Google Doodles: cute clickbait that ripples through the news cycle

No matter how unusual the event, commemoration in one of Google's daily Doodles will create a news story.

Today is the 106th anniversary of the birth of feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The 106th anniversary of an event isn’t a particularly special one most of the time - the debates kicking off at the moment over the causes and legacy of the First World War are happening in the centenary of the year the war began, not waiting until 2020, after all - but nevertheless, the big news sites are all covering it.

Here’s the Guardian (twice!), here’s the Telegraph, here’s the Mirror, here’s the Independent (also twice!), here’s Le Matin, here’s CNN Turkey, here’s a stock investment analysis site called 4-traders, here’s Poland’s Gazeta. Those are just a sample of how many sites, around the world, all chose to host the same story on the same day, and from the same angle.

Click any of those links and you’ll see why - she’s in today’s Google Doodle. Indeed, try searching for Simone de Beauvoir on Google today, and no fewer than four of the top seven results are links to news stories about her being “honoured” with a Doodle:

It’s even clearer that it’s the Doodle, not de Beauvoir herself, that’s the real news story, if you search on Google News for her name:

These articles are all basically the same when you read them: Simone de Beauvoir’s in a Google Doodle, and here’s a few paragraphs outlining who she was and why she deserves it. In fairness to the Guardian, which ran a special series of Comment Is Free articles on de Beauvoir on the centenary of her birth, she's not an unusual subject. The others though? Not so much. Can't find anything on the Telegraph's site about de Beauvoir's 100th birthday, nor any other mentions outside of a few book reviews. Search the Mirror's site and the only other mention of de Beauvoir is in an article about another philosopher, Kierkegaard, getting the Google Doodle treatment. And you can be sure that that stocks site hasn't dealt with her before either.

Here's the page where every single Google Doodle is collected, most of which appear on all of Google's regional sites. That helps newspapers in Europe and the US which want hits - they can see what goes up on Google's Australian homepage hours before it goes live in their own region. Put together a quick article, push it live fast enough, and that's a spot on the results page for a famous historical figure staked out for a few days.

Rather than say this is a good or a bad thing - and I've written those types of articles before, so I'm not going to claim innocence - it's more an interesting example of the incentives that digital journalists are confronted with. What matters in online journalism is the speed of publication, not necessarily the quality, because that correlates to the greater number of shares, clicks, engagements, whichever metric you prefer.

The algorithms that Google's News page uses also rely on the size and perceived readership of the sites it features, along with the number of articles it puts out a day, along with other factors, to decide which stories to promote and which to ignore. In the case of Google Doodles, we can see the emergence of a symbiotic relationship: Google's choice of a person or topic gives newspapers an easy topic to cover with guaranteed interest from a key source of traffic, keeping them near the top of the News rankings for other topics; while Google gets traffic to its services from people made aware of its cute little commemorative cartoon or game.

Google, then, creates the news (or at least some news), and has the ability to raise awareness about niche topics or person who are perhaps not particularly well catered for by the media most of the time (see: the Telegraph covering the birthday of an important feminist thinker). Two days ago the Doodle commemorated the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author and anthropologist, in the US, a fascinating figure I had absolutely no familiarity with and which I'd have remained ignorant of if I hadn't been looking into Doodles for this article. So thanks, Google. Just be epistemologically aware that you can, to an extent, game your search results.

Simone de Beauvoir (left) with Jean-Paul Sartre (right), 1970. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Show Hide image

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles on the next Conservative leader.