How Google is suffocating independent journalism in Latin America

February 17, 2023

Table of Contents

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

After crushing the advertising business on which most media companies had historically relied, Google decided it was time to do something to remedy the mortal blow it had dealt to the journalistic industry, a pillar of any functioning democracy. The tech giant
spent over $300 million funding media projects through the Google News Initiative, a project that should help “quality publications to flourish.” Yet such flourishing isn’t happening—at least not in Latin America, where high-quality independent media struggle to survive. One of the fists strangling them? The Google SEO standards. 

Keeping up with them is expensive. Many independent outlets are unable to cover these costs, spurring a vicious yet obvious cycle: underperforming sites attract less traffic, less traffic means fewer sponsors, fewer sponsors means less financial stability. 

Yet the worst consequence of this nefarious pattern is the fact that many outlets producing in-depth investigations, revealing uncomfortable truths, holding the powerful to account, and focusing on underrepresented individuals and populations are getting fewer and fewer readers. Fewer readers means fewer sponsors, which means less funding, which makes investments on SEO performance and enhancement tools impossible, affecting the ranking of these sites, attracting less traffic—and so on. Also, it means ill-informed citizens, making ill-informed choices. 

Thus, perhaps inadvertently, Google is pushing the Latin American landscape to oligopolies that are hard to break. It is important to remember that Google is part of Alphabet, a company that generated $257 billion in revenue in 2022, after two decades of seizing key players in the digital industry. Google bought Adsense in 2003, setting the basis for the pulverization of the ad industry. Two years later, the Android operating system and Urchin evolved into Google Analytics. In 2006, it folded in YouTube, and a year later, DoubleClick, the company that by then was dominating the digital ad display business. These purchases allowed Google to become a monster of many arms—each one of them tapping into a key place of the digital experience: content distribution, advertisement, ad placement, and content itself. 

Such an aggressive approach made it the business it is today, but the aftermath for the media industry, a bedrock of sound democracies, has been consequential. Year after year, papers and analyses have shown how Facebook and Google have hindered journalism, especially local and independent journalism. A report by the Center for Media Law and Policy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill­­ details how the rise of platforms has diminished local news, fueled polarization, and aided disinformation. 

The demise of local news “has significant political, social, and economic implications for our democracy and our society,” wrote Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics, in a report published on the website The expanding news desert, which documents how local media in the United States is shrinking. Google has played a role in this desertification: a 2020 study published in Nature Human Behaviour concluded that Google tends to direct its users more to national media outlets than to local news.

A clear parallel can be drawn to independent news sites in Latin America. In the region, legacy media names have become search keywords themselves, turning them into equivalents on “searching for the news.” Just by positioning brands in such a way, Google is not rewarding better content, but, simply, legacy. 

Often, I’ve heard Google executives at summits and journalism conferences insist that its algorithm doesn’t reward outlets that pay for keywords when delivering organic traffic. But what they are not admitting is that they are rewarding those who spend the most: maybe not on directly buying keywords, but on expensive tools such as Semrush, Chartbeat, social listening platforms, and others to keep up monitoring the state of their SEO performance. Managing a newsroom without such tools is the same as flying a plane just by sight, with no instruments; there is only so much you can do and get to. 

Google has not noticed this—or, if it has, it has looked in the other direction. One of its best-known news initiatives, the Google Innovation Challenge, has produced dozens of tech-related projects with several million dollars delivered to newsrooms across the world, yet the SEO gap has not been resolved. None of these projects addressed successfully how small and medium-size newsrooms can keep up with the standards set by Google’s algorithm. 

Its latest update, called the Helpful Content Update, was rolled out in late September 2022. It was supposed to be a change to “ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results,” as Google put it. What it does not say is that outlets need not only good “content,” as we understand it (fact-checked, contrasted and confirmed information), but also a tech machinery set in place to meet all page speed, loading time, image size, and other KPIs set up by Google. 

For that, you need a robust tech team. You need to invest on a daily basis, and wait months for the return. At GK Ecuador, the media outlet I run, we have been able to do that because our business model favors diversification. One of our main revenue sources is a very successful content studio that works with clients across Latin America. Because many of them have tech projects and requirements, we have been able to set up a tech group that has teamed up with our editorial team and have, for two years, worked on keeping the site running. It has attracted visitors and sponsors. 

But many other Latin American independent media companies are not able to put up such teams. 

Mostly dependent on grants, very few of these media outlets can rely on a proper business model—especially if such are based on traffic-related ads. Many of these grants, which demand intensive and specific reporting, do not allow expending on SEO performance optimization. Only a handful of organizations from the Latin American environment can afford to have a tech team that keeps the site updated to meet Google’s basic standards. 

Perhaps Google needs to focus more on global solutions that would allow good content to flow into its top results. A reformulation of the algorithm to balance what it is showing, and dropping legacy brands as keywords related to news, might be a good starting point. Surely, a deeper investment so media outlets can enhance their SEO performance optimization would be welcome. 

Also, solutions might come from regulators leveling the advertising field. Maybe it is time to adopt a solution like the one Australia put in place in 2021: the News Media Bargaining Code, a piece of legislation that made platforms like Google and Facebook pay for the news content they distributed through their search engines. The measure generated controversy—Tim Berners-Lee said the law could “break the World Wide Web,” and Google and Facebook lobbied intensely against it, according to Poynter. Facebook even blocked some content in 2021 as a response to the enactment of the code. 

Yet by August 2022, it was clear that nothing broke—especially media outlets. According to Poynter, the Australian News Code has amassed $140 million each year. This has boosted journalism in Australia. “Outlets throughout Australia are hiring new reporters. The Guardian added 50 journalists, bringing their newsroom total up to 150,” an article in Poynter said

Other countries are already considering similar measures, including the US, Canada, India, and South Africa. Worryingly, Google torpedoed a similar initiative in Brazil with the help of former president Jair Bolsonaro, Poynter reported in May 2022.

Latin America needs, more than ever, good, independent, and diverse media. Recent elections have shown the level of polarization our countries are facing. The danger of demagogues and nationalistic populists who are willing to undermine our already fragile democracies in favor of their autocratic political projects remains a huge concern. They are the ones who malign and despise the free press that holds them accountable. If platforms such as Facebook and Google do not understand this and are not willing to play a real part in leveling the media playing field, they will be contributing to the disappearance of voices that give color, diversity, and broader options to readers—and, therefore, also contributing to the undermining of democracy itself, no matter how many millions they keep pouring into their conscience-cleaning programs.

José Maria León Cabrera is the CEO of GK Ecuador, an influential, award-winning independent news destination in Ecuador.