Google has updated its news and weather app to create a steady stream of 200 relevant headlines to individual users, the company announced on its blog late Tuesday. Dubbing it simply “More Headlines,” the idea is to more directly address readers’ interests by circumventing search and browsers.
“You’ll also enjoy fast-loading AMP articles, as an increasing number of publishers adopt the AMP format,” Google’s effort to make slow-loading or non-mobile websites more accessible to phone browsers. “As usual, each story retains the goodness of a comprehensive perspective—expand a card to gain insight from different articles such as Highly Cited, Local Source and Fact Check. Everything stays algorithmic—from clustering articles to classifying stories to ranking the stream.”
The move was announced just hours after a separate update to create search shortcuts on the Google app’s home screen, a move this author considered redundant. It could be these two moves, which in some ways contradict each other, is a way of A/B testing which more efficient method is preferred by users. But this particular move by Google to create a collated newspaper as it were, as simple and monotonous as it may sound, is actually an offensive tactic against their major competition in news dissemination: Facebook.
Google’s advantages versus Facebook in considering news authority
Facebook has gone out of its way to imply it has that crown by referring to its homepage as a newsfeed and constantly perfecting an algorithm that shows users content from websites they constantly visit. But Facebook’s management of that power has been, frankly, piss-poor. The social network has been on the receiving end of infinite criticism for allowing deliberately fake news websites to pass off as legitimate while also silo-ing readers from alternate sources or viewpoints.
It is not clear by any means Google is going to be revolutionary and try dropping a handful, dozen or so articles from less-than-preferred or not-so-often-visited news sources into individual news collections, but this might be a chance to do just that. Regardless of whether or not it does, Google is drawing on information from across the entire internet when it builds its feeds; Facebook is limited not only to its own network but also the patchwork of rarely overlapping connections respective of each individual Facebook account.
Google News is far from perfect. It often gives weight to well-known sources when deciding whose coverage to feature and which websites should be relegated to the ‘further reading’ section. Large, established news sources can simultaneously be considered reliable and yet vanilla, as up-and-coming or smaller websites will often take greater effort to add extra information or analysis into their articles in the (sometimes futile) hope Google will recognize its coverage of a particular event as even more authoritative (in the same sense Geektime will sometimes take more time to write its coverage of particular items to best more established technology news outlets like The Verge, Techcrunch, or Wired).
Regardless of those imperfections, Google has been arguably more receptive than Facebook to the challenge of downright false stories and sorting out authority of sources in general. This is despite assurances the social network would begin flagging disputed content and outright blocking illegitimate websites. But looked at in tandem to Facebook’s summer 2016 updates that de-emphasize news pages in favor of personal posts by friends and family, the common human errors of those peers promoting fake news they think is real is a danger Facebook still must grapple with.
Google is not without its sins, but has directly shut 200 URLs out of its ad network over fake news complaints. Google has also encouraged further ‘innovation’ in news publishing and reporting in Europe with its Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund:
“We’re looking for projects that demonstrate new thinking in the practice of digital journalism; that support the development of new business models, or maybe even change the way users consume digital news,” Google Blog explains. “Last round we issued a call for collaboration–across industry and across the region–and of course we’d love to see this trend continue.”
It’s not a new initiative, but it certainly fits into the trope many have taken (such as the New York Times and Washington Post) that journalism is more important than ever in the age of Donald Trump’s persistent dishonesty.
Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg will have a tough time shaking off the ire of observers after his blanket claim in November 2016 fake news played no role in deciding the US presidential election.
Despite announced changes by Facebook either to de-emphasize news or to put the brakes on fake news sources, Facebook is eating time from users who could otherwise visit news websites during the day. Users are spending up to an hour a day on the social network according to Facebook’s Q1 2016 earnings report. His rush to play down the possibility is what frustrates people today, knowing how dominant Facebook is in deciding what viewers see and how they perceive it.
Other changes to Facebook’s like buttons that allow people to reflect on articles with an emoji also might draw more engagement. The more emotive the article headline, the more likely a reaction and focus from the reader. More emotionally gripping and ‘clickbaity’ headlines, sometimes sensational, were a major draw by fake news sources in 2016, and likely factored into Facebook’s decision to count poor headlines against content sites in deciding whether or not to give them weight.
Further, Zuckerberg’s recent attempt to play down the issue again seems to amplify his network’s credibility in tackling the problem.
“It’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t,” he said last week. “A lot of what people are calling fake news are just opinions that people disagree with.”
Being unable to discern opinion from fact would put Facebook at a massive handicap against Google for reliability. If this is something troubling Facebook’s algorithm writers, readers will be more enticed to trust Google News updates instead.
Yes, Facebook and Google are the main arbiters of news on the web
Some might scoff at this view of Google and Facebook. How can a search engine and a social network be in direct competition over news? The two sites are the largest referrers of news traffic on the web according to a report by Parse.ly, hovering around 40 percent each in terms of traffic. Yahoo was in an abysmal third place at 5 percent.
That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, meaning any efforts to tweak news feeds by either site should be watched closely. Until Facebook introduces its own search engine and web browser combo, or Google finally gets its social network efforts right, it will be a push-and-pull duopoly by the two websites that controls how we get our new information about global events. Whether they want to put the effort in or not, the two companies have an immense responsibility to balance correct coverage with individual users’ favorite coverage.