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Google News at 10: is the news industry coming to terms with the aggregation site?

Google News at 10: is the news industry coming to terms with the aggregation site?

As Google News prepares to celebrate its tenth birthday on 22 September, the aggregation site could find that it finally has friends in the world of journalism willing to R.S.V.P.

From the moment the search engine giant launched its news service in 2002, Google News has found itself embroiled in bitter feuds with journalists and news outlets concerned that the internet company would siphon-off readers and make money on the back of ‘stolen’ content.

Using a sophisticated algorithm to ‘harvest’ stories from 4,000 international news sites, the original incarnation of Google News produced a constantly updated index of breaking news headlines from around the world. Today the ‘Googlebot’ aggregates stories from over 50,000 news sources and is frequently the first port of call for readers chasing a particular news item or wanting a global news perspective concentrated in one location. Unveiling the Google News project for the first time, then-Google product manager Marissa Meyer announced: “From the reader perspective, this changes news reading habits, because (usually) you pick a source and pick the story that interests you. With this service, you pick the story that interests you and then pick the source.”

Google News’s prioritisation of stories over sources was always going to incense newspapers, which were (and still are) struggling to cope with online media companies luring readers away from established print brands. News industry leaders frequently railed against the ‘digital vampire’ that used articles produced by news outlets to create what was effectively a rival news site.

Strained relations between Google News and news media businesses deteriorated even further after the aggregation site introduced advertising on its pages. The internet behemoth’s choice to run advertisements alongside articles and headlines it had amassed from other sites, and refusing to pass on any of the revenue it made from them to the original sources, meant that Google News would profit from content that it hadn’t produced itself. It was a move that seemed to undermine previous assurances from Google executives that the news service intended to “help traditional media in a new environment”.

While Google News creator Krishna Bharat couldn’t understand why his brain-child was not more loved by the newspaper industry, high-profile figures from the world of publishing were vocal in their criticism of the ‘vampiric’ service. Samuel Zell, owner of Tribune Co. vented his exasperation at online aggregators, demanding: "If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be? Not very”.

Yet, with Google News set to embark upon on its second decade of operations, now could be the moment that the news industry comes round to the “newspaper killer” ’s presence.

In 2010, responding to the many criticisms levelled at Google News by the news media, Eric Schmidt (Google CEO from 2001 to 2011) published an op-ed in the WSJ calling for a “change in tone” in the debate. It was, Schmidt argued, time to recognise that the two factions had to “work together to fulfil the promise of journalism in the digital age.”

Though he has since stepped down as chief executive officer, Schmidt’s appeal seems to have sparked a rethinking of Google/publisher relations. Google, aware no doubt that its aggregation service relies on having a treasure trove of quality journalism to rifle through, has since released a number of tools with a view to endearing itself to journalists and publishers. The introduction of site maps enabled publishers to bring a human touch to the algorithm-run system: human editors at news organisations have greater control over which articles are included on the Google News homepage. A new tagging scheme allows news outlets to ‘flag’ stories for Google’s algorithms, and the Fast Flip service, which bundles breaking and recent news stories, was produced in collaboration with publishers including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Propublica.

Media organisations appear to be thawing in their attitude to Google’s online supremacy. Nine months after he condemned the technology company as “the piracy leaderRupert Murdoch led 21st Century Fox into a partnership deal   in a move seen to indicate the media industry’s new-found willingness to come to terms with Google’s undeniable influence.

Working with Google would appear to make good business sense for traditional media companies struggling to generate profit through online content. Love it or loathe it, Google News arguably occupies one of the most powerful positions in news media. Search results powered by Google News are followed by one billion unique users every week. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber calculates that for news outlets in total, Google News generates 4 billion clicks a month – 1 billion from Google News itself, and 3 billion from search results.

There are however on-going disagreements between Google and sections of the news industry. French publishers eager to challenge Google’s dominance of the online advertising market place launched La Place Media at the beginning of September, and Belgian newspapers are involved in a long-standing dispute over copyright with Google News.

Its global dominance and ability to make a financial success of content that smaller news companies are desperately trying to monetise means that Google News is unlikely to find its way into the hearts of journalists, news editors and publishers. But even if they withhold their affection, these same figures will in all probability continue to work with the aggregator, thanks to the sheer volume of traffic it directs to their sites. Sending a tenth birthday card to Google News, publishers world-wide might wish it ‘best wishes’, but would probably stop well short of ‘love.’

Sources: The Atlantic (1) (2), Editors Weblog (1) (2) (3), C/, Economic Times India



Amy Hadfield


2012-09-21 17:13

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