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PRWeb, the Not-Google-ICOA story and the Importance of Discrimination

· November 27, 2012

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As a quick summary for those who missed yesterday’s niche scandal: PRWeb — a subscription service owned by the PR firm Vocus that distributes “legitimate” press releases on the Internet — distributed a fake news release stating that Google was acquiring the small Rhode Island WiFi provider ICOA for $400 million.  As it turns out, Google was not interested in acquiring the company for approximately 400 times what it is worth.  Most likely this was a 21st Century take on the old “pump and dump” scheme.

Unfortunately, and not for the first time, PRWeb and online news aggregators (not to mention the blogs and newspapers who inaccurately reported on the story without doing the requisite fact checking), indexed and distributed the story as if it were a real press release.  (Note: It is unclear if news aggregators actually ran the PRWeb story itself, or ran the “injected” stories, where companies pay PRWeb to have its newspaper affiliates run the press release under their name.  (This, in turn, caused a flurry of actual news reports and blog posts reporting the story as if it were real… causing ICOA stock to jump.)

As Danny Sullivan illustrated in Search Engine Land, there are significant problems with the entire PRWeb-news aggregator-newspaper/blog ecosystem — Google News, Yahoo News, Bing News and several major newspapers (who are PRWeb distributors) all ran dubious press releases distributed by PRWeb on other topics.   And the history of the commercial Internet, like every other medium, has been characterized by a constant struggle against those seeking to game web resources for their own personal gain (or that of their clients) and the employees (or volunteers) of internet information tools seeking to keep their information “genuine” — the usefulness of their platforms to users is directly tied to preventing their products from being systemically gamed.

In this vein, the New York Times recently highlighted the efforts of Yelp and TripAdvisor to combat fake reviews.  Because it is virtually impossible to tell with certainty whether a review is fake, these platforms use a variety of algorithms (and sometimes human review) to make subjective judgments over the perceived authenticity of a review.  As the Times article notes:

Yelp has more than 30 million reviews. For every five new notices that are submitted, one is determined by internal filters to be so dubious — either highly favorable or highly critical — that it is banned to a secondary page, which few users bother with, instead of appearing on the business’s profile page. Many of the reviews tagged as fake are written by people new to Yelp.

The search industry has a long history of fighting back against a cottage industry (or just motivated pranksters) focused on gaming search rankings.  (Notably in 2007, Google changed its PageRank algorithm to make such practices more difficult. The company also reserves the right to alter rankings manually — although this is a last resort because it does not scale well.)  Although legitimate Search Engine Optimization and web marketing companies have flourished as of late (they focus on actually improving the quality of websites or connecting with customers via online platforms, instead of just tricking the search engines or review sites into think they are better than they are), scam artists still abound.  That is precisely why sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor aggressively work to prevent non-authentic reviews from polluting their results.  In fact, Yelp has gone so far as to conduct its own sting investigation.  (And Google hasn’t stopped updating its search algorithm either.)

What this recent PRWeb snafu highlights is that Google and other information resources are not perfect and still have work to do on improving the quality of their results.  If Google News and other news aggregators continue to aggressively weed out suspicious or spammy content in the wake of this mistake, they will necessarily have to build more discrimination into their algorithms and possibly even subject some targeted news “stories” to human review (say, if the word “Viagra” is in the title).  However, this is the very type of quality-improving activity that could expose Google to antitrust review, as the proposed solution would require the company “to use an objective, non-discriminatory mechanism to rank and display all search results.”  (Leaving aside the fact that the whole notion of an “objective search engine” is ludicrous.)

Circling back around, many of the most successful web companies — and numerous new startups — aim to give users better information.  Whether that information is movie reviews, travel search, location-based information, or social search, the market for “answers” is vibrant.  As the amount of data available online grows exponentially, the “secret sauce” for successful companies in this space is to build better tools to discriminate more effectively and to better separate the signal from the noise in order to give users what they are looking for.  Given that one of the metrics users seemingly want from a news aggregation site is to not get fake news, these sites clearly have some work to do.  In this case, a little more discrimination would go a long way.  Whether this means filtering algorithmically or penalizing tools like PRWeb and/or their affiliates for distributing untrustworthy content (or both), Google, Yahoo and Microsoft will likely compete aggressively going forward over who can best deliver the most trustworthy news aggregation tool.  If they don’t, don’t be surprised to see some plucky competitors rise up to fill the void.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.