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June 30 2011

19:00

A year after its big redesign, how Google News is thinking about the best ways to present news stories

It’s been a year since Google News launched its big redesign, the first major update of the Google News interface since it launched in 2002. The revamp put a new emphasis on customized news content, focusing in particular on the social elements of news: personalization and, then, sharing.

The design you’ll see on the site today isn’t too far off from what was introduced last year. It still strikes a balance between personalization and serendipity, with a design that is dominated by a Top Stories stream, and filled out by customized stories, locally relevant articles, Spotlight-ed items, most-shared pieces, and other content.

But there have been tweaks, too, many of them aimed at writing into the service a happy medium within the polar aspects of news consumption: something between total personalization and total universality; between breadth and depth; between pre-existing interests and discovery; between want to know and need to know; between expectation and serendipity.

I recently spoke with Andre Rohe, the product’s lead engineer, to learn a bit more about the way he and his colleagues are thinking about news presentation as they continue to build out Google News.

News content: breadth and depth

One thing Rohe highlighted: Google News’ desire to help users indulge their curiosity about particular news events. Last month, Google News tweaked its interface to make it easier for users both to scan for stories that might interest them and to dig deeper once they’ve found them. The Top Story on Google News at any given moment is now expanded — which is to say, visually contextualized, with clustered links and multimedia offerings — by default.

The expansion-default UI emphasizes the diversity of coverage surrounding a given news event, Rohe notes. Links included in an expanded cluster (just like a regular cluster) might include opinion pieces, local and international news, in-depth articles, satire pieces, and, intriguingly, highly cited pieces. (Relevant Wikipedia articles are also included — since, Rohe notes, Wikipedia can often offer great context for news stories, and occasionally even offer news coverage itself.) Multimedia — videos, images, etc. — makes it into the mix through a slider mechanism at the bottom of the expanded entry.

The updated UI lets people “get into the breadth of the story,” Rohe notes — and breadth, in this case, can actually equate to its own kind of depth. Some big stories will generate something in the neighborhood of 20,000 news articles, Rohe notes. “The idea is, how can we get a good summary of all the aspects that are inside of these 20,000?” The even broader goal is to make it easier for users to dig into the stories that interest them, and to benefit, in the process, from the diversity of news coverage that has been Google News’ driving goal since Krishna Bharat founded it. (And Google News’ quite-logical-but-also-significant default expansion to the top Top Story, I’d add — a story that is ostensibly, if not always, one of some kind of civic import — provides users with a nice nudge of encouragement to explore the stories that are not only curiosity-inducing, but also just important to know about.)

Personalization: explicit and implicit

Google News is also doing a lot of thinking about the best ways to personalize news content for its users. The product currently makes use of two main types of customization, Rohe notes: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit personalization is the kind Google News emphasized in last year’s redesign, the kind that asks users to tell Google their interests so their news results can be appropriately tailored.

But you don’t always know what you like. So, starting this April, signed-in Google News users in the U.S. began seeing stories in their “News for You” feeds that were based not on their stated preferences, but on their behavior: their news-related web histories. (For example, within Google search and its other services, if you click on a lot of articles about Lady Gaga, Google News will serve you up breaking news about Lady Gaga.) “We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization,” software engineer Lucian Cionca explained, “sending more traffic to publishers.”

Google News is also experimenting with ways to combine explicit and implicit personalization — through an article recommendation process that surfaces stories users have exhibited an implicit interest in, and giving them the option to convert that into stated interest. (Have your web searches revealed a hidden passion for all news Gaga-related? Google will give you the option to make it official on your Google News feed — or to, you know, not.) Ultimately, Rohe notes, “it’s about making it easy for the users to say what they have an interest in.”

Mobile: updates beyond design

Google News, like so many other products at Google, is increasingly thinking in terms of mobile. In last year’s redesign, Google News launched an auto-local section, “News Near You,” that serves up geo-targeted news items. And this April, Google released a mobile version of Google News designed especially for low-end phones. The implications of news consumption’s shift to mobile platforms are, to repeat the obvious, huge; it’ll be interesting to see how Rohe and his colleagues address them — and how consumers adjust to the changes.

June 13 2011

15:00

Eli Pariser: How do we recreate a front-page ethos for a digital world?

At the top of my summer reading list is The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser’s new book that argues that the filters we rely on to make sense of the online world can do us as much harm as good.

While the book relies on familiar notions about the perils of the echo chamber, it uses those ideas as a starting point, rather than an ending, focusing on the algorithmic implications of all the echoing. One of the most intriguing aspects of Pariser’s argument is his exploration of the automation of preference — through the increasing influence of the Like button, through Google’s desire to make its results “relevant,” through various news orgs’ recommendation engines, and, ultimately, through media companies’ economic mandate to please, rather than provoke, their audiences.

That last one isn’t new, of course; news organizations have always navigated a tension between the need to know and the want to know when it comes to the information they serve to their readers. What is new, though, is the fact that audiences’ wants now have data to back them up; they can be analyzed and tailored and otherwise manipulated with a precision that is only increasing. Audiences’ needs, on the other hand, are generally as nebulous as they’ve ever been. But they are, of course, no less urgent.

So if we’re to truly gain from what the web offers us, Pariser argues, what we need is something like the kind of thinking that guided journalism through most of the 20th century: a notion that media companies serve more than, in every sense, pure interest. A conviction that news editors (and, more broadly, the fabled gatekeepers who exert power, even on the “democratized” web, over people’s access to information) have a responsibility to give people as full and nuanced a picture of the world as they can.

As much as we need filters, Pariser says, a web experience that is based on filters alone won’t give us that wide-angle view. And now, he argues, while online media remains in its infancy, is the time to do something to change that.

To learn more about Pariser’s thinking — and especially about how that thinking applies to news producers — I spoke with him when he came to Cambridge for a recent reading at the Harvard Book Store. Below is a transcript of our talk. (And apologies for the shaky camera work in the video above, which was shot in a bookstore office; apparently, I had a case of the Austeros that day.)

To begin with, I asked Pariser about a key aspect of this argument: the notion that the filter bubble phenomenon affects not only what the information we consume, but also our ability to put that information to use within a functional democracy. Here’s what we told me:

EP: What people care about politically, and what they’re motivated to do something about, is a function of what they know about and what they see in their media. We’ve known this for a while — that, for example, if you chop up television broadcast news, and show different sets of news to different groups of people, and then you poll them about what their preferences are, you get very different results. People see something about the deficit on the news, and they say, ‘Oh, the deficit is the big problem.’ If they see something about the environment, they say the environment is a big problem.

This creates this kind of a feedback loop in which your media influences your preferences and your choices; your choices influence your media; and you really can go down a long and narrow path, rather than actually seeing the whole set of issues in front of us.

MG: Interesting. So what should news organizations be doing, and how should they be thinking about this problem when they’re thinking about how they build their websites, and build their news experience?

EP: Well, I think, right now, it’s a little polarized. You actually have the old-school editors who say, ‘Only humans can do this.’ The New York Times, at least until recently, didn’t let even blog authors see how people were using or sharing their links; you had no sense of how you were doing online. That’s sort of one extreme. On the other extreme is this ‘if people click it, then it must be good’ mentality. And I think we need people who are smart about journalism to be thinking about how we import a lot of the implicit things that a front page does, or that a well-edited newspaper does — how do we import that into these algorithms that are going to affect how a lot of people experience the world? Whether — we might prefer that they not, but that’s sort of the way that this is going. So how do we do that? That seems like the big, exciting project right now.

April 13 2011

16:00

Gateway and takeaway: Why Quickish wants to cut the clutter and help readers get to the good stuff

It can be tough for a verbose writer to embrace the short form.

This is important, because in doing an email interview with Dan Shanoff about Quickish — his new site that offers (near)-instant analysis and news on sports — it quickly became clear the man is a lover of words. Shanoff burned through more than 3,000 words about Quickish, which finds its focus through short, deliberate analysis and lots of links. (Full transcript here.)

But most Quickish posts are at tweet length or not much longer — and that restraint makes it as much a conduit for news as it is a case study in why short- and long-form writing aren’t mutually exclusive. What both share, and what Quickish trades in, is “the takeaway,” as in the essential point of a story/event/game/trend, or the answer to the question all readers ask: “Why am I reading this?” It’s that need for understanding, combined with the accelerated pace of media, that Shanoff sees that as the underpinning behind news consumption and its the guiding principal of Quickish.

“The best reporters and pundits know that the real traction isn’t the commodified tidbit of breaking news — this person was traded, this person threw a key interception, this person said something provocative — but the entirely valuable (and hard-to-copy) piece of insight that helps us understand a story better,” Shanoff told me. “This new competition — not for the scoop, but for the fast take — forces everyone to raise their level of instant analysis to cut through the clutter. That the noise level might be raised by everyone rushing to say something is ok — as long as you have reliable filters (like Quickish hopes to be) set up to cancel out the crap.”

If we were to build a periodic table for new media, the elements that make Quickish work would be speed, accessibility, and brevity — all in the service of making sense of a news story. Quickish is what happens when you try to take a coherent focus on those events that everyone is tweeting about — it’s March Madness, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, or election night, but all the time. Quickish embraces the alternate-channel ethos that has developed around how we experience events and is built around that. A reader can get what everyone is talking about, but with the added bonus of context and insight, and they could follow it wholesale or dip in as needed.

“Once you recognize the ascendancy of short-form content — and, by the way, that doesn’t preclude longer-form content (at all!) — the next thing you build on top of that is a system to help people keep up with all that great content, to cut through the increasingly endless clutter that keeps you from seeing the really good stuff,” he wrote.

“And so depending on what the biggest topics are, to the widest possible audience, Quickish editors are looking for the most interesting short-form analysis or conversation about that topic — it doesn’t have to be part of a full-blown column; it could be a killer ‘money quote’ of a short blog post or a Tweet or a message board post or video; we’re source-agnostic. It could be from a ‘national’ outlet or a local/topical reporter or blogger with particular expertise,” he wrote.

This would be a good time to mention that in many ways what Shanoff is talking about is not new in journalism, we’ve come to talk about aggregation a lot in terms of the future of news (apologies to Mr. Keller). There is no doubt that what Quickish provides falls neatly into the category of aggregation. It’s Techmeme or Mediagazer, but for sports. Shanoff, though, is not a big fan of the “A” word.

“Why I wince at ‘aggregation’ is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘dumb’ aggregation of automated, algorithm-based systems (that inevitably fail some critical test of judgment) and the ‘smart’ selective, qualified recommendation that comes from an editor (whether that editor is Quickish or a newspaper/magazine editor or someone smart you follow on Twitter or a blogger or anyone else who actively applies judgment whether something is worthwhile or not). Everything on Quickish has been recommended with intention; to me, that’s much more active — and valuable — than a system built on more passively ‘aggregating.’”

If Shanoff has his way the site would be powered primarily off recommendations from readers. News sites large and small typically have some call out for tips, but Quickish seems to have tip-based updates baked in thanks to its Twitter-like nature. Credit for stories or takes gets a nod similar to retweets or hat/tips, and that’s something that Shanoff said is a result of Quickish relying on Twitter as a source, but also wanting a more transparent interaction with readers. It also tracks with another basic idea behind Quickish: The link as the most powerful asset connected to a story or post.

This also tends to build strong connections with readers who can feel a buy-in by contributing to a site. What you end up with — hopefully — is a recommendation-go-round, where stories and links get tipped to your site from readers, readers direct their friends to the site, and the process repeats in perpetuity.

“It is a long-standing tenet of online journalism that you want to encourage readers to make just ‘one more click’ within your site after the page they land on. With Quickish, we are thrilled if that ‘one more click’ is to some great piece of longform journalism that we have recommended. Because if you appreciate that experience as a reader, you are much more likely to give us another try tomorrow or when the next big news happens; isn’t that much more valuable than gaming them into sticking around? Here is a fascinating and powerful stat we have never made public: Quickish readers actively click through to one of our recommended links on nearly half of all total visits. Every other visit results in the reader clicking on a Quickish recommendation,” he wrote.

Considering all of this, Shanoff said the site’s design, minimal and stripped down, is closely attuned to the the content it provides and the expectations of the audience. Shanoff recognizes that readers are coming into news from various destination and on different devices, and that feeds an immediate expectation, it’s the “Why am I reading this” question all over again. Shanoff said for many publishers the focus is less on utility and more on squeezing the most value out of visits to a site. His take: “Don’t be greedy.”

There are two ways to try to engage people: You can try to force them — blitz or confuse or harangue them, in many cases — to try to keep clicking. Is that increase from 1.5 page views per visit to 2.0 really worth it if the reaction from the reader is, “Wow, that really wasted my time.” How is that kind of publisher cynicism a way to create a meaningful relationship with a reader?

The other way is to make the experience so simple, so self-evidently useful, so valuable, so easy that the reader might only give you (in Quickish’s case) that one page per visit for now, but they will come back every day… or a couple times a day… or tell their friends… or trust your recommendations… and ultimately have a deeper relationship with you when you introduce new products and features.

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