If a story is linked from Google News, it's from some kind of journalistic outfit, right? Not necessarily. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the Central Basin Water District, a public agency that imports water to southeast LA, paid $200,000 in taxpayer money for "glowing coverage" on a site indexed by Google News.
In other words, the district filtered its propaganda through Google News to make it appear as if it was generated by an independent entity.
The Times notes that although it's "fairly common" to hear of celebrities and private business trying to game Google results to improve their reputations, it was much more unusual if not altogether new for a public agency to take such a step. Moreover, the newspaper reports that the water agency was quite pleased with the results:
District officials have portrayed the arrangement as innovative, noting that people who type "water conservation," or "recycled water" on Google News are now more likely to find stories about Central Basin.
Valerie Howard, the district's public affairs manager, said the news stories have resulted in a "huge spike" in traffic to Central Basin's main website and proved far more effective than traditional press releases.
The Internet presents an unprecedented opportunity for people to keep an eye on their governments, local and federal. But that opportunity is only as good as the tools people have at their disposal. If Google News opens up a hole in the wall between news and government PR, governments are going to try to worm through. And that's just was the Central Basin did.
One final, interesting element to this story is that in the end, the districts's gambit didn't work. Because of the reporting of Sam Allen at the Los Angeles Times, if you look in Google News for Central Basin Water District, all of the top stories are about its now-public efforts to manipulate its Google News results. A more fitting punishment would have been hard to devise.
But just because Central Basin got its just desserts doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern. The worrisome thing is not what Central Basin did, but the unknown question of how many other local governments have done this in a place without a paper like the LA Times.
UPDATE Sept. 14, 7:44 AM: Google has responded to this incident by removing the site that provided the positive coverage from its News index for violation of the company's guidelines, a Google spokesperson said in an email.