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April 12, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

Google teams up with The New York Times for its topsy-turvy trivia game

Q: Which search outfit will be running, for the next three months, a standing ad in the weekday print editions of The New York Times?

A: This one.

Yep. Flip to the crossword section of today’s New York Times — yep, in the print edition — and you’ll see, above the puzzle itself, a quarter-page ad for Google. An ad that takes the form of a trivia question.

The question is today’s entry in a longer-term experiment Google just launched: A Google a Day, an upside-down quiz game. Every weekday, Google will post a trivia clue — today’s: “My name is Robert. One day before my brother Rohan’s 19th birthday, our father had an album on the Billboard 200. Name the album” — and ask users to solve it. To answer the question, though, Google wants you to…Google it. And they’ve crafted the questions with that challenge in mind.

That’s an inversion, of course, of the typical trivia setup, where Googling for an answer is, essentially, cheating — and, if we’re going to be philosophical about it, a nice little symbol of the shift in approaches to learning and knowledge that Google is effecting as not just a search tool, but an epistemological infrastructure. A Googley world is a world where skill at accessing the information stored in the engine’s index complements — if not trumps — the memory of the individual end user. And that means that web search capabilities are a new, and necessary, form of intelligence.

“We’ve had the idea of building this type of game for a while,” Dan Russell, the Google user experience researcher who dreamed up the game, told me in a statement. “As part of the user research team, my job is to observe how people search. I noticed that most people don’t use Google to its full advantage because they don’t realize just how much you can search for and find with Google.”

In other words, get Advanced Searching, everyone. We’ve got media literacy and news literacy and, er, videracy; Google’s anti-“Jeopardy!” is all about search literacy. (Searcheracy?) A Google a Day’s questions are written by a team at Google, and, to really test users’ search IQs, will get progressively more challenging throughout the week, NYT crossword-style. And the solutions revealed in the Times aren’t just answers, but explanations. (To yesterday’s quiz, pictured above: “Searching [two presidents signed two did not] yields the U.S. Constitution. Searching [constitution misspellings] reveals that ‘Pennsylvania’ was spelled with only one ‘n.'”)

As Russell puts it: “With A Google a Day, we hope to educate people about all the ways you can search and all the things you can do with Google. The game is designed to help you get the most out of Google, triggering your imagination for the complex questions you can answer today, with a little help from the web.”

To make the game extra-challenging — or just extra-legitimate — for users, Russell and his team have actually created an entire, separate search engine just for A Google a Day: a version of Google that proactively strips quiz answers from search results. Deja Google is “a wormhole inspired time machine that enables you to solve today’s puzzle spoiler free by searching the Internet as it existed before A Google a Day launched.”

Which — for trivia nerds like myself — amounts to a fun, useful thing. But the experiment gets interesting from a future-of-news perspective, in particular, in its connection with The New York Times. To run questions — and, the next day, their answers — in the paper’s print edition, “we secured the ad space directly above the New York Times crossword puzzle for a trial period of three months,” a Google spokesperson told me. Which is, whoa, one long ad buy. The ads also show up in digital form, linking to agoogleaday.com on the free, “classic puz” crossword section of nytimes.com. I don’t see evidence of them in the main crossword section of the NYT site (though they might be included among the premium puzzles for which — forgive me, Will Shortz! — I do not pay). And the NYT’s crossword puzzle iPad app seems, so far, search-trivia-free.

Though it isn’t the only paper that offers games in its bundle, The Times’ crossword puzzle is, speaking of Shortz, the country’s iconic one. Which is why Google tapped the paper for its ad buy in the first place. “We thought it’d be a good fit with the New York Times crossword puzzle because we want to reach puzzle-lovers who are looking to challenge themselves,” the Googler told me. But, then, this isn’t a Times exclusive: “We’re also experimenting with it in a few other papers around the country, and you can find the questions each day on agoogleaday.com as well.”

Still, the experiment represents an interesting fusion of polarities: the search engine teaming up with the newspaper, the webby outfit working in print, the ad space filled with a game. For Google, the quiz represents another foray into the realm of content production — not news content, per se, just…content. Fluffy and fun and goodwill-generating. But it’s content whose purpose filters, so to speak, back to Google’s influence over the world’s information. Which leads to a

Q: Is the quiz and its placement in the Times evidence of Google’s openness to more direct partnerships with news organizations?

A: We’ll see.

POSTED     April 12, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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