Google News has quietly added a new section that steps back from the ever-quickening news cycle to highlight “in-depth pieces of lasting value.” It’s called Spotlight, and like the rest of Google News, the stories are selected by an undisclosed algorithm. (This is the full-fledged version of a feature they previously tested with a “small percentage of users” under the heading, “Interesting Reads.”)
Judging by the story selection and a brief explanation by Google, the Spotlight shines on longer features that have bounced around blogs for a few days. Lifestyle and opinion pieces do particularly well, and The New York Times is a frequent source. Google describes the feature this way (emphasis added):
The Spotlight section of Google News is updated periodically with news and in-depth pieces of lasting value. These stories, which are automatically selected by our computer algorithms, include investigative journalism, opinion pieces, special-interest articles, and other stories of enduring appeal.
I see Spotlight as part of an emerging class of news applications that use the byproducts of online activity to surface compelling material. The best example is Marco Arment‘s blog, Give Me Something to Read, which features articles that are frequently bookmarked on Instapaper; it works because Instapaper is already a magnet for quality, long-form content. Delicious and Bit.ly, both link-sharing services, have recently begun to transform the remnant data in their servers into news streams. A new RSS reader, Fever, ranks content according to “signals” in the activity of blogs you trust. And Google Reader generates a feed of “interesting stuff” based on user behavior.
Closer to home, I’ve been loving The Hourly Press, a creation of Payyattention and managed by Lyn Headley, which mines certain activity on Twitter to surface “newsworthy” stories — in this case, about journalism. [UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: I corrected the preceding sentence. See Lyn's comment below.] It’s a prototype that could be applied to any topic.
Of course, Google News has long analyzed web activity to populate its pages. (More on that in Josh’s post today.) But in favoring content with “enduring appeal,” Google’s Spotlight seems to be searching for better clues that point to quality content. If we can’t see their super-secret algorithm, then at least we can take this as a reminder that the best stories may be hiding in our metadata.