Almost every time I talk to a journalist who spends a lot of time online and the subject of Google News comes up, there is a shared sense of frustration: namely, frustration over how little the site has changed over the years since it launched, and how much more it could do if Google really wanted it to — what a powerful tool it could be. I was reminded of this again when I came across a presentation that a German designer came up with that involved a wholesale redesign and re-thinking of what Google News is and does.
I found George Kvasnikov’s presentation because of a post at the design and culture site PSFK — the original was posted on the design community Behance a couple of months ago, after what Kvasnikov said was a lot of brainstorming followed by about five weeks worth of wireframing and other mockup-related work. What he came up with isn’t perfect by any means, but it has some interesting elements — and at least it is an attempt to bring Google News kicking and screaming into the future, instead of looking like it was embalmed not long after it launched.
For starters, I think Kvasnikov improved the overall look and user interface of Google News, by making better use of images, by grouping related news stories more effectively, and by making the navigation a little more obvious. I’m not crazy about some of the design elements, and I think it could come off as a little cluttered, but it looks light-years better than what’s there now:
As part of the redesign, Kvasnikov also introduced a new feature that would make Google News even more useful: He calls it “coverages,” but a better term might be “topics” or “story clusters.” The idea is that readers could create their own clusters of related stories on specific topics — and then Google News would presumably use that information to recommend new items to add, and then those sections would gradually grow smarter over time.
This type of personalization is something that Google News is still not very good at, which is kind of surprising given the thousands of PhDs who work there. Admittedly, tweaking those kinds of settings isn’t something most casual readers are going to do, just as most people probably never spent much time creating “circles” in Google+, but for those who did, it could become a useful feature — and maybe it could automatically find typos in headlines.
Better still, Kvasnikov’s redesign would have Google News automatically suggest related stories on a news topic that are from a different perspective than the original — as a way of encouraging readers to expose themselves to alternative viewpoints. This is a little like a project that came out of the recent Al Jazeera news hackathon, called Perspectives, which proposed a similar feature for news sites. Another similar one was called Re-Frame, which was designed to bring forward local viewpoints on international stories like Ebola.
What I like even better is that Kvasnikov suggests that Google News could surface commentary on news events from individuals who are actually on the scene — by searching or filtering through social media and other sources. This would be hugely useful, in my opinion. Google could quite easily provide a consumer-level version of what Storyful does, by aggregating all of the images and video and tweets related to a news event, or it could just license Storyful.
Kvasnikov adds another unique suggestion for Google News, which is the ability for users to add their own coverage to a developing topic or news event. It isn’t very fleshed out, but this would be a truly radical concept for Google to implement. Imagine if Google could start to pull in the kind of content that now goes to Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram. The company dipped a toe into this area with an interesting experiment called Google Comments, in which staffers actually sought out quotes from newsmakers, but it died a fairly quick death.
Why doesn’t Google do more with Google News? I’ve spoken to a number of Googlers about it off the record, and it sounds like a combination of things: one is that news is a touchy area, since Google is continually accused of stealing content from publishers — which has caused no end of problems in Germany and elsewhere — and so it doesn’t really want to stir the pot too much by making it super useful (although Google News head Richard Gingras is involved in an interesting experiment designed to help improve the trustworthiness of the news, called the Trust Project).
The other thing I have heard is that Google News, like many other aspects of Google, is run by engineers and product managers, not by journalists — and so any feature additions or redesigns have to be sold to engineers first, and they aren’t especially interested in touchy-feely things like highlighting alternative perspectives or embracing user-generated content. Which is too bad, because Kvasnikov has some interesting ideas that are worth exploring.