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Is Google News the Tail Wagging the News Search Dog?

jarboe-greg
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Google News gets more press mentions than other news search engines. It gets more blog mentions, too. But, Yahoo News and AOL News have larger unique audiences.

So, why is the tail wagging the dog? Before we jump to any conclusions, let's do the numbers.

According to Topix.net, "Google News" was mentioned in 4,300 news and blog stories over the past year. Meanwhile, "Yahoo News" was mentioned in 2,600 stories and "AOL News" in 1,300.

So, Google News gets more media coverage than other two news search engines combined.

But, according to comScore Media Metrix, Yahoo News is #1 in the General News category, with 34.4 million unique visitors in December 2006. MSNBC is #2 with 24.1 million unique visitors, AOL News is #3 with 21.1 million unique visitors, and CNN is #4 with 19.5 million unique visitors that month.

By comparison, Google News had 8.6 million unique visitors in December 2006, according to comScore Media Metrix. That's pretty impressive for a news search engine that was launched in September 2002. But, does it merit 65 percent more media coverage than Yahoo News got in the last year, or 3.3 times more media coverage than AOL News got in the past 12 months?

The latest data from Nielsen//NetRatings paints a similar picture. Yahoo News is #1 in the Online Current Events and Global News Destinations category, with 31.6 million unique visitors in December 2006. MSNBC is #2 with 26.1 million unique visitors, CNN is #3 with 23.7 million unique visitors, and AOL News is #4 with 18.2 million unique visitors that month.

In contrast, Google News had 8.7 million unique visitors in December 2006, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Again, this is a remarkable achievement for a news search engine that graduated from its beta status in January 2006. But it doesn't begin to explain why journalists and bloggers seem fixated on the news search engine that Krishna Bharat, a principal scientist at Google, created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks to keep him abreast of developments.

Who's Doing the Wagging?

To figure out why the tail is wagging the dog, I contacted the folks at Google to get their take. They believe some of the buzz is generated by the fact that the Google News service itself is unique and takes an unconventional approach to organizing the world's news. Rather than have an editor handpick the top story of the moment, Google News organizes articles so that many different sources' accounts of a single story appear in a group.

This approach groups headlines from different publications together, providing users with multiple viewpoints on any given news event. In short, you can see your local paper's take on a story in Iraq, but you can also see how a U.K. or a Middle East-based English-language paper is reporting it.

The headlines on the Google News homepage are selected entirely by a computer formula, based on many factors including how often and on what news sites a story appears elsewhere on the Web.

"We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for people," said Nathan Stoll, product manager for Google News. Google News now includes 10,000 sources worldwide. "That's a lot of information, and we hope it's inspiring people to talk, blog, and share their views about these different points of view," he said.

Lewis D'Vorkin, the editor in chief of AOL News shared his own theory: "I think there's still a lagging perception that AOL is a proprietary closed environment. When people realize how many users we have on the open Web – 111 million in the fourth quarter to our entire network of properties and more than 21 million to AOL News alone – they realize that this is really a game of scale, and we have it."

I contacted Mark Glaser, who writes the MediaShift blog for PBS. He has been covering the online media beat, including news search, since 2002, when he started writing a weekly column for USC Annenberg School of Communication's Online Journalism Review. (In fact, his first column for OJR was about the initial release of Google News.)

According to Glaser, "Google News has had so much more media attention than Yahoo News and MSN and AOL News because it is attached to the 900-pound monster of search and all things Internet, Google. If you look at the raw number of media stories about Google over the past few years, it probably would outrank every other Internet company by a huge margin."

He added, "Plus, Google News is unlike the other top news sites because they haven't spent a dime on licensing content or doing original content, something Yahoo has done as the heart of its site. Yahoo spends on licensing, MSNBC has reporters and editors, CNN has reporters and editors and is part of a larger old media news organization. Google News' tagline, by comparison, is: 'The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.'"

Glaser points out that Google does have more human input than they let on, since actual humans are creating the algorithm, and deciding what news sources to use, and a methodology for ranking them. "Just because something is automated, doesn't mean that people didn't put time and energy into creating the way the page runs," he said.

Popularity by Association?

Finally, I contacted Neil Pharazyn of Newsknife, which rates the world's top news sites for quality to help them improve their performance at Google News. He e-mailed back his personal "off the top of my head" opinion.

According to Pharazyn, "It may not be worth looking for a cause-and-effect relationship between volume of press and volume of Google News (GN) users. It is common for there to be media interest in new and exciting products. There is no volume relationship between Apple iPhone news volume [massive” and sales [zero”. Google, Apple and their novel products GN and iPod are the epitome of new and cool [especially with the media”. There are bound to be more stories written about them. Who wants to write a story about Yahoo or AOL? Today, innovation is news."

Pharazyn suggests that Google's dominance in general search is contributing to its perceived lead in news. Entering the search term 'Iraq news' in the main Google search box gets 'News results for Iraq news' as the first search result, leading to Google News. "A huge number of people use Google daily, and one of their major uses is to search on the latest news about Iraq, etc. This is proven in an illuminating Wall Street Journal piece." (WSJ subscriber link)

According to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an increasing number of Internet users employ regular Web search engines like Google and Yahoo to get news on subjects of personal interest. In 2004, 63 percent of all Internet users said they had used a search engine for this purpose. In 2006, 74 percent said they have done this.

Google started including news in its OneBox results and Yahoo began including news in its Shortcuts at the top of their regular Web search results in 2004. And a query for "Iraq news" on AOL Search (which is "enhanced by Google") now generates FullView News Results in the right-hand column.

So, there are several reasons why Google News gets more media coverage than any other two news search engines combined.

So, why do you think the tail is wagging the dog? Please share your comments on this topic over at the Search Engine Watch Forums. As the saying goes, if you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Greg Jarboe is the President and Co-Founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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