All the news fit for one
The India-born creator of Google News talks of how the individual will be its focus in its next decade.
When Google News was first created, the flashpoint was an event of international magnitude - the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Today Google News is an internet giant with 72 online editions in 32 languages and 50,000 sources.
As it enters its tenth year of existence, its India-born creator is taking a microscope to his creation. The next step for Google news is cutting its global cloth to fit the individual user.
Google News's founder and head Krishna Bharat started the site as a personal project. Initially named StoryRank, after 9/11. Since then, Google News has become an e-behemoth that sends about a billion clicks to news publishers each month. Bharat says when he first conceived of this project, he never thought that it would be powering one-sixth of Google's searches.
Speaking to the Hindustan Times at Google's offices in New York, Bharat said, "I was doing a lot of legwork after 9/11, trying to read news from different outlets and that was a tedious process. I figured, 'Let me just automate this, it'll be fun, let's see what happens.' Google has this notion of a 20 per cent project: you can explore something that is interesting to you. I had it working where I could not only rank the news of the day but I could also show links from different sources and I publicized it. Everybody said, 'Wow, that's a fabulous idea, let's try and put it out there for real.' So, we rolled it out pretty quickly."
Nearly a year after 9/11, on September 22, 2002, Google News was launched. It has many admirers, among them Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor of journalism at New York's Columbia University. "It's one of the most influential developments in the history of digital news, on a par with things like social media and mobile access." Sreenivasan was among those who brought in Bharat as a Hearst New Media Professional-in-Residence at Columbia's journalism school.
It took an earth-shaking global event to inspire Google News. But it is the individual that is driving its evolution. Bharat is looking at personalization in the "social context" to power the next stage of its growth.
As Bharat said, "We want to make the experience much more tailored to the users' specific interests. Either explicitly or implicitly we should understand, for each user, what topics they like to follow, what sources they like, what journalists they like, and track those interests over time and customize the page layout and composition of the news to match their interests. This is not to say we won't show the top headlines." The news experience also needs to be fast as well as immersive. The experience should be "almost like turning the pages of a magazine".
Most significant is the "social context" play. It may go beyond just taking the latest feeds from Twitter on a topic (as Google Search already does) to news through shared interest. This means, Bharat says, "Links referred to by friends, links referred to by people who are influential in the topics you like will appear with appropriate commentary." While one building block will be existing social networks, this initiative will create networks of its own around subjects of shared interest. He explains: "Every user lives in a social context. They live in the context of the friends' circle they belong to, and they also live in implicit social contexts based on the topics they like and the people who are very influential on those topics, as an extension of that social circle."
"You'd like to bring those people in as sources of links and comments to make your news experience more rich. That's partly what we're trying to do," he added.
Most of these, of course, are initiatives that Google News hopes to incorporate in the not-too-distant future. As Google's co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO of the Mountain View, California-based giant on Thursday, getting social is likely to be major part of how Google rejigs its strategy.
Google News is a global phenomenon and has a large India footprint. Bharat says, "Certainly, the English-speaking audience tends to access us quite a bit. We have a fair bit of traffic from India. Lots of users do without realizing it. So if you go to Google search and type Manmohan Singh, or type the name of the latest Bollywood film, you will get results that include news. And that's computed by Google News."
Other than English, Google News is also available in a few Indian languages - Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. And it will add more.
Google News also has a strong physical presence in India, in Bangalore, which Bharat personally established. He said, "Our technical folks are distributed between India and California, so half of them are actually in Bangalore working on Google News, doing very critical functions and making a lot of key decisions."
As Google News' India head Navneet Singh points out, delivering news through mobile phones, not just top tier smartphones where that service is presently concentrated, "is going to be huge in India."
Bharat became a news consumer early, growing up in an IAS household, with access to a wealth of Indian and international periodicals. As he pointed out during a presentation on Google News, he got "a pretty large diet of news" as a kid growing up in India. Today, on the cusp of turning 40, he's spearheading the next stage in the media revolution.
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