Google's Faces Of The Stranger: The Babysitter

Is Google a technology company? A media company? An incubator?

The incubator analogy may fit best, with Google nurturing a few smash hits (the search engine with AdWords, the AdSense network), some successes that still face a crowded competitive landscape with no runaway market leader (News, Gmail, Maps), some struggling also-rans (Froogle, Checkout), and a handful of discontinued bombs (Answers, the Google Video store for TV show downloads). This doesn't include the extensive portfolio of acquisitions and investments.

With such a roster, the verb "to Google" can mean many things to those actively watching the search engine -- I mean, whatever it is you want to call it. That's why instead of exploring the company as a whole, last week and this week we're exploring three of Google's faces individually. We previously met the Banker, we'll meet the Babysitter this week, and next week we'll conclude with the Broker.



The Babysitter

A babysitter has a couple of important jobs. One is to pay attention to the needs of the children under his or her purview, and provide them with a voice when he or she sees fit.  Another is to prevent strangers from getting into the house. When Google News allowed subjects of recent stories to submit carefully screened comments, it became a media babysitter.

Google created two controversies with this one announcement. One is that it's getting into a challenging, labor-intensive business, especially for what's supposed to be a technology company. The other is that, at the time of this column's submission, it doesn't allow other search engines to spider Google News. Now that Google News will have original content, it's creating walls on the Web that work against the free flow of information.

Why would Google enter this territory? Is this what its Stanford engineers are now doing -- verifying comments? What's especially curious is that Google's version of a letters to the editor page is only for the newsmakers themselves, and these are generally people with some degree of influence. Why leave everyone else on the sidelines?

As part of this columnist's ongoing pro bono service to search engines of offering unsolicited advice, there is another way Google could do this while promoting one of its own services. It could provide a link with every roundup of news stories to a related discussion board on Google Groups. By opening up news commentary to the masses, this would be more in keeping with Google's aura -- if not its mission. Groups could be automatically created, and people would be required to use a Google account to comment. While these boards wouldn't be actively moderated, posts could be flagged and repeat offenders could have their accounts banned. With a combination of technology filters (think of how Gmail filters spam) and self-policing, even by opening this up, it could still require fewer editorial resources than Google requires to allow comments on news stories.

Whatever Google's ambitions are here, as soon as it has one fake Steve Jobs commenting as the real Steve Jobs, the program will be in jeopardy. When such a news story breaks (it always does when there's a system waiting gamed), and Google News indexes the stories on it, I wonder if it will publish a comment from someone at Google.



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