Google Ghosts of Christmas Past: When Old News Reappears As New News

By Bob Roseth,
University of Washington

One of my favorite Web sites is Google News (www.news.google.com). Google provides a rich site for breaking news and allows me to customize e-mail alerts that are sent to me when keywords that I have selected appear in a major news story. But you can imagine my surprise when the first item in my recent Google News alert was from a release my office had issued back in 1999. A long list of other "news" items followed, from those golden days of yesteryear, 1997 through 2003.

I went to talk with our Web programmer, who is responsible for the design of our Web site (www.uwnews.org) and the creation of our content management system. "So why would Google News be running our old news releases?" I asked.

He scratched his head and grinned. "I have no idea. If you find out, please let me know."

The next day, I discovered that lots of people read Google News. Even more important, a lot of people have their own alerts, and they use the information from those alerts to spread news to their colleagues across the country and around the world. The calls and e-mails started coming to our office in a steady stream. "How come no one invited us to the conference that you're having?" (The conference was held in 2002.) "We'd like to reprint your news release on adoptive families." (Well, OK, but the release is from 1997 and both the source and the person who wrote the release are no longer here.) "That information you released about killer whales is out of date and very damaging to our whale-watching business. Don't you know that since you wrote that release the whale population has rebounded?" (We do know, but we didn't actually reissue the five-year-old release.) "Don't you think it's in poor taste to issue a news release about a researcher who has been dead for five years?" (As a matter of fact, we do.) It was going to be a long day.

With the help of our Web department, we were able to put a disclaimer at the top of all releases on our site, urging people to look at the date of the release and alluding to the Google News problem. But I knew we had to get to the root of the problem and see if Google could halt the proliferation of old news. I asked our Web guy if he knew how to get a real, live Google person on the phone. He laughed. "I'll buy you lunch if you get to talk to a real Google person."

Based on my previous experience trying to get technical support, I figured he'd leave work that day with the lunch money still in his pocket. I called a few numbers from the Google site and in each case was sent into voice mail. Finally, I left the message that, if we didn't hear back soon, we would be obligated to issue a news release outlining Google's gaffe. Sonja from the Google PR staff called back within about 10 minutes, and by the end of the day I received an e-mail from an engineer, identifying precisely what they think had gone wrong:

People searching our news site can look for all news chronologically, or they can look for a subset of the news by topic, also stored chronologically. The Google "spider" crawled not just our main news page but also some of the subsidiary news pages, apparently without sensing the correct creation date of each news release.

Mark Twain said, "A lie can go halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on." Similarly, in this age of instant communication, our old news had gone around the world several times before we realized what was up. But things had finally returned to status quo ante.

What did I learn from this?

First, take any reference about your institution that appears on the Internet very seriously. A small blaze can quickly become a conflagration.

Second, be persistent in trying to get misinformation corrected. You may have to break through bureaucracy and even make mild threats, just to get the appropriate people to respond.

Third, move quickly with your own tools to squelch rumors and correct misstatements. And finally, recognize that some aggregators are probably going to get it wrong at some point. Your job is to be vigilant, identify the problems quickly, and move swiftly to minimize them.

Oddly, a handful of folks benefited from the anomaly. Some news is never old. We had several calls from people responding to one of the news releases from 1998, saying that they were interested in participating in a research project described in the release. We checked with the faculty member in charge of the research: She was still recruiting participants! A colleague of mine summed it up aptly, "There¹s no news like old news!"

Bob Roseth is director of News and Information at the University of Washington. His office Web site, www.uwnews.org , is a participant in Google News.

[Editor¹s end note: We at CT also got caught up in the problem of the outdated releases found via Google News, and errantly ran one of the items in the December 8, 2005 IT Trends e-newsletter, announcing that the University of Washington had received a new Educause award. Way out here in California, we could hear all the head-scratching coming from Boulder, Colorado. It wasn¹t long before Educause staff e-mailed and very gently asked why we were running the five-year-old story. UW¹s Bob Roseth followed up to shed light on the situation and helped us correct our error.]

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