March 20, 2006 3:36 PM PST

Google News dumps partner after prank item appears

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Google's news service has cut ties with a press release aggregator after the partnership led Google News to link to a fake item written by a teenager who said he'd been hired by the search giant.

On March 10, Thomas Vendetta, a sophomore at Pitman High School in New Jersey, posted a fake press release to I-Newswire.com, a Web site that lets people submit press releases for distribution to online sites. The release said Vendetta had been hired by Google to work on fixing a security flaw in Gmail.

"The student will receive a lowered salary, which will be placed into a bank account for future education, said Google CEO Larry Page," the release read, according to the SEO Blog, which posted an excerpt from it.

Google News picked up the item from I-Newswire that same day, and two days later news aggregator site Digg.com also linked to the item, Vendetta told CNET News.com. All three news sites moved quickly to remove the item from their pages.

And last Tuesday, I-Newswire quickly yanked from its site a release that falsely reported that actor Will Ferrell was killed in a paragliding accident. It was unknown who was responsible for that item, which also appeared on Google News, according to a screenshot posted on media watchdog Web site Regrettheerror.com.

Vendetta said in a telephone interview Friday that he got the idea from blogger Richard Wiggins, who detailed in his blog on March 9 how he and two others were able to get personal "press releases" onto Google News. Wiggins said he wrote about a trip he took to Key West, Fla., and a friend wrote a "press release" wishing the Michigan State Spartans luck in an upcoming basketball tournament. The Spartans release went up on Google News within an hour.

Vendetta said he was just trying to see what kind of results he would get. "I never really meant to make (Google) look like they were putting up fake news," he said. "I don't think it affected their credibility that much."

In his personal blog, Vendetta apologizes and says that when he saw that his fake item had been picked up by Google News and Digg.com: "At that moment, I felt my stomach knot up and my heart drop."

"Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am the biggest Google fan-boy ever. I mean hell, I even dressed up as (Google co-founder) Larry Page...for Halloween," a contrite Vendetta writes. "I guess all my dreams and hopes of getting a job at Google have officially been demolished."

I-Newswire owner Eric Borgos said Monday that he has tightened the submissions process, requiring users to register before posting items and making it harder for people to post anonymously. He also said releases would be screened more carefully. "I e-mailed Google today to let them know about these changes, so hopefully they will add my site back," he wrote in an e-mail.

The ease with which fake items, or even someone's personal press release with limited news value, could end up being read by millions of Google News readers had some worried.

"I hate the idea that news releases can make it into Google News, and that any idiot (myself included), can submit one, no matter how ridiculous, ruining the integrity of one of the most popular Web sites," Nathan Weinberg wrote in a posting on his Inside Google blog.

But Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, warned against exaggerating the severity of the problem. "When you see something--wherever you found it on the Internet--you better take a look at what the source of the information is and evaluate it according to that, he said. "And if you can't find the source of information, it's probably not worth paying attention to."

The I-Newswire incidents aren't the first to cast doubt on the integrity of various free, do-it-yourself information sources online. Wiki exemplar Wikipedia saw its image tarnished twice last year when inaccurate or questionable entries came to light.

 
Correction: The Will Farrell prank item did appear on Google News.

See more CNET content tagged:
Google News, press release, Larry Page, Google Inc., blog

6 comments

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Credibility Will Become More and More Critical
As the owner of what is considered one of the more credible online newswire services (Send2Press(R)), we often point out to clients the poor value in posting content to what we refer to as "news spam" sites which allow anybody to post anything and claim they are "newswires." I've seen over 200 such sites popup in the past year, either in India, or here in the US by "online marketers" who are pushing the idea of press releases for search engine stuffing and polluting searches in news.google. It is our hope that the Google team will begin to apply their credibility patent to their news system, and begin to filter out many of these sites which are parasites and copy news from legitimate news entiries in a "look me too" mentality for getting page views. Anybody thinking of placing their "legitimate" news on these so-called "free news sites" should be very careful in whose company their content is being placed, as no legitimate media/editor will view content on such sites. If Google begins to enact some kind of stricter requirements for "news spam" blocking, we would be very supportive of this.
Posted by Neotrope (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Send2Press not news, either
It is just another press release site. Though press releases may
contain facts, they are always mainly opinion. People looking to
read actual news should rely on mainstrean media mostly.
Attempting to confuse people about the nature of press releases is
unethical.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Link Flag
As opposed to Dan Rather?
Nuff said.
Posted by MercilessUnicorn (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nothing said
Dan Rather is a fine newsman. The fact that he may have made an
occassional error during his career does not detract from his
stature, except to nitwits.
Posted by J.G. (837 comments )
Link Flag
Google News continues to post open press releases
I'm the one who discovered how easy it is to spam Google News, leading to this story. See <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://wigblog.blogspot.com/2006/03/how-to-spam-google-news.html" target="_newWindow">http://wigblog.blogspot.com/2006/03/how-to-spam-google-news.html</a> .

Google dealt with this obvious flaw by removing I-Newswire, but has failed to make a coherent statement as to how they choose news sources. In effect, Google's position is that they remove embarrassing sources from Google News when they receive enough complaints, or enough media scrutiny.

Yesterday I posted a press release via openpr.com. It was a few paragraphs of plausible content and then a bunch of text in Latin, clearly nonsense. Within hours Google News picked it up. Right now you can search for "municipal broadband" or "Richard Branson" and find my "press release" high on the hit list. You can also search for "Lorem ipsum dolor" to find my faux release.

You can still make up a faux press release, submit it, and appear on Google News -- trivially. The Google News team has not dealt with this issue seriously.

This remains a news story, until Google pays attention and takes action to ensure that Google News only uses legitimate news sources.
Posted by richwig (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
News, New Media and Citizen Journalism
Grass roots journalism has been coming of age within the blogosphere for some time. Whereas in times past, the reliability and credibility of the main stream media was rarely questioned, today we have checks and balances within the system in the form of citizen journalists.

Richard Wiggins is acting as one of these journalists. By producing false Press releases and exposing the bugs within Google's News Service, he is in effect balancing the act of news production and distribution.

Consider how many people never question what they read on the internet or who perceive the internet as a reliable information source. It should be noted that although Google News has not seriously addressed the overall issue, they did take I-newswire off their index.

The problem of credibility and transparency within the journalistic community has been existent as long as people have been reporting news.

In fact, some theories state that there is no possible way to be 100% objective about any news item or story. That there are inherent biases existent within every reporter and editor that skew a story.

Whether ABC or BBC produces a news story or I produce a news story about myself, the inherent problem of bias still exists. It is important to remember in my opinion that news needs to be considered at the end of the day; opinion.

Read and listen with some thought and don't take the source for granted. Some sources are credible and some are not. Some journalists research and verify. Some don't. That is true whether it is a Citizen journalist or a professional.
Posted by Dwight Stickler (8 comments )
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