Google has already disrupted plenty of markets — search and online advertising being just two of them — and is trying hard to disrupt many others, including mobile. So why is the company so backward when it comes to the news business? Dan Frommer, a former writer with Business Insider and Forbes who left to start his own one-man shop called SplatF, writes about how Google has refused to index his blog in Google News because it isn’t a corporate entity with multiple authors. Aren’t we past that by now? If not, we should be. This is just another example of how Google has failed to take advantage of Google News and its real disruptive potential.
In his post, Frommer describes how he applied to be included in the Google News index, and got a letter back from the company saying he didn’t meet the specifications for inclusion. And what are those specifications exactly? According to the email he received:
We don’t include sites that are written and maintained by one individual. We currently only include articles from sources that could be considered organizations, generally characterized by multiple writers and editors, availability of organizational information, and accessible contact information.
As Frommer notes, this distinction seems more than a little ridiculous in an age when anyone can become a publisher — not just with easy blogging tools like WordPress (please see disclosure below) or Tumblr, but with Twitter and Facebook and many other services. As Om and I have pointed out a number of times, the “democracy of distribution” that this creates is a fundamentally disruptive phenomenon for publishing, and I would argue one that is also fundamentally beneficial, not just for journalism but for society as a whole. So why isn’t Google News interested in being part of that?
News no longer comes just from organizations
Think about any recent major news event, and imagine how our picture of that event would have been different if all we had been able to look at were reports from media organizations as defined by Google. The revolutions in Egypt, the death of Osama bin Laden, the turmoil in Libya: Individuals either blogging or posting to Facebook or on Twitter played a key role in the shaping of the news around those events, just as they did after the earthquake in Japan or the disaster in Haiti. So why does Google News give such a preferred spot to news from organizations?
Even within the technology sphere in particular, individual voices are a crucial part of the news flow, whether it’s John Gruber’s blog Daring Fireball or something like blogger-turned-VC Michael Arrington’s Uncrunched. When someone wants to see what the technology news landscape looks like at any given moment, they usually turn to Techmeme (disclosure: I consider Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera to be a friend), which indexes not just blogs written by just about anyone, but recently added tweets that are related to the news. Surely Techmeme isn’t the only entity that can do this?
This isn’t the only element of Google News that seems antiquated; the site also continues to segregate blogs into a section of their own — apart from the “real” news outlets — so that you have to search specifically for blogs you are looking for. This might have made sense a few years ago, but it makes virtually no sense at all now. The result is that blogs written by reporters at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere are put in this category, while less reputable outlets show up in the “real” news section. And the definition seems fluid at best: is Cnet a blog? is Huffington Post a blog? What difference does it make, other than the tool they use to publish content?
We want the whole news, not just a subset of it
The real point is that Google has the ability to show us the whole news — not just the news that comes from established entities, but theoretically from everywhere (although the Twitter part is problematic because the company is no longer giving Google a feed for its “real-time news” search, and it’s not clear when that will resume). I’d much rather have that than Google trying to somehow improve the news and get people to focus on what it thinks are the important stories, which Larry Page has suggested.
But isn’t Google trying to separate authoritative news from the regular noise of the blogosphere? Perhaps. But there is an easy way to do that, which is to apply the same kind of algorithmic filtering to news outlets that Google does to search. The company’s whole reason for existing is to make split-second decisions about search results based on signals such as linking, site reputation, content quality and so on. Why should I care whether the result I get is from a one-man blog or from a giant entity like CNN? In many cases, I would actually rather have the former than the latter, since much of the latter is going to be rehashed newswire copy.
Google News has had a somewhat contentious relationship with much of the mainstream press, what with people like media mogul Rupert Murdoch accusing it of “stealing” their content. So maybe Google is just gun-shy about disrupting the industry — or maybe the news business just isn’t that appealing, and so Google doesn’t give it enough resources. The result is that Google News is a pale shadow of what it could be, and news consumers who actually want to be informed are forced to go elsewhere.
Disclosure: Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.