Tuesday, 19 February 2013

'Kate Middleton', Google and modern journalism

The row over Hilary Mantel's lecture where, it is claimed, she launched a venomous attack  on The Duchess of Cambridge has highlighted the constant mis-reporting by British and foreign media of Her Royal Highness. The mis-reporting comes in referring to her as 'Kate Middleton'.

For reference, there is a guide to styles and titles on the UK monarchy website which is much more reliable than Google or Wikipedia and The Duchess of Cambridge's is here.   

As I occasionally do, I tweeted that her name is NOT Kate Middleton - remember the big wedding we all got excited about - in the hope that it might make some difference. I was disappointed to receive two tweets in return from Lobby corespondents who are normally sticklers for accuracy. One, Rob Merrick, saying in capital letters that "IT DOES NOT MATTER" and the second, Rob Hutton, a man of almost obsessive eye-for-detail, "I learned last year that if you tweet 'Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant', no one knows whom you mean."

Even David Cameron in a mis-guided intervention called her by her maiden name. To be fair to the Prime Minister so did Ed Miliband who said "Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job." The problem is that even those newspapers who have editorial guidelines on use of titles and names - basically the broadsheets - still have to play the game of search engine optimisation (SEO). This is where the copy posted to the web is optimised to make it appear higher up the search rankings through Google or another search engine. The result is that even publications like The Telegraph, who refer to Catherine as The Duchess of Cambridge see here also make sure that the story includes the words 'Kate Middleton' a number of times and also make it the first term in the URL -web link - for the story.

The obsession with getting the search engine optimisation correct leads to weird schizophrenic pieces of journalism like this in the Evening Standard where Catherine is called The Duchess of Cambridge in one paragraph and Kate Middleton the next. The Huffington Post piled in with a vacuous list article Hilary Mantel and 10 reasons why she may be right about Kate Middleton.

So who is to blame? Google has its algorithm and every year produces a list of the most popular search terms of the previous twelve months. In 2012 the 'Google Zeitgeist' had 'Kate Middleton' at the number two search term in the UK. So it would be easy to argue that newspapers, reliant on web traffic to entice advertisers to their sites, are merely providing the content which will get noticed by the search engines. But isn't it actually the case that people put into search engines terms they know are going to be successful? Google conducts a search and out pops the content that a journalist has already written.

It is a chicken and egg conundrum which is likely to remain unresolved meaning I will continue sending out pleading tweets which will be ignored. Undoubtedly of greater importance is the way that journalism has changed, along with editorial policy, so accuracy is reduced in the continued hunt for that modern-day nirvana: number one place on the first page of a Google search.      

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