Search giant Google is planning to revamp its news aggregator to rank stories using a controversial rating system that could penalise small, independent news sites.

New Scientist last week reported that Google has applied for a patent for a new version of Google News. The current news tool lists search results by date and relevance, but the new system would be built around a database of news sources with 'credibility' scores calculated on story length, volume of web traffic and number of reporters and international bureaus. Scores will then be used to rank the search results from individual news organisations.

Brian Dominick, editor of alternative news site the New Standard, described the new system as 'horrendous' and said that factors of scale are almost meaningless to an individual news story.

"I can understand the desire to unclutter Google News search results, but suppressing duplicate copies of AP stories doesn't address the fact that most mainstream media run essentially the same piece on everything that comes down the line, anyway," said Mr Dominick.

"Independents that produce original content add value, and they need and deserve the relatively even playing field Google News has provided thus far."

One fifth of the New Standard's traffic is generated by Google's search engine but that traffic could be jeopardised by the latest proposal.

"A lot of alternative and niche media outfits with small or non-existent promotional budgets depend on search engine traffic for discovery by new readers," Mr Dominick told dotJournalism.

He suggested that a fairer system would be to score stories individually on number of attributed sources and whether the story had been published previously. Specialist publishers could also be favoured for specialist subjects, so that a site focusing on genetics would be ranked highly in searches for genetics news.

Google's own mission statement for its news service claims to offer a variety of perspectives to allow users to compare how different news organisations cover the same story. The new plans move towards favouring established media outlets, said Mr Dominick, and independent news providers are likely to campaign for Google to amend its plans. If not, the alternative news community may be forced to develop its own system.

"There certainly is a lot of ingenuity in the independent media movement. I do think it would be great to see a version of what Google News is doing that actually favours diversity on purpose," he said.

"And if Google isn't able to do it, maybe someone else will."

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