Google News at 10: How the Algorithm Won Over the News Industry

Google's "billions of clicks" are only half of the story.

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In April of 2010, Eric Schmidt delivered the keynote address at the conference of the American Society of News Editors in Washington, D.C. During the talk, the then-CEO of Google went out of his way to articulate -- and then reiterate -- his conviction that "the survival of high-quality journalism" was "essential to the functioning of modern democracy."

This was a strange thing. This was the leader of the most powerful company in the world, informing a roomful of professionals how earnestly he would prefer that their profession not die. And yet the speech itself -- I attended it -- felt oddly appropriate in its strangeness. Particularly in light of surrounding events, which would find Bob Woodward accusing Google of killing newspapers. And Les Hinton, then the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, referring to Google's news aggregation service as a "digital vampire." Which would mesh well, of course, with the similarly vampiric accusations that would come from Hinton's boss, Rupert Murdoch -- accusations addressed not just toward Google News, but toward Google as a media platform. A platform that was, Murdoch declared in January 2012, the "piracy leader."

What a difference nine months make. Earlier this week, Murdoch's 20th Century Fox got into business, officially, with Captain Google, cutting a deal to sell and rent the studio's movies and TV shows through YouTube and Google Play. It's hard not to see Murdoch's grudging acceptance of Google as symbolic of a broader transition: producers' own grudging acceptance of a media environment in which they are no longer the primary distributors of their own work. This week's Pax Murdochiana suggests an ecosystem that will find producers and amplifiers working collaboratively, rather than competitively. And working, intentionally or not, toward the earnest end that Schmidt expressed two years ago: "the survival of high-quality journalism." 

"100,000 Business Opportunities" 

There is, on the one hand, an incredibly simple explanation for the shift in news organizations' attitude toward Google: clicks. Google News was founded 10 years ago -- September 22, 2002 -- and has since functioned not merely as an aggregator of news, but also as a source of traffic to news sites. Google News, its executives tell me, now "algorithmically harvests" articles from more than 50,000 news sources across 72 editions and 30 languages. And Google News-powered results, Google says, are viewed by about 1 billion unique users a week. (Yep, that's billion with a b.) Which translates, for news outlets overall, to more than 4 billion clicks each month: 1 billion from Google News itself and an additional 3 billion from web search. 

As a Google representative put it, "That's about 100,000 business opportunities we provide publishers every minute."

Google emphasizes numbers like these not just because they are fairly staggering in the context of a numbers-challenged news industry, but also because they help the company to make its case to that industry. (For more on this, see James Fallows's masterful piece from the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic.) Talking to Google News executives and team members myself in 2010 -- the height of the industry's aggregatory backlash -- I often got a sense of veiled frustration. And of just a bit of bafflement. When you believe that you're working to amplify the impact of good journalism, it can be strange to find yourself publicly resented by journalists. It can be even stranger to find yourself referred to as a vampire. Or a pirate. Or whatever.

And that was particularly true given that, as an argument to news publishers, Google News's claim for itself can be distilled to this: We bring you traffic. Which brings you money. Which is hard to argue with. As an addendum to this line of logic, Google staffers will often mention the fact that participation in Google News is voluntary; publishers who don't want their content crawled by Google's bot can simply append a short line of code to make themselves invisible. Staffers will mention, as well, the fact that Google News has been and remains headline-focused -- meaning that its design itself encourages users to follow its links to news publishers' sites. This is not aggregation proving its worth in an attention economy, those staffers suggest. It is aggregation proving its worth in a market economy. Google News, founder Krishna Bharat told me, is fundamentally "a gateway -- a pathway -- to information elsewhere."

Publishers, as familiar with their referral numbers as Google is, are coming around to that view. In fact, Murdoch's transition suggests, they have pretty much finished the coming around. In the broad sense of the long game, Google News is very much a product of its parent company: The service saw where things were going. It built tools that reflected that direction. And then it waited, patiently, for everyone else to catch up.

Concession Stands 

As far as the Google/news relationship goes, though, numbers are only half the story. Google has reiterated its stats -- did we mention billions, with a b? -- to, yes, pretty much anyone who will listen. But it has also tackled its industry publicity problem more strategically, in a way that even more explicitly emphasizes the "Google" component of "Google News": It has ingratiated itself to the news industry iteratively, experimentally, and incrementally. 

Google added to its team of engineers staff members with backgrounds in journalism, people whose jobs were to interact -- or, in Google-ese, to "interface" -- with news producers. It experimented with new ways of processing and presenting journalism -- Fast Flip, Living Stories -- and framed them as tools that could help journalists to better do their jobs. It introduced sitemaps meant to give publishers greater control over how their articles get included on the Google News homepage. Responding to outlets' frustrations that their original work was getting lost among the work of aggregators, Google created a new tag that publishers could use to flag standout stories for Google News's crawlers. Responding to a new cultural emphasis on the role of individual writers, Google integrated authors' social profiles into their displayed bylines. And, nodding to a news industry that values curation, it implemented Editors' Picks, which allows news organizations themselves, independently of the Google News algorithm, to curate content to be displayed on the Google News homepage. (The Atlantic is included in the Editor's Picks feature.)

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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