MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA: Google's newly launched experimental feature that lets sources respond directly to the news stories the company indexes was met with great fanfare from the PR industry.
The new technology allows newsmakers to comment on articles by submitting an e-mail to Google with their contact information. The tech giant then verifies the submitter's identity through a labor-intensive process.
"The process of verification is not insignificant," said Gabriel Stricker, Google spokesman, via e-mail.
The approved comments will appear - in full and without editing - on Google News, according to the company's official blog post on the subject.
Because the technology limits feedback to those directly related to the story, their comments will maintain prominence and not get buried under the barrage of feedback from the public.
To launch the feature, Google reached out to people quoted or associated with popular news stories. Among those, McDonald's was invited to comment on articles about a study that found preschoolers preferred the taste of McDonald's food when presented in the company's wrapping.
"We were interested in sharing information," said Walt Riker, VP of corporate communications at McDonald's. The feature is consistent with the increased access to information and content that new media provides, he added.
Google's prominence as a search engine also helps consumers find the additional information easily, Riker noted. In his comment, he provided the full statement that McDonald's had issued to reporters.
"[Reporters] can't run everything, and we understand that," Riker said. "But this at least gives consumers the opportunity to see the full context and to read the full statement."
Malcolm John, director of the University of California at San Francisco's HIV and AIDS treatment program, was invited to respond to a story that quoted him about a new Food and Drug Administration-approved drug to treat HIV.
"There was so much behind what I was saying that didn't come through in the article because there isn't the space," John said. "I thought it was a reasonable article, but the Google piece allowed me to say [more]."
He said that the buzz surrounding news stories can be confusing.
"I always feel nervous commenting on new drugs," said John. Yet this feature makes him more comfortable talking to the press because it's an opportunity to offer a balanced perspective, he added.
Some have commended the technology for revolutionizing media - notably the role of journalists, sources, and PR pros. But others have questioned the feasibility of the feature and whether Google can accurately verify the identity of all of those who submit comments.
Frank Shaw, president of the Microsoft account at Waggener Edstrom, said the hype around the feature's launch was unwarranted.
"I am extremely skeptical that it will really get legs," Shaw said. While the idea seems straightforward, its difficulties can't be easily solved with computer programming, he added. For instance, its verification process could have glitches. And the comment restrictions may prevent those with valid input from participating, he noted.
Shaw also said that while the feature offers some innovation, it shares similarities with comments sections already available, in blogs and letters to the editor.
Steve Rubel, SVP of Edelman's me2Revolution, believes the feature will benefit PR pros, but that it should be open to everybody.
"Obviously, it gives us a way to provide feedback on a channel that reaches millions of people," Rubel said. "But I think the way they're going about it gets them into very dangerous territory. They're going from being an aggregator and being agnostic to being an editor. I'd really love to see them open it up to everybody, but delineate if somebody is a source in a story."
Todd Defren, Shift Communications principal, also posted a blog questioning whether it was time efficient to leave comments that likely have to be approved by a company's corporate communications team and then verified by Google.
"It's going to take a while; it's going to bog down corporate resources," he posted. "By the time the official response for Google News is ready to go, the topic du jour may have been bumped to the proverbial 'page two.'"