Can Google News Be Fixed?

Dan Lyons, perhaps better known to residents of Cringeville as the evil genius behind the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog, has a curious piece in the current issue of Newsweek talking about the rivalry between Google and Microsoft.

It's curious, because Lyons -- who usually seems like a pretty sharp guy -- doesn't seem to understand how Google News works. Among other things, he writes about Microsoft's alleged attempt to bribe Rupert Murdoch into letting Bing index his empire of right-wing sites, while leaving Google out in the cold.

It's easy to see why Murdoch might like Ballmer's proposal. Murdoch has been grumbling for a while now about Google getting a free ride on his content. Google creates abstracts of news articles, places ads next to them, and keeps all the money. Google insists this lopsided arrangement is fair because some readers click on the abstracts and get directed to the original article.

Can Google News Be Fixed?
The problem? Google News doesn't carry ads. And if you use regular old Google to search for "Fox News" or "Rupert Murdoch," you won't see any ads either. (At least, I don't -- your mileage may vary.) Google News stories might show up among other Google search results -- and ads might appear next to them -- but that's really not what Murdoch and the other publishers deciding whether to block Google bots are complaining about, if I understand them correctly.

(Lyons also called Google's Chromium OS a "knockoff" of Microsoft Windows. I get the feeling maybe Dan was hitting the hard cider a little too hard over the T-Day break.)

Google isn't actually monetizing news stories -- yet. I expect they will eventually, and like most things Google touches, that too will start laying golden eggs. But as I've stated here ad nauseum, Google News is broken in many other ways, from how it "decides" what story is most prominent to how it rewards me-too stories with often higher rankings (and more traffic) than the original sources.

SearchEngineLand's Danny Sullivan spoke with Google's Josh Cohen last week about how G-New's algorithms work, but I can't say that anything Cohen said bears any resemblance to my experience using the service. For example:

Cohen also explained more about the balance between ranking the latest content versus the originating content:

"Say you publish something and then someone else sources you but adds no real new information. If they come after you, you don't want to penalize the original source for being first."

As if. Like that doesn't happen 14,876 times a day.

So I put the question out to Cringesters: How would you fix Google News? Reader T. S., who's also a professor of engineering at a large midwestern university, suggests using the same solution academics have employed for generations: peer review.

Peer review works pretty well, and there are lots of qualified people who would offer thumbs up or down on a particular story. I think that it is possible to construct, use and maintain expert panels in a number of areas, where the content is important.

Don't go looking for Google to suddenly hire a panel of eggheads to pore over its search results, though. (For one reason, it's unclear how many could make it through Google's insane interview questions.)

I've also been bitching about something deeply wrong with Google's Hot Trends's algorithms, which allegedly determines the search terms people are most interested in at any one time. (See "Google and the collapse of Western Civilization.") Reader R.K. takes me to task for even caring:

Google Hot Trends might be broken, perhaps, but then shame on you for paying attention to such drivel.....The amusing thing is that someone thinks it's worthwhile to pay people to write quick postings based on Google Hot Trends. ... It's a natural human behavior to exploit those things that can be exploited, and I guess this gives us yet another glimpse into the depths of our depravity.

Meanwhile, correspondent B. B. has a Microsoft-worthy solution to the brain-dread hot trends problem: Split Google in two.

Maybe Google could become two entities, one of which was tailored for the cerebrally impaired and another for the rest of us. I propose a simple screening process. People who Tweet and/or text a lot could be exiled to the first group. I'd be eternally grateful to opt out of the world where people give a damn about whether Britney Spears' cannons are real or which boy eventually gets Miley Cyrus to go all the way.

As long as Britney has her cannons pointed at the enemy, I believe we're still safe.

Appropriately enough, Bing just released its own "hot trends" list for 2009. The top term Bing users searched for this year is "Michael Jackson," followed by "Twitter," "swine flu," "stock market," a bunch of other dead celebrities, and "Jon and Kate Gosselin" (if that pair suddenly dropped off the face of the planet, the world would be a better place, IMHO). Yes, we are a shallow species.

In unrelated news: The CrunchPad is dead. Its would-be daddy, Michael Arrington, delivered the somber news on the TechCrunch blog this morning. So much for that "dead simple Web tablet for under $200." The good part? My pick of Arrington as the 2009 Tech Turkey of the Year looks more solid than ever.

So what tech things are you thankful for in 2009? E-mail me:cringe@infoworld.com.

Take the InfoWorld news quiz.

This story, "Fixing Google, slinging Bing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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