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March 8, 2004

Google edits the Internet

Posted 5027 days ago on March 8, 2004

I've just posted a piece on the coming disappearance of the CD. My web site pages (like many others) include ads from Google through the Adsense scheme. What happens is that Google attempts to work out what the page is about by analysing its content, and then delivers relevant ads. So far so good - I like Adsense because it is unobtrusive and usually works well.

Google can't guarantee to supply relevant ads, so there is a fall-back mechanism whereby it will deliver charity ads if there are no paying advertisers available. That's fair enough, and there is also a way of intercepting the charity ads so as to insert your own advertisements if you prefer. However, I was a little surprised to find my farewell to the CD generating only charity ads, since I figured there would be plenty of ads for the things discussed - MP3 devices, home theatre PCs, CDs, SACDs and the like.

It turns out that I may have fallen foul of a little-publicised Adsense feature. In the early days of Adsense, there were apparently some unfortunate cases where inappropriate ads were displayed alongside news stories recording tragic deaths. An example was ads for CD burners alongside a story about children dying in a house fire. So now, if Google gets a sniff of death or bereavement, Adsense only delivers charity stuff.

In my case, the deceased is only a silver disk, and I fully expect feedback proclaiming that it is actually alive and well, so there's no need to be unduly sensitive. I'm fascinated though by the implications. If I am determined to get good Adsense results, I have to go back and edit my words to take out the things that might be triggering the Google filter. In other words, Google is acting as a kind of robot editor. Of course, this is just another form of a well-known phenomenon, which is writing web pages specifically to attract high rankings in search engines.

On a journalist's site, this sort of pressure must surely be resisted. Independence and the freedom to say what you want to say are more important. Fortunately, I run this particular site and I don't have an advertising sales manager twisting my arm. But it makes you wonder - how much of what we read on the Web is influenced by Google's search and advertising algorithms?

PS - A while after I posted this blog, the mysterious Google decided it could deliver ads to this page after all. What can I say ... but the thought is valid, so I'm leaving this post on the record.

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