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Summary:

Google is experimenting with adding a human element to its News pages, a new feature called “Editor’s Picks.” But is it trying to curry favor with media outlets that have accused it of “stealing” their content? Or is it an admission that algorithms are not perfect?

Google is apparently experimenting with adding a human element to its Google News pages, according to a report by the Nieman Journalism Lab. Writer Megan Garber noticed that the regular Google News page had a small box entitled “Editor’s Picks,” with articles from a number of publications selected by an editor at that particular outlet. So is Google trying to curry favor with newspapers and other media outlets that have criticized the company for “stealing” their content? Or is it an admission that the company’s news-finding algorithms aren’t as perfect as they could be, and that humans still have a role to play?

According to a statement from Google about the new feature, it’s a limited test with a small group of users, and allows “a small set of publishers to promote their original news articles through the Editors’ Picks section.” The screenshot below, for example, has headlines from Slate magazine.

screenshot courtesy of Nieman Journalism Lab

It’s a small step, and it may not ever become a full-fledged feature for all Google News users. The search company routinely experiments with new additions to its services, some of which go on to become official releases and others that never again see the light of day. For example, Google launched a commenting feature for Google News in 2007, which saw it reach out to newsmakers involved in current stories and ask them to comment, then highlight their comments in Google News result pages. But the feature was later removed, although no reason was given as to why.

There’s no question that Google could stand to have a friendlier relationship with some major news outlets. Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls such as former Tribune owner Sam Zell routinely complain that the search company steals their content through Google News and that it should be paying them for it. Google CEO Eric Schmidt, meanwhile, has said that the company wants to help newspapers, and has been experimenting with features that it thinks could help bring in new readers, such as its FastFlip service, which is designed for mobile devices like the iPad.

But this new feature could also be a sign that Google is looking to inject a more human element into its news selection, instead of relying solely on computers. Techmeme, a popular technology news aggregator created by Gabe Rivera, was originally controlled by an algorithm with little or no human input on which headlines were featured, but Rivera started adding human editors in 2008, and admitted that the algorithm alone was not producing a complete enough picture of the top news. Perhaps Google has begun to recognize the benefits of human beings as well.

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Post and thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Peyri

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