Times are tough and that’s especially true for big media companies, including publishers like newspapers.

Advertisers are cutting back and that means that all online publishers are competing for a piece of a smaller pie. While traffic figures aren’t the be all and end all of ad sales, traffic does matter.

For many, if not most, online publishers, Google is an important source of traffic. And the search giant is coming under increasing fire from big publishers who believe that Google’s algorithm is giving too much credit to publishers who aren’t providing the quality of content they are and who, in some cases, are actually living off of big media’s content.

As AdAge.com reports, John Kosner, a senior VP at ESPN, started really pushing the issue at a November 2008 meeting of Google’s Publishers Advisory Council, which includes a select group of big media publishers.

The complaint: they’re not getting enough credit in the SERPs despite the fact that they’re producing much of the original content that later gets incorporated into derivative content produced by smaller publishers, including blogs. Further, the media companies complain that they’re often being penalized for their paid content.

According to one media executive quoted by AdAge.com:

You should not have a system where those who are essentially parasites off the true producers of content benefit disproportionately.

Another was a bit kinder when referencing the publisher position:

This would in no way mean that only professional content publishers would get an advantage. It really just says that the original source, and the source with real access, should somehow be recognized as the most important in the delivery of results.

Does big media have a valid complaint here about how original sources are treated or is this just sour grapes on the part of struggling companies? Perhaps a bit of both.

Obviously Google’s algorithm isn’t doing its job when publishers who take original content and add no value to it receive better SERPs than the original source. On the other hand, big media companies shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement when it comes to SERPs; their current troubles go a lot further than their SERPs.

There are plenty of publishers who take original content and add new information and new perspectives. It’s very much possible than an ESPN story on a major sporting event, for instance, will serve as the basis for a blog post that is far more interesting than the original ESPN article. If more people are linking to it than they are to the original, it’s hard to argue against that blog post receiving better SERPs.

What publishers need to realize is that there’s a huge difference between those who steal and scrape content and those who create derivative content that happens to be really good. As far as I can tell, Google does a fairly good job penalizing the former but shouldn’t put the latter at a natural disadvantage against larger publishers who just so happen to produce ‘original content‘. Quality is quality and relevancy is relevancy. Those are what matter.

Google has to walk a fine line here. If it caves in to pressure from big media companies and tweaks its algorithm to give them a noticeable advantage where none is inherently due, it could spell trouble for Google as we know it.