Who needs 'frenemies' when you've got Google

It was an employee at the WPP advertising business who so succinctly categorised Google, the search engine, as a "frenemy". Nowhere is this ambiguous status more obvious than in the search engine's relationship with the newspaper business.

Google's draining of the online ad market through the organisation of other people's content infuriates the squeezed media, yet the power of the search engine to refer traffic to your website is undeniable.

But the recent announcement that Google is releasing an experiment on its US news site to allow people who are connected with news stories to comment on them is a radical and very interesting departure for the company. For a start Google famously pitches itself as a robotic enterprise that relies on algorithms rather than human selection and error for its categorisation.

The "computer says no" default position of Google will have to change in this respect. Its enormous headline-grabbing purchase of YouTube is in some ways a much less significant shift for Google than this - here the search engine is beginning to inject values and judgments into (other people's) journalism.

Its plan is to authenticate anyone who has been featured in a news story and allow them to comment on it. Effectively this means Google News becomes a repository for corporate and governmental PR that will now be able to rebut or clarify any coverage in news stories which carry the feature - those with press offices and PR companies will be the easiest to authenticate and therefore one imagines their responses will dominate the number of contributions.

For those of us in organisations that actively encourage right of reply and debate on parts of our content, we know that even in a small restricted world, the heavy lifting required to get this kind of balance right is considerable and the margins are nowhere near those Google generates with its automated tools and services that form the foundation of its business. How will it implement this system across the world's news?

So is Google really moving into the area of content creation and management? It seems unlikely as it is above all else a quoted company that worries first and foremost about its stock price - and companies that worry about their stock price are not exactly dashing to get into the content creation business, particularly around news.

If it was pulling the familiar Google trick of taking something that exists already and layering on a set of tools or services, then this would be totally consistent with everything else it is doing - aggregating all the responses to a news story published on every site around the web and displaying them, maybe, but generating and hosting them is a massive cultural migration for the company.

Above all, it makes Google political, with a small "p", in a far more overt way than has been the case so far - it is of course hugely covertly political, as owning so much data about individuals and businesses means it could not be anything else. But to pitch yourself into any part of the content management cycle requires you inevitably "take a view".

It would seem to be asking organisations and individuals to trust it to provide a service many mainstream news organisations either can't or won't. And to the chagrin of the mainstream media it might be that Google has the edge here for now; if nothing else, its experiment ought to push more media organisations into hastily sorting out their position on allowing audiences to interact with stories.

But think on this: today Google News is peppered with stories about the Chinese government cracking down on dissenting coverage ahead of the Olympics - is Google obliged to publish the Chinese government's response in relation to these stories?

Or indeed lengthy contextualising statements from extreme organisations being exposed in investigations? I hope Google has an algorithm for negotiating minefields.

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