve Jobs, the program will be in
jeopardy. When such a news story breaks (it always does when there’s a
system waiting gamed), and Google News indexes the stories on it, I
wonder if it will publish a comment from someone at Google.