Independent Media Sites Seeing Decline in Traffic After Change in Google’s Algorithm
By Evan Popp
Following Google’s announcement in April of 2017 that it was shifting its algorithm in an attempt to combat the flow of fake news, some independent news organizations have reported a precipitous drop in traffic to their sites.
According to a New York Times report from September of this year, the change in Google’s algorithm came as a response to the influx of fake news appearing in Google search results. In a blog post about the move, Ben Gomes — vice president of search engineering at Google — wrote that the tech company had improved its “evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content” and to “demote low-quality content.”
However, despite Google’s intention to fight the spread of fake news with its algorithmic change, the shift has dramatically reduced the viewership of independent, left-wing outlets. In an article from July of 2017, the World Socialist Web Site reported that traffic to its site dipped after the change in Google’s algorithm and also pointed to reductions in the viewership of left-wing sites such as AlterNet, Counterpunch, Consortiumnews.com, Truthout and others. But despite being relegated by the new algorithm to a lower position in Google search results alongside actual fake news sites, all of these outlets are well-known in the left-wing community for doing fact-based articles.
Steven Rosenfeld, a senior fellow at AlterNet, said the website’s traffic dropped by approximately 40 percent after the change in Google’s algorithm.
Rosenfeld explained that because AlterNet — which has won awards for its journalism — does analysis and opinion pieces from a left-wing perspective rather than unbiased reporting, the site has been downgraded by Google’s new algorithm along with sites that actually spread fake news.
“Google has tried to create these algorithms to grade content and the bottom line is it’s demoting independent, alternative voices,” Rosenfeld said.
Google did not respond to a request for comment on how the shift in its algorithm has impacted independent news sites.
But Rosenfeld said the drop in traffic caused by the change in Google’s algorithm is a significant problem for AlterNet because the site relies on page views to generate advertising revenue. With a smaller audience coming to the site, Rosenfeld said there will be fewer financial resources available for AlterNet to use.
However, in addition to AlterNet and other left-wing news sites, Rosenfeld said right-wing, alternative media outlets have also seen a reduction in viewership due to the change in Google’s algorithm.
Conservative sites have taken notice. Multiple right-wing outlets, such as the Blaze and the Daily Caller, published articles about Google’s supposed bias toward left-wing sites over right-wing outlets. Neither the Blaze nor the Daily Caller responded to a request for comment about how Google’s attitude toward right-wing, independent news sources and the change to its algorithm have impacted these sites.
However, Rosenfeld said many of the conservative sites affected by the algorithm change do a propagandistic style of journalism. He said this stands in contrast to the largely fact-based reporting published by most of the outlets on the left that are losing traffic due to the change in Google’s algorithm. As a result, Rosenfeld said the filtering out of some right-wing sites is more in line with Google’s goal of fighting fake news and low-quality content than the filtering out of left-wing sites.
Robert Parry — editor of the left-leaning, investigative journalism site Consortiumnews.com, which also saw a drop in traffic after the change in Google’s algorithm — said the new algorithm will lead to fewer media voices reaching the public.
Parry said since alternative media content is being demoted by Google’s new algorithm, the public is more likely to consume news solely from a mainstream media point of view and less likely to see news from alternative sources.
“Just because we don’t march in lockstep with The New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, it doesn’t mean that we, or other organizations like ours, should be punished and somehow downgraded so that people have a hard time finding our content,” Parry said. “That seems to be the way Google has decided to go.”
Parry said holding the mainstream media up as the gold standard of journalism isn’t accurate, as traditional news outlets don’t always get the story right. He pointed out that the mainstream media largely went along with the invasion of Iraq even though it was later shown that the war was conducted under false pretenses.
While Parry acknowledged that fake news is an issue and that tech companies like Google should be involved in fighting misleading information, he said in this case Google has gone too far.
“While it is true that there are conspiracy news sites and other places that do terrible work … the idea of the cure being worse than the disease may be true here,” he said.
Jeff Cohen, founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, agreed that Google’s change in its algorithm is problematic. He said Google’s marginalization of content outside of the mainstream media could lead to fewer instances of journalists challenging those in power.
“What independent journalists have done throughout history is question official wisdom,” Cohen said. “And those who question official wisdom and New York Times wisdom could be, by some algorithm, deemed fake news. So it’s very dangerous.”
Cohen said the influence Google’s algorithm has in determining what information the public sees is the reason the tech giant needs to be more heavily monitored.
“Google has got huge power,” he said. “And when you had the power of what used to be considered public utilities, you had to be regulated. Google has to be watched by democratic forces and commissions and not left to its own devices.”
However, Rosenfeld doesn’t believe there’s an easy solution to the problems that Google’s change in its algorithm have caused for independent media sites. He said AlterNet has had difficulty reaching anyone at Google to talk about the impact of the new algorithm.
Parry agreed, saying he doesn’t hold much hope that Google will be receptive to complaints by independent sites because the tech-giant has been heavily influenced by those demanding it do more to fight fake news.
“Google has been under a lot of pressure from Congress and from government agencies in general on this,” he said. “So I think they have been somewhat coerced into moving in this direction.”
Overall, Parry said that while Google’s intention to fight fake news may be virtuous, allowing such a powerful corporation to be the arbiter of what is real and what is fake gives the tech giant far too much power.
“To simply have some Google coalition deciding what’s true and what’s not is a recipe for a much worse situation,” he said. “It’s something that borders on Orwellian.”