Officials at Google News on Tuesday swiftly removed a website from its search index that had contracted with a local water district to produce promotional stories "written in the image of real news."
The move came in response to a Los Angeles Times article on an unusual agreement between the Central Basin Municipal Water District and a consulting firm affiliated with the news website, News Hawks Review. Under the deal, the water district, a public agency based in southeast L.A. County, paid nearly $200,000 to the firm to publish positive articles that appeared on Google News.
A Google spokesman said in a statement to The Times that News Hawks Review had violated its guidelines and would no longer appear in Google News searches. The spokesman did not elaborate on the specifics of the violation.
News Hawks Review had published more than 30 stories about Central Basin in the last year on topics such as its recycled water system and its legal battle over groundwater rights. The site appeared to be independent; it displayed its own advertisements and listed short biographies of its reporters and editors.
But records reviewed by The Times showed that News Hawks Review was directly affiliated with the Coghlan Consulting Group, a corporate communications firm hired by Central Basin last November. The deal, which was extended in April, calls for the firm to produce one story about the water district each week in exchange for a monthly fee of $11,500.
Danny Sullivan, a search engine expert based in Orange County, said Google News had removed sites from its index before but that it was rare for a public agency to be involved in such a case. He also said the News Hawks case could lead Google to reconsider its procedure for admitting sites to the news index, which he estimated includes between 30,000 and 50,000 sources.
Google News tries to make sure that websites indexed as news pages are providers of legitimate news rather than individuals or marketing companies.
"The bigger issue is, if this site's getting away with it, are there other sites getting away with it?" Sullivan asked. "Maybe Google needs to review what they're allowing."
The principal of Coghlan Consulting Group, Ed Coghlan, pitched News Hawks Review as a way for Central Basin to enhance its image online. "All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the agency is a very difficult challenge," he wrote in a letter describing the service to the district. "The solution? How about our own news outlet."
Coghlan emphasized that because of the Google News classification, the pieces about Central Basin would "show up as news stories ... on the internet." Before Google revoked the label, the News Hawks articles were among the top search results for news searches related to Central Basin.
Although the majority of its articles pertained to Central Basin, News Hawks also promoted other subjects. For example, the site ran a series of stories about former "Brady Bunch" star Florence Henderson's treatment for cataracts. Coghlan is a consultant for the company that makes the treatment Henderson received, according to his LinkedIn profile. In their recommendation of the deal, Central Basin staff said the News Hawks site could "help position the district to receive future government funding." The agreement was also approved by the district's elected board members.
District spokeswoman Valerie Howard defended the site in an interview last week, but declined to comment Tuesday. Coghlan did not respond to an interview request.