Taking Google News out for a test
By Raoul V. Mowatt
Published October 30,
Through the goggles of Google, the
world's top news topics on Monday included obvious choices like the
sniper case and Sen. Paul Wellstone's death. But Florida State and
The Web site recently introduced an upgraded
version of the newsgathering page it launched in April: colorful,
completely computerized, constantly updating from 4,000 content
sources, and with algorithms selecting stories instead of
Since the new incarnation was unveiled in September,
Google says millions have tried it. And with an increasing number of
Americans drawing at least some of their journalism from the Web
(about 1 in 5 do, and 5.9 percent say it is their primary news
source, according to a study by Nielsen Media Research Inc.), Google
News at six months raises some important questions.
Google's news page compare with all the other media out there? How
easy is it to use now? And how do stories and pictures assembled and
arranged by algorithms feel to human readers?
that's automated is always going to have problems," said Sreenath
Sreenivasan, who teaches new media at the Columbia University
Graduate School of Journalism. "But the way they've done it is so
Marissa Mayer, Google News product manager, said
that when the site started in April, it drew from 150 sources and
updated itself once an hour. Now it refreshes about four times an
It may seem odd that a search-engine company is dipping
its toes in the waters of journalism, but Mayer said it makes sense.
"Our mission is to organize the world of information and make it
universally accessible and useful," she said. "And news is a part of
the body of information that's particularly useful to
Mayer said her Silicon Valley company has been
getting suggestions constantly on how to tweak the service, but
wouldn't say when it might offer the next upgrade. Google is free
and has no ads itself. But after fine-tuning the news search, Mayer
said, her company would figure ways to make it
Here are some observations about
http://news.google.com based on interviews and experiments.
By the numbers: The front page generally has 26 stories, accompanied
by 20 small photos, and links to the latest variations. Under its
major headings -- World, U.S., Business, Sci/Tech, Sports,
Entertainment and Health -- there are 20 stories apiece.
news: That should be more than enough for the most hardcore news
junkie, great for an overview of what's out there, along with a
sense of how fresh it is. "The best thing they do is give you the
time stamp so you know when it's updated," Sreenivasan
Bad news: Since the stories are chosen in the
electronic equivalent of a popularity contest, you can forget
anything on quirky, off-the-beaten-path subjects. Local news? Not a
factor at present.
- Width and depth: Stories can have links
to accounts posted by dozens of sites, if not hundreds. For example,
Google gave links to more than 1,500 stories on the D.C. area
sniper, about as many about the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone
(D-Minn.) and 675 stories about the latest in Palestinian/Israeli
tensions. A reader interested in the World Series could find 1,900
stories about it, as covered by MLB.com, the Miami Herald, Sporting
News, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. "It
basically gives people a quick glance of what news sites around the
world are determining are the top stories," said Jonathan Dube,
publisher of cyberjournalist.net, a site that explores the
intersection of technology and media.
Good news: Conventional
news sources individually just can't match the ease with which you
can compare and contrast a story's treatment or research a
particular topic extensively. Similarly, you can look for columns,
in-depth analysis or just-the-facts-ma'am approaches.
news: Many times, links refer to the same Reuters or Associated
Press account posted by different sites. The sheer volume of links
can make it harder to sort through and find a unique take, let alone
the most interesting one. Dube said without the ability to sift out
repeats, "right now, it's just kind of a novelty."
roots are showing. As a natural evolution from its search-engine
ancestry, the site has a convenient place right on top to scour for
Good news: It's more powerful than some of
the other news-site search engines. It can dig up stories as far
back as 30 days ago. Most search engines on individual media sites
only allow a week's searching for free. Dube said the search engine
is more powerful than its competitors and probably the most useful
part of the site.
Bad news: It's still not as powerful as it
could be. It doesn't allow you to search by date, or filter out some
of the 4,000 sites, or use search terms as sophisticated as you
might be able to find on some databases.
- Top 10: Google has
a list of 10 topics that are in the news, judged by what terms come
up the most frequently on the Web sites it searches.
news: Top 10 lists always rock. Just ask David Letterman.
news: The selection of the topics and the stories underneath them
sometimes seem puzzling. To take a Monday example, the list had
overlaps (Game 7, Anaheim Angels and San Francisco or Walter Payton
and Emmitt Smith, who eclipsed Sweetness' NFL rushing
Brazil's President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula, actress
Winona Ryder (who is facing a shoplifting trial), the late actor
Richard Harris and "Wall Street," all make sense as hot topics right
But another category was "Latin America," which doesn't
seem inherently any more newsworthy than "Asia," "Europe" or "the
United States." That category brought up links to such disparate
stories as Shakira winning 5 awards at the MTV Latin America awards,
assessments of the prospects for Latin America's economic and
political future, and a New York Times restaurant review.
Computer magic: As a selling point, the site has bragged that no
humans were harmed in putting it together.
Good news: The
automation would seem to minimize the possibility of bias. It would
hypothetically be faster than human counterparts.
Human editors sorting through thousands of stories on the box-office
success of "Jackass," say, might narrow it down to the best ones.
Google just gives the stories in reverse-chronological
Sometimes, in its frenzy to put words and pictures
together, Google pulls a headline from one news source and a photo
from another. A headline from the Independent about Tim Salmon
lifting the Angels in Game 2, for example, had a photo of a New
Jersey columnist. And a headline from the Washington Post about the
prosecutor in the sniping case entering the spotlight ran alongside
a photo of sniper suspect John Lee Malvo.
wins the 21st-Century equivalent of John Henry vs. the steam engine?
Google has enough power to make it a must-bookmark.
much is there in the service that surprises, really, or that
separates it from the herd? Is the wide group of sources it uses a
satisfactory substitute for an editorial vision, for a
Its readers continue to be the judge of that.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune