Forget Facebook's Fake News Problem, Google's Rich Snippets Are The Fourth Estate's Real Problem

By Jon Porter on at

Whatever your feelings on the upcoming 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump’s election win has generated an unprecedented amount of soul-searching and analysis, as the Western world seeks desperately to try and understand how he was able to transform his fringe candidacy into one of the most powerful populist movements of the 21st century.

But while much of the discussion centres around Facebook, its increasing role as a supplier of news, and the consequent issues surrounding its fake news infestation, a far more dangerous development is brewing in online journalism; and it’s one that has the potential to completely upend an industry that’s already just scraping by.

The development in question is Google’s ‘Rich Snippets’, which are poised to become a much more essential part of how we consume information as Google’s focus on artificial intelligence grows.

The evil you know

You’ve probably been seeing and using rich snippets for some time now. Ask Google how old Tom Cruise is, and Google is intelligent enough to pull that information out of Wikipedia and display it at the top of the search results, switching to other websites where appropriate.

For a web user this is a fantastic piece of technology. Rather than having to click through multiple websites to find the correct information, rich snippets provide you with everything you need upfront. It’s faster, and it’s neater. Everybody wins right?

Except as soon as Google is providing you with this information natively, you no longer have any need to visit the site itself, and the rich snippet has, in effect, deprived its source website of valuable clicks.

That doesn’t matter with a site run on donations like Wikipedia, but for a website that derives all or part of its revenue from advertising, then a drop in page views can be pretty devastating to its bottom line.

A challenging environment

It should come as a surprise to precisely no one that journalism is in a difficult spot right now.

The Guardian, Daily Mail, and Telegraph have all seen large layoffs in 2016, and it’s not just the old media giants that are hurting, hip upstart Vice has also been hit.

It’s not hard to see why. The rise of the internet has meant that we have more access to news than ever before, but as online content has cannibalized print sales, the revenue made from online advertising hasn’t quite made up the difference.

John Oliver put the situation best when he said that, “Between 2004 and 2014, Newspapers gained two billion dollars in online ad revenue. Unfortunately in that same period, they lost thirty billion dollars in print revenues. That’s like finding a lucky penny on the sidewalk, on the same day your bank account is drained by a sixteen year old Belgian hacker.”

Ah what the hell, here’s the full John Oliver clip for context.

But what the hell does any of this have to do with rich snippets? In essence, it’s all about which bits of journalism they pose the biggest threat to.

Investigative journalism is already one of the least profitable forms of content. You need highly skilled staff, working a story for weeks at a time (often without knowing whether it’ll amount to anything), and when it comes time to publish it can be very difficult to make it as sexy as, say, a relatively inconsequential bit of celebrity gossip.

As if investigative journalism didn’t have it bad enough already, rich snippets have the potential to destroy its profitability even further, by pulling out these pieces of information and providing them to users without them even having to visit a website.

At the moment Google’s rich snippets aren’t all that intelligent, and are mainly focussed around dates and numbers. Ask Google how old a celebrity is, or for the release date of a movie, and the search engine will normally be pretty good at pulling the info from the relevant page.

But as initiatives such as Google’s Voice Assistant gather pace, it’s increasingly clear that Google’s interest is in providing information to people directly, rather than acting as a middleman to allow them to find it on an external website.

Rich snippets are only going to get more intelligent as time goes on, and if we’re not careful they might end up almost completely removing the need for anyone to ever visit a website that’s not Google.

A popular opinion

Except, we don’t just visit news sites for raw information, we also visit them for their wealth of opinion content, where educated journalists stitch together pieces of news in an attempt to describe and understand what it all means through a narrative.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with opinion pieces. They help to turn a seemingly random series of facts into a narrative string, and allow us to make sense of a world that can seem random and disjointed at the best of times.

But an over-reliance on opinion pieces contributes to this dangerous series of echo chambers that our media is slowly becoming.

Spend too long exclusively reading right-wing opinion pieces and it starts to become difficult to speak to someone, or to find any sort of middle ground with someone, on the left. The same is true of leftward-leaning pieces. Both are at massive risk of preaching to the choir, and increasingly they don’t need to win anyone over because anyone reading is already in agreement.

A key pillar of journalism

Investigative journalism is so very important because it has the enormous potential to act as a bridge between people of different ideologies, because when armed with solid facts you can talk to, and understand, just about anyone.

No journalism is devoid of political bias, but at least with fact-based reporting you will always have a solid core of facts and evidence to use as a basis for common understanding.

But it’s exactly these facts that Google is increasingly getting so good at stripping out of websites and displaying directly, and with its continued focus on artificial intelligence and providing information to its users through voice search, these snippets are only going to grow in importance.

If Google succeeds in its goal to provide as much information as possible directly, then there’s no profit incentive at all for reporters to chase these already time-intensive facts and evidence down directly.

Google eventually be able to just skim off its layer of information, profiting off of the hard work of others without offering the search traffic that it does today.

Eventually the only form of remotely profitable journalism left will be opinion pieces, which, if we’re not careful, have the potential to divide more so than they inform.

We might be entering a post-fact society as it is, but that’s nothing compared to what might happen if we lose our media’s bedrock of investigative reporting.