Google News, the 15-year-old news aggregator accessed by around 15 million people each month, is receiving a major overhaul as Google employs artificial intelligence to improve the selection of news stories and give readers more context on breaking news stories.
Google News users who are logged in with their Google account will now see a briefing at the top of the app with five stories selected, based on their preferences.
The Full Coverage section features articles from authoritative sources, but also pulls in snippets from videos, local news reports, FAQs, social commentary, and a timeline outlining how a story has unfolded.
A revamped subscriptions service also lets users sign up within the Google News app to pay for a news service they like with one click sign-up, which may appeal to publishers struggling to get readers to pay for news in the digital world.
Google News is not a revenue spinner for Google compared to its massive advertising business. But the search giant has remained committed to the service over the years despite criticism from major publishers such as Rupert Murdoch that Google has usurped advertising revenue that used to go to the media without paying anything for access to tens of thousands of news sources.
The new Google News doesn’t change Google’s philosophy of indexing freely available news stories - it continues to crawl up to 80,000 publishers in multiple languages, using algorithms to select the most authoritative and relevant stories. But new AI tools developed by Google will do a better job of pulling together stories to give context on major issues.
“The volume of high-quality journalism hitting the web is extraordinary. Users are looking for a way to manage their exposure to this information,” says Trystan Upstill, a Distinguished Engineer and Google News Engineering and Product Lead.
“If they want to spend five minutes, how do they dig around in the news and read a number of articles and understand the story as it comes together?”
He says Google News uses information contained within your Google account and how you are using things like Google Search, to personalise news to your preferences.
But to avoid news consumers existing in an echo chamber of views, an increasingly apparent facet of social media, the Full Coverage section of Google News won’t be customised to your tastes but features the full range of stories from authoritative sources registered with Google News.
Battling fake news
Assembling stories from a range of sources in real-time using automated systems is one thing, but how does Google News avoid spreading clickbait news stories and outright fake news that has infiltrated the mainstream media?
“We try to lean hard on authority, particularly for news coverage,” says Google’s Vice President of News, Richard Gingras.
“With regard to opinion, we surface a diversity of sources. We are not there to fact check which ones are misrepresenting fact or context. We do our best to provide an array of sources for you to make your best judgement,” says Gingras, a former news executive who helped set up and run the popular news website Salon.com.
The context of a story among thousands of others on the same topic and the localisation applied to give you news relevant to your area, meant it was unlikely that a fake news story would propagate through Google News, he added.
NOTED has been testing an early version of the app which has a much more visual interface than its predecessor and serves to highlight the brands of big-name publishers to a greater degree.
Serving up news free for anyone to access is popular with web users, but how can it help the sustainability of the news business itself? Gingras says the new News Stand feature within Google News will encourage loyalty to publications and open a new avenue to subscription sales.
“It starts with a very friction-like purchase experience. We reduce it to as few steps as possible,” he says.
“For many of their prospects, we’ve already got their email address and credit card. That’s why we can make it, in many cases, a one-click experience.”
Publishers could integrate Google News into the subscription paywalls on their websites, allowing quick sign-up to subscription or membership plans.
Dozens of publishers have already signed up to the service, including Australian newspapers The Australian and The Daily Telegraph. Gingras wasn’t able to say if any New Zealand publishers were on board yet. Stuff’s online content is delivered for free and NZME, publisher of the New Zealand Herald, is yet to put up a paywall, though is currently developing a premium content strategy.
Google wasn’t looking to clip the ticket to a large extent on sales made through Google News.
“We think it is a powerful suite of capabilities for a publisher. The Washington Post don’t necessarily need our help, they’ve got a big engineering team. But there are many publishers that don’t have that sophistication.”
“If they put that on their website it is 95 per cent to the publisher, five per cent to Google,” says Gingras.
“If it is via an Android app, it is 85 per cent - 15 per cent because we have carrier billing and other elements to take care of.”
“We don’t look at this as a new line of business. We want the ecosystem to be healthy. If it is healthy, we will be as well.”
The new Google News is rolling out starting today and will be available on Android, iOS and the web in 127 countries by next week.
Peter Griffin visited Google I/O in Mountain View as a guest of Google.