Google Inc. recently strengthened its untouched-by-human-hands news service, news.google.com, and it’s quite good. Maybe too good.
Google has applied its Web crawling, searching and organizing technology to the problem of figuring out what is news. If you have watched the 11 p.m. news recently, you know that figuring this out is a task that exceeds the ability of all too many people with the title of news director. The random mixture of hype and trivia that gets presented as news is mostly useful as a lead-in to Leno and Letterman rather than a way to find out what is happening in the world. Well, maybe you can find out if the local sports teams won and what the national weather service computer guesses the local weather will be tomorrow.
And the 11 p.m. news comes off as sedate and erudite compared with the morning “news” shows, particularly the revamped (pun intended) CNN Headline News early morning show.
The newspapers and their online sites are much better, but their editors have their own ideas of what readers would be interested in or what types of stories fit the image they want to project. The TV news Web sites also are generally OK. But all of these sites take a lot of work and are constrained by the vision, or lack of it, of the news directors.
Google’s site works by scanning (it says) 4,000 news sites from around the world and applying the same ranking algorithms as it uses for its regular searches. Those algorithms seem to me to still produce remarkable results, with the site I’m looking for showing up on the first screen almost all the time.
What the use of these algorithms means on the news pages is that the set of stories presented is not constrained by a news director trying to fit the company image. You might predict that this would result in a far more eclectic set of stories – and it does sometimes – but not nearly as strange as I expected.
The top stories are not all that different from the ones on cnn.com, but the breadth is much greater. Today there was a lot of coverage of the Japanese Formula One race on the front page, where it was almost invisible on the other U.S. news sites I looked at (as an F1 fan, I thought extra coverage was good).
Because, it is said, no human looks at the results before they are posted, quirks can happen, such as stories on the Dalai Lama and a Hungarian decision to make the Nobel Prize award tax-exempt showing up in the entertainment section. But, if you don’t like the set of articles, check again in a few minutes; it will change. Because Google sells its software to corporations, the same sort of service could be quite useful. But will company executives be willing to not “help” set the view?
What could be wrong with such a service? Quite a bit, if you are a news director who wants to keep your job or someone else who thinks that news needs to be controlled. The latter is far too common.
Disclaimer: Controlled news, like controlled knowledge, is by definition incomplete, and not a good thing in a place like Harvard. But the above ramble is mine alone.
Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected]