Google News Could Change Online News Industry

By: Steve Outing

Updated at 10:20 a.m. EST

The popular search engine Google made a splash earlier this week when it introduced a revised version of its Google News service. The new version (still in beta) is a significant advancement over the previous one — culling news from 4,000 sources on the Web, up from 150 previously, and updating news every 15 minutes, instead of once or twice an hour.

Google News is interesting on several levels, including that it’s entirely automated. There are no Google editors, only computer algorithms selecting what are the top stories of the day and the best coverage of those stories — and providing links to that content.

Why should newspapers and online news operations care about Google News? Here’s why.

It’s the global digital newsstand, realized

I’ve written before that one of the most significant developments of the Internet era was the development of the “global digital newsstand” — the ability for news consumers to read media outlets around the world.

With the new Google News, I think I’ve seen the best implementation of the global newsstand to date. The service calculates what are the most significant stories being published at any given time, and ranks them according to time published, number of links to the story, and credibility of the publishing organization. It then presents them in a way that highlights news by its importance. The Google News main page is a sort of “front page” of a global online “newspaper” (or a more accurate analogy might be “wire service”), with stories placed in categories including top stories, U.S. news, world news, sports, business, science-tech, health, and entertainment.

What are the most significant news stories worldwide and in the U.S. right now? What about the most important business, sports, or entertainment stories? Google News tells you this by looking at what those 4,000 news sources are publishing, and then ranking them.

The first criticism you’ll hear about Google News is that it is entirely machine based — there are no human editors, and editors are necessary to make the news process work properly. Google admits that there will be occasional errors — stories added to a news category or story topic that don’t fit. The algorithms will be tweaked constantly to improve their accuracy, but because there’s no human checkpoint, some errors are likely to show up.

(One thing that needs to be fixed is that some Associated Press wire stories show up in news search results many times — published by different sites. Internet library consultant Gary Price offers an example of this problem.)

So far, the service seems to do a pretty good job. For the most part, it would be hard to tell that there are no human editors making the story-placement decisions.

Actually, I would argue that the service does use human news-editing intelligence. It collects and analyzes the news publishing decisions of the human editors at 4,000 news organizations. It’s not unreasonable to posit that this “collaborative” story placement is a more accurate reflection of the top stories of the day than the placement decisions made at a single media outlet. Whether we’re talking about the front page of the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., or The New York Times, or the home pages of those papers’ Web sites, story-placement decisions are made by a small group of editors. Google News makes its placement decisions on collective editing intelligence, so there’s less likelihood of individual editors’ biases influencing story placement.

According to Google product manager Marissa Mayer, who oversees the news project, Google News utilizes a process similar to the “page rank” system used by the main Google search engine. This technology looks at the number of links that a particular piece of content has from other sites, then ranks them according to a linking site’s “credibility” (so a reference from Yahoo! is more valuable than a link on a personal Weblog). The concept, she explains, is that each link becomes a “vote,” but not all votes count equally. Page rank is only one of “a hundred” other factors that go into determining how a specific story will get ranked in Google News, she says.

Is this new?

What Google News has done isn’t entirely new, of course. AlltheWeb.com has a news service that collects news links from 3,000 online publications. But it requires typing a search term into a search form; it doesn’t have a browsable news-page format. Northern Light has a similar service. Other comparable services include Rocketinfo and Newsseer. The concept of a central online newsstand dates back to the mid 1990s, when services like TotalNews came on the scene, taking advantage of all the free news available online.

None of those services has caught the Net population by storm, but I think Google News has the potential to attract widespread use — thanks to the combination of Google’s powerful brand name and its advancing technology that appears to work well at categorizing and analyzing the news.

If I’m right and Google News does catch on, it could change news reading habits for Internet users. Instead of the traditional way of choosing a media outlet and navigating its content, Google News users enter specific stories via a third party (Google) and bypass news organizations’ home pages. While that’s hardly new, what is new is the existence of a Web entity powerful enough to draw substantial numbers of users away from news sites’ home pages.

Careful readers also might note the similarity of what Google News accomplishes with one of the services of the defunct New Century Network, a Web consortium of American newspaper sites that offered a feature that selected the best stories of the day from its member newspaper sites. NCN never achieved much traction; Google, on the other hand, has become an Internet behemoth and its brand a household name.

What’s a news organization to do?

An interesting issue here is the trend of news sites toward requiring user registration to access content. Google News only includes links to articles that are available with one click — so stories behind user-registration or paid-subscription walls are not included in the service unless a special arrangement has been made between Google and a news site to accommodate Google users.

News sites that insist on employing a user-registration scheme could get hurt by Google News, warns Chris Sherman, a search-engine industry analyst, because their content would be invisible to Google and the potential millions of Net users it can attract. What savvy publishers of registration-required sites must do, he says, is work with Google in order to be included in their news searches.

Google News already has made arrangements with some leading news sites that use registration schemes — such as The New York Times. Google News users who click on links to NYTimes.com articles at Google News go directly to the article — there’s no intervening registration screen — even if they’re not already registered at NYTimes.com. This works, explains product manager Mayer, because the site allows Google’s spiders to crawl its content and include links in the Google service. When a non-registered user hits a NYTimes.com page, the site will recognize that it’s a referral from Google News and serve up the content — delaying the registration requirement for one page. When the Google News user tries to go elsewhere on NYTimes.com, then the registration system kicks in. If the user is already registered, then NYTimes.com reads the user’s NYT cookie and doesn’t ask for registration information.

Sherman suggests a variation of this technique for a registration-using site to work with Google. Allow Google to spider your site and monitor referring sites. When a Google News user requests one of your articles, serve up a page with at least the first few paragraphs of the story — with a note on the end requesting the user to register with your site to see the rest of the article.

Sherman warns news sites to be smart about this — and not serve up a registration screen directly from a link on services such as Google News. “That just annoys people,” who can with another click or two go to other news sites for similar content, he says.

Paid content is another matter of concern. Sherman’s suggestion of serving up the first couple of paragraphs of a story could apply to paid content, as well — where the Google-referred user is given part of the content and then presented with payment options to see the full content. For Google’s part, company spokesmen say they’re considering schemes for dealing with paid content at news sites, but aren’t ready to discuss them publicly yet.

Paid-subscription sites will miss out on the business that Google can send their way — unless Google News evolves into a paid digital newsstand. That’s a distinct possibility, but Google representatives decline to answer when asked about future plans. The answer for news sites wishing to charge for content is, for now, simply to avoid putting all content behind subscription walls — leaving some quality free news content so that Google News users can find your site and be exposed to offers for premium content. (You’ll find links on Google News to articles on Salon.com and TheStreet.com, sites that both have paid premium areas.) Down the road, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google News become the premier digital paid newsstand.

Best thing since sliced bread?

As I said earlier, Google News is a significant development. Analyst Sherman is equally ebullient: “I think it’s going to turn the way we get online news upside down. … It will change everything. … It will transform the landscape of news on the Web. … I’m blown away by this thing.”

Sherman considers Google News to be “a gift served up to the news industry,” and he urges publishers to take advantage. Distribution of news can be served up by orders of magnitude, he suggests. It supports the news organizations with the best reputations because their content typically bubbles to the top of Google’s story selections. It’s also great news for small news sites, which can be exposed to a huge audience when their content occasionally bubbles up.

Also, Google News is an incredible resource for reporters wanting to know what other journalists have written about a topic.




Other recent columns

Don’t Hide Your Multimedia Content, Wednesday, Sept. 11
See the News Of the Future At Starbucks, Wednesday, Aug. 28
Examing Paid Content’s Future, Wednesday, Aug. 14
I’m Sick and Tired Of Spam (Filters), Wednesday, July 31
Knight Ridder Digital Cedes Some Control, Wednesday, July 17
Board The Weblog Bandwagon Now, Please, Wednesday, June 26
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