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What Do 12 Million Google Searches Find? A Bias Against Local, Say Researchers.

Google’s search algorithms may be masterful at finding all sorts of things online, but when it comes to news it rarely steers users to local media. That is the conclusion of a new study done by a trio of journalism researchers who analyzed the results of 12.29 million responses to Google news searches within every U.S. county for a set of keywords. They also compared the number of local outlets reported in the results against the number of national outlets.

“We find that, unless consumers are searching specifically for topics of local interest, national outlets dominate search results. Features correlated with local supply and demand, such as the number of local outlets and demographics associated with local news consumption, are not related to the likelihood of finding a local news outlet,” the report concludes. “Our findings imply that platforms may be diverting web traffic and desperately needed advertising dollars away from local news.”

The study – published in Nature Human Behaviour – seems to back the argument made by local news outlets that digital platforms direct attention to some news outlets and not others. The result, they say, is it makes it even harder for local outlets to compete with digital media for readers and advertising revenue.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, the authors explained they searched a variety of key words including locally focused topics like “mayor” and “school board” and those more national in scope, such as “president” and “shutdown.” To gauge local results, they changed the browser settings in their computer to reflect each county across America.

After 96,000 searches and results from nearly nine thousand publications, the team said highly local searches did direct to local news outlets. But Google placed “far more” national outlets near the top of the search results even for local queries. With most people not going beyond the first page of search results, it overwhelmingly favored national media.

“Google News’s top pick was a national outlet almost 74% of the time,” they said. The researchers also said their analysis found that the number of local news outlets available in a community also had no impact on the results. “You have the same chance of seeing a local outlet in your Google News search results if you live somewhere with no local news outlets, as is true in many rural communities, or somewhere overflowing with local news, as in major metropolitan areas,” they wrote in the op-ed.

Changing Tone In Washington

The competitive forces at work have already captured the attention of members of Congress where, during the past several years, there has been a marked shift in tone toward tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

In comments filed in September by the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group told a House Judiciary Subcommittee that the dominant marketplace power of a handful of digital technology platforms puts local broadcast radio and television stations at a competitive disadvantage for advertising revenue and impedes broadcasters’ ability to effectively monetize their own content online.

“Radio and TV stations from across the country have recounted losing multitudes of local advertisers across all industry sectors, and large percentages of their ad dollars, to digital platforms, including Google, YouTube and Facebook,” said NAB President Gordon Smith. “The massive shift in advertising to other platforms has profoundly affected local broadcasters. Stations in mid-sized and small markets with limited economic bases have been disproportionately impacted because any significant loss of revenue has an outsized effect on their ability to pay the largely fixed costs required to operate and to produce or acquire news and other programming.”

While the NAB’s comments detail the challenges faced by broadcasters, it stopped short of making any recommendations for what actions could be taken by Congress. But Smith expressed support for a proposal that would allow broadcasters and other news publishers to collectively negotiate with dominant digital platforms regarding the terms on which their content may be distributed online. He said the digital companies have essentially become the “gatekeepers” for content providers, including radio stations that need to reach online audiences.

“These digital giants have clear incentives to keep consumers engaged with their own platforms, content and apps, and no effective incentives to adopt policies and practices that promote the providers of other content, including local news,” said Smith.

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