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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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June 30, 2011, 3 p.m.

A year after its big redesign, how Google News is thinking about the best ways to present news stories

It’s been a year since Google News launched its big redesign, the first major update of the Google News interface since it launched in 2002. The revamp put a new emphasis on customized news content, focusing in particular on the social elements of news: personalization and, then, sharing.

The design you’ll see on the site today isn’t too far off from what was introduced last year. It still strikes a balance between personalization and serendipity, with a design that is dominated by a Top Stories stream, and filled out by customized stories, locally relevant articles, Spotlight-ed items, most-shared pieces, and other content.

But there have been tweaks, too, many of them aimed at writing into the service a happy medium within the polar aspects of news consumption: something between total personalization and total universality; between breadth and depth; between pre-existing interests and discovery; between want to know and need to know; between expectation and serendipity.

I recently spoke with Andre Rohe, lead engineer for Google News, to learn a bit more about the way he and his colleagues are thinking about news presentation as they continue to build out the product.

News content: breadth and depth

One thing Rohe highlighted: Google News’ desire to help users indulge their curiosity about particular news events. Last month, Google News tweaked its interface to make it easier for users both to scan for stories that might interest them and to dig deeper once they’ve found them. The Top Story on Google News at any given moment is now expanded — which is to say, visually contextualized, with clustered links and multimedia offerings — by default.

The expansion-default UI emphasizes the diversity of coverage surrounding a given news event, Rohe notes. Links included in an expanded cluster (just like a regular cluster) might include opinion pieces, local and international news, in-depth articles, satire pieces, and, intriguingly, highly cited pieces. (Relevant Wikipedia articles are also included — since, Rohe notes, Wikipedia can often offer great context for news stories, and occasionally even offer news coverage itself.) Multimedia — videos, images, etc. — makes it into the mix through a slider mechanism at the bottom of the expanded entry.

The updated UI lets people “get into the breadth of the story,” Rohe notes — and breadth, in this case, can actually equate to its own kind of depth. Some big stories will generate something in the neighborhood of 20,000 news articles, Rohe notes. “The idea is, how can we get a good summary of all the aspects that are inside of these 20,000?” The even broader goal is to make it easier for users to dig into the stories that interest them, and to benefit, in the process, from the diversity of news coverage that has been Google News’ driving goal since Krishna Bharat founded it. (And the fact that the default expansion is applied to the top Top Story, I’d add — a story that is ostensibly, if not always, one of some kind of civic import — provides users with a nice nudge of encouragement to explore the stories that are not only curiosity-inducing, but also just important to know about.)

Personalization: explicit and implicit

Google News is also doing a lot of thinking about the best ways to personalize news content for its users. The product currently makes use of two main types of customization, Rohe notes: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit personalization is the kind Google News emphasized in last year’s redesign, the kind that asks users to tell Google their interests so their news results can be appropriately tailored.

But you don’t always know what you like. So, starting this April, signed-in Google News users in the U.S. began seeing stories in their “News for You” feeds that were based not on their stated preferences, but on their behavior: their news-related web histories. (For example, within Google search and its other services, if you click on a lot of articles about Lady Gaga, Google News will serve you up breaking news about Lady Gaga.) “We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization,” software engineer Lucian Cionca explained, “sending more traffic to publishers.”

Google News is also experimenting with ways to combine explicit and implicit personalization — through an article recommendation process that surfaces stories users have exhibited an implicit interest in, and giving them the option to convert that into stated interest. (Have your web searches revealed a hidden passion for all news Gaga-related? Google will give you the option to make it official on your Google News feed — or to, you know, not.) Ultimately, Rohe notes, “it’s about making it easy for the users to say what they have an interest in.”

Mobile: updates beyond design

Google News, like so many other products at Google, is increasingly thinking in terms of mobile. In last year’s redesign, Google News launched an auto-local section, “News Near You,” that serves up geo-targeted news items. (I live in Boston, but when I’m in NYC, News Near You may present me with info about a new West Village coffee shop, or Bloomberg’s latest move, or — yes — Lady Gaga’s Madison Square Garden show.) And this April, perhaps even more significantly, Google released a mobile version of Google News designed especially for low-end phones. The implications of news consumption’s shift to mobile platforms are, to repeat the obvious, huge; it’ll be interesting to see how Rohe and his colleagues address them — and how consumers, for their part, adjust to the changes.

POSTED     June 30, 2011, 3 p.m.
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