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Monday, March 13th, 2006

Google News Credibility Foiled By 15-Year Old

 

Sometimes the most well thought out practical jokes trigger an uneven brand of justice that falls under the laws of unintended consequences. While not formally codified and ill defined, the law of unintended consequences is very real, as a Google-focused prank pulled by 15-year old Tom Vandetta amply illustrates.

Reading through SEO focused blog entries, Vandetta found an article that explained how to fool Google’s news system by writing fake press releases. Sensing an opportunity to experiment and play a joke on his friends, the self-described “Google fanboy” decided to see what would happen if he submitted a fake Google press release claiming the 15-year old New Jersey student was Google’s youngest employee.

The press release was issued through the free service I-Newswire and contained a number of spelling mistakes. Short and to the point, the release, which appeared to have been sent by a Google spokesperson Sonya Johnson (who’s actually existence is unconfirmed and is assumed to be imaginary), read:

“(I-Newswire) – 15 year old student, Tom Vendetta has been hired by search engine giant Google Inc. The student will receive a lowered salary, which will be placed into a bank account for future education, said Google CEO Larry Page. When asked what role Vendetta will play at the Tech Giant’s offices, Page said he wouldnt have a role at the Main Offices. Instead he would work from his home in the New Jersey suburbs. Vendetta will be incharge of working with recent security flaw’s in Google’s beta e-mail service, “Gmail”. Google said they first found out about him when they discovered the student’s blog, at http://tomvendetta.be. The media giant said they looked forward to working with Vendetta’s expertise in JavaScript and AJAX.”

A few hours after posting the fake press release, Vandetta logged into the news search tool Digg after receiving an automated email from MAKEBot (Digg’s Spider), to find his practical joke had become a credible international tech story. Google was even displaying reference to the press release in Google News and at in the news results placed above search results relating to Google employment or hiring. According to his confessional blog posting, “At that moment, I felt my stomach knot up and my heart drop. I knew exactly what happened and knew that I would end up regretting posting that.”

The prank has made Vandetta temporarily famous. His Gmail account received almost 400 emails in the first few hours. Vandetta has since had to open new Gmail and MySpace accounts. His parents are changing their phone number and he is working to re-establish a workable online identity. On the brighter side, he has received a few emails from Google employees assuring him he has not dashed his dreams of one day working for Google, as he thought he might have.

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While the prank was a juvenile as it was creative, Vandetta’s fake press release has exposed a credibility problem for Google and might introduce new costs for search marketing firms that use legitimate press releases as a means of promotion. His experiment exposed the fact the automated system that is Google News does not verify press releases before publishing them as factual news pieces.

Google engineers are almost certainly working overtime to institute stronger spam filters and shore up the credibility of the Google News system, as they have over the years when SEOs have exposed exploitable characteristics of the organic ranking algorithm.

SEOs who use press release submission services should expect to have to submit a lot more identifying information about themselves and their clients. Requiring information such as phone numbers, addresses, contact names and positions that can be verified by electronic spiders are the most likely filtering options being discussed by Google’s tech-team.

Another filter might be the disempowering or “delisting” of free-for-use press release services such as I-Newswire.com. This measure would present a hindrance to smaller companies and SEO firms, most of which use press releases properly. By raising the cost of communication, Google risks pushing many smaller entities away from an important arena. SEOs are rarely happy to present extra costs to their clients, many of which are small businesses using search advertising to even the playing field against much larger competitors.

Whatever the outcome, Google has to move to close gaps in its News aggregation system quickly.


38 Responses to “Google News Credibility Foiled By 15-Year Old”

  1. Anonymous

    what’s the story? Is Google responsible to the content of the news?

  2. Jim Hedger

    Well, actually YES. Google is responsible for the content of what they present to be news.

    Content that comes from a professional source such as a newspaper or magazine is one thing. Press releases are another.

    The key is verification. A standard news-gathering organization has standardized checks and balances in the flow of information to ensure the credibility of the information that gets published.

    Anyone can issue a press release saying the most outlandish things and get it published. If it relates to something folks are interested in, Google hiring a young person to work on security for instance, it will be taken seriously simply because it appears at Google News.

    My suggestion is for Google to step up the level of electonic verification in order to avoid added costs for issuing legitimate press releases. A free press is not free for everyone when it costs too much money for some to take advantage of.

    While on the subject of the press and credibilty… Tom Vendetta wrote me a letter today.

    I got a few facts wrong yesterday. Writers should openly eat their mistakes and I have three to eat from yesterday’s piece.

    First of all, I got his name wrong. It is Vendetta, not Vandetta as I and others mistakenly wrote. The article that tipped me off to the story misspelled the name as well. I should have read the press release (or the URL of his blog) better.

    Next, his parents have not changed the phone number. I called a Vandetta listed in NJ and got an “out of service” message. I made a ‘safe assumption’ and ran with it.

    Lastly, though he did write about changing his Myspace account, he says he has kept it. (this wasn’t actually a mistake at the time but the info is in fact wrong)

    Even if eating mistakes is unappetizing, you are always left with a better taste in your mouth later.

  3. Anonymous

    “Vandetta logged into the news search tool Digg after receiving an automated email from MAKEBot (Digg’s Spider)”
    MAKEBot is not digg’s spider, it’s an AIM bot designed by Make zine to allow you to subscribe to digg’s curent RSS feeds via IM.

  4. Anonymous

    >the prank was a juvenile as it
    >was creative

    I love people who dont have guts to say things so instead fall on the old backhanded compliment.

    How many pranks arent juvenile?

    And besides that, he didnt do anything that well paid PR firms like Rudder & Finn doesnt do for millions of dollars.
    French TV2 producer Jacques Merlinot wrote a book about the Balkan wars and how the media war was carried. He interview a guy named James Harff from the above mentioned firm who explained to Mr. Merlinot how he got the media to carry his company’s clients views in the Bosnian war. So good was R&F’s job that even when in 95-96 when french magazine Nouvel Observateur interviewed then prime minister Balladur, no one blinked when he admitted that the west knew that the muslims staged event togain public support.
    My point is, manipulating public opinion has tragic consequences (like all those kids who went to fight in Iraq because Saddam was responsible for 9.11) but it is done by government and corporations AS well as foreign countries.
    The internet is allowing 15 years to do it as well now, I dont feel the news relevence are diminished because of it.
    This does outline the problems with a news site like Digg which allows preferences and bias to determine a news articles value.

    Darrell

  5. Hector Torvisque

    Hmmm, Jim – Vendetta made spelling mistakes, did he? Like the grammar mistakes in your own article, e.g. “who’s actually existence is unconfirmed and is assumed to be imaginary” or actual spelling mistakes?

  6. Anonymous

    Meetro did this awhile back when they spread a rumor that Google was going to buy them LOL.

  7. Anonymous

    “Google was even displaying reference to the press release in Google News and at in the news results placed above search results relating to Google employment or hiring.”
    Did a 15-year-old write this story too?

  8. tomvendetta

    Thanks alot for the clarification. Is your site going through the digg effect right now? You got dugg :P

    I dont know how many hits you got cause of the article, but my blog was at 4k hits for the day when the post was submitted, and now its at 12k.

    Anyway, feel free to email me (thomasvendetta@gmail.com)

  9. Anonymous

    What’s the story here? How is this different from any newspaper?

    I used to work for a government office, and part of my job was faxing out press releases. The next day, they appeared verbatim or abridged in the newspaper – the only original journalistic content was a headline. I answered the phones, so I would have known if anyone had called to verify. Nobody ever did. Hurrah for “fact-checking”.

  10. Dr MindHacker

    Google’s service is news *aggregation*, it is not responsible for the content (the providers are). Besides, as with any form of information, it is up to the reader to verify what they choose to believe (depending on a sources “reputation” leaves you intellectually dependent on something other than the function of your own mind).

  11. Anonymous

    I like the way this entry cranks on the kid’s spelling abilities, yet has its own errors: “who’s actually existence is unconfirmed” rather than “whose actual existence”, “prank was a juvenile” rather than “prank was as juvenile”, etc. Hey: if you’re going to present yourself as a news source, let’s have some professional standards when demanding that news sources have professional standards!

  12. Anonymous

    Google can’t take responsibility for anything. It’s the machine’s fault!.

  13. Steve Magruder

    Perhaps Google should not change their filters. Instead, give users a “Report” button to alert Google of any shenanigans.

  14. Us

    It’s comforting to assume that “a standard news-gathering organization” checks its facts. That doesn’t always happen, though.

    The Museum of Hoaxes has a Journalism section devoted to fake, hoax, and dubious news stories. It’s hilarious – and sobering.

  15. kingdango

    Who decides what is real news and what is fake news? A press release is a press release, credible or not.

    We are the dreamers of the dreams.

  16. Anonymous

    Nobody is insulting the kid’s spelling! The point is that should have been a big clue that this was not really from Google.

  17. Anonymous

    Google engineers are almost certainly working overtime to….

    Are they? Almost certainly? Nothing like giving people credit they a) don’t deserve and b) you haven’t even asked them for. Did you call them for comment? Then stop pretending to be journalists.

    I’d imagine Google is doing no such thing, especially not overtime. Somebody is probably having a meeting discussing how stuff like this leaves them open to gaming, but there’s no technical solution to it — how could there be? Fact-checking means fact-checking.

  18. SourDove

    This is what happens when you print fake news from non-government sources.

  19. Anonymous

    Journalism is mature writing. If the young fool had written that he was hired bu some Doogle Corporation in Rajasthan would any one have bothered? If he wrote Rajesh Bachan was dead dancing for a holi song would any one have bothered. I-newswire was providing a credible service and Google doing Big daddy on i-newswire is uncalled for. Its time Google plays a mature role in this episode and gets i-newswire back to its newsfeed.

  20. Anonymous

    A) google is too big and getting out of control. thay’s why i’m using ask.com

    B) any jerk who posts their phone# or address on a blog or message is looking for flak or a predator.

    C) learn how to use a spell checker ! they’re free !

    D) have a nice day …

    curiousgeorge1340

  21. waghdude

    A free press is not free for everyone when it costs too much money for some to take advantage of.

    Free Press does not refer to monetary cost, it refers to freedom of expression.

    Press releases are often promotional in nature and there is likely to be all sort of exaggeration contained in them. I don’t think it is possible for Google to ferret out whether an article appearing at a news site is based on a press release or not. As another commentator pointed out, many press releases are reprinted verbatim with the only “journalism” happening is the selection of the accompanying headline. It’s the responsibility of the news site to do their proper diligence before presenting information to their readers. Google can’t be held responsible for irresponsible journalists.

  22. Anonymous

    A free press is not free for everyone when it costs too much money for some to take advantage of.

    Free Press does not refer to monetary cost, it refers to freedom of expression.

    Press releases are often promotional in nature and there is likely to be all sort of exaggeration contained in them. I don’t think it is possible for Google to ferret out whether an article appearing at a news site is based on a press release or not. As another commentator pointed out, many press releases are reprinted verbatim with the only “journalism” happening is the selection of the accompanying headline. It’s the responsibility of the news site to do their proper diligence before presenting information to their readers. Google can’t be held responsible for irresponsible journalists.

  23. Anonymous

    I think the point for Google isn’t whether or not it’s their responsibility (in some abstract sense) to verify the news they present, it’s whether or not they want to be known as reliable. And their actions show that they do, up to a point.

  24. press release

    It is generally expected that press releases are non-advertising and are usually more reliable for facts or news information; but exploiting such avenue for other purposes than real news, is another form of spamming and that’s why editors generally toss irresponsible press releases in the trash can. Google may be big, but we have to remember that they are doing a fantastic job with the volume their systems handle daily, compare that with the volume offline publsihers handle.

    In essence, the responsibility lies more with the writer (journalist) than it does with the online publisher.

  25. Anonymous

    “While the prank was a juvenile as it was creative, “
    I couldn’t tell if this was the kid’s spelling/grammar at first.

  26. theMarketingCard

    Nice prank.

    -themMarketingCard

  27. Dim Kon

    I wish I had time to fool around.
    Very imaginative though

  28. Tagging Secrets

    Someone already mentioned that Google probably should have some sort of flagging function so users can report potentially harmful posts to Google news and I wholeheartedly agree.

    As for Google being responsible for the content that it aggregates, I disagree. Google should only be responsible for its own content and should not be held accountable for another website. Granted, it should swiftly remove any news sources which don’t have a stringent policy on articles/news stories that are submitted.

    All in all, this was a fairly comical prank and I doubt Tom’s life is ruined because of it. He probably learned a much needed lesson, as did anyone else paying attention.

    (On another note, it’s already been raised here, if you’re going to rag on the kid’s spelling and grammatical errors, you would do well to check your own. Pot calling kettle black…)

  29. seonewsblog

    Not that’s just funny. He probably was lucky he did this to a nice company like Google if i twas MSN for example he might have gotten sued.

    Thank You

  30. charming

    Hmm…interesting story. Thanks to share.

  31. Anonymous

    Why should Google be held more responsible for news, that has no basis in fact, than any other news agency? A major news network recently distributed a story about linux distribution rights being revoked from Novell for a joint project agreement with Microsoft. It was later discovered that it was entirely unresearched and baseless. If Reuters can make a mistake such as this, why are we crucifying Google for a similar type of error? The only responsibility of the news distributor, to my knowledge, is to retract a story found to be false. If a party is injured by the story, then there may be civil penalties. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, if that becomes the case for Google, their pocket is deep enough to handle it.
    The morale of the story? Don’t always believe what you read or hear, even if it does come from a “reliable” news agency.

  32. classifieds

    haha wow. That was nice of Google to take the prank like that. It was a mistake. I’m sure it helped make the kid money some how.

  33. j p maher

    Google has its uses but, but
    some Chomskyoid has decreed that “function words”, such as “of, the” etc. are to be dropped: What if I am interested in “the use of ‘of’,'the’ and ‘in’” in English”?

    2)Machine “translation” is the best source of yucks on the net:

    E.g. in German “der Rock” means ‘skirt’: Google’s “MT” into English of a German-language notice about a “Rock Concert” was transGooglified into “Skirt Concert”.

    A German-language document “translated as “have loaded tractor-trailers in Sarajevo” from German “bin Laden hat Anhanger in Sarajevo — bin Laden has on-hangers in Sarajevo”.

    Google sucks.

  34. Anonymous

    A part from i-newswire do you know another free PR company?

  35. Casino

    It would be a shame if Google removed free PR suppliers from their news feed as a lot of start up companies use this service to get their message out to the world.

    Maybe they should verify releases in some way but that is very timely and not to mention costly.

  36. Anonymous

    This whole thing seems fake. The kids name is Vendetta and the kids article and the writers seem to have about the same amount of mistakes…
    Lame.
    On the off chance that it is real; congrats kid. I’m sure that was fun when you went to school the next day.

  37. SEglington

    This reminds me of when someone posted a fake press release pretending to be emulex to drive up a stock price.

    I have also seen variations of this practice, one good recent example is one I ran across earlier this month.

    A company called Kelly Media Group posted an article on their website saying their president Jason Cardiff was being honored by a watchdog group called DRAWDA (Direct Response Watchdog groups of America) here is the url, I have no idea what it's about the site isnt finished which made me want to see who owns it.

    http://209.85.173.104/search?q=cache:hBKBvfN58nMJ:www.kellymediagroup.com/News/News_DRAWDA/news_drawda.html+%22jason+cardiff%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=4&gl=us&client=firefox-a

    Now if you goto the link on that page http://directresponsewatchdogsofamerica.com/ the cached version is here http://74.125.45.104/search?q=cache:7BSYuSuLHOsJ:directresponsewatchdogsofamerica.com/+DRAWDA&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us&client=firefox-a

    It is of course DRAWDA, but who owns the domain?

    Suprise http://who.godaddy.com/WhoIs.aspx?domain=directresponsewatchdogsofamerica.com&prog_id=godaddy

    So there is press release fraud or misleadings all over the place, its hardly a new concept, and I dotn think its googles fault for indexing it, its just a search engine.

    Over here in England this is highly fraudulent.

    Registrant:
    Kelly Media Group

    2022 W 11th St
    Upland, California 91786
    United States

    Registered through: GoDaddy.com, Inc. (http://www.godaddy.com)
    Domain Name: DIRECTRESPONSEWATCHDOGSOFAMERICA.COM
    Created on: 27-Aug-08
    Expires on: 27-Aug-09
    Last Updated on: 27-Aug-08

    Administrative Contact:
    Cardiff, Jason jasonj@kellymediagroup.com
    Kelly Media Group
    2022 W 11th St
    Upland, California 91786
    United States
    (877) 788-8463

    Technical Contact:
    Cardiff, Jason jasonj@kellymediagroup.com
    Kelly Media Group
    2022 W 11th St
    Upland, California 91786
    United States
    (877) 788-8463

    Domain servers in listed order:
    NS25.DOMAINCONTROL.COM
    NS26.DOMAINCONTROL.COM

    Registry Status: clientDeleteProhibited
    Registry Status: clientRenewProhibited
    Registry Status: clientTransferProhibited
    Registry Status: clientUpdateProhibited

  38. Cassandra Delo

    I understand your point from a the user experience standpoint, and I agree that much needs to be done to clean up the SERPs.

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