Last December, Google made a change to its mobile search app: the addition of a news feed. Based on your search history and location, it started showing you news, sports and weather that it thought were relevant to you. Today, Google is taking the feature one step further by making it more comprehensive and more personal than ever. While it's only available on mobile for now, get ready for this to be a part of Google.com on the mobile web, too. And if it does, it'll be the biggest change to Google search in quite some time.
While Google tries to make its current feed as personalized as possible, it can't always figure out exactly what your likes and dislikes are. That's why, starting today, you'll see a new "Follow" button next to certain search results. Interested in Beyonce? Crazy about Jeff Bezos? Obsessed with Radiohead? Just search for them in Google, and hit the "Follow" button next to the results header. Now whenever you check your Google feed, you'll get news and stories about those particular topics.
The feed itself will look and feel pretty different too -- and it will enable you to take a deep dive into a particular subject. Let's say Google figured out you're a Star Trek fan based on your search history. The next time you check the Google Feed, you might see a card about the new Star Trek series. Click on the header of that card, and it'll essentially do a search query on that topic automatically. And, hey, while you're there, you can hit that aforementioned Follow button, too.
Google also took pains to say that the new feed gives you broader context on certain topics and interests. The simplest example is with movies -- when you tap on the title, you'll get the trailer video, the latest reviews and your local theater's movie times. Another example is with sports; you'll not only get the latest scores, but also an inline video that'll show you a related clip, like a recap of a great play at second base.
What's particularly interesting is when it comes to how the feed handles current events and news. In some cases, you'll get a "Related Stories" tray underneath certain articles, which you can scroll through by swiping horizontally. Shashi Thakur, a VP of engineering, says Google tries to have this cluster of stories show different viewpoints about the news. "This allows you to make up your own mind, by giving you a diversity of perspectives," he says.
This sounds pretty similar to what already happens in Google Newsstand, a separate newsreader app on Android, but Newsstand is much more focused on, well, news. Google's feed, on the other hand, is more about your personal interests based on your search results. So in your personal feed, you'd get stories about puppies and kittens (if you tend to search a lot for those) right next to your late-breaking news stories.
Google also plans to introduce a "New-to-you" function to the feed later this year, which surfaces much-older links to new personal interests. So if you're just getting into Japanese music, for example, you could very well get a link to a months-old story about J-Pop. You generally don't want such an old story in your newsreader, but it's OK if it's in the personal feed context.
Some hot-button stories, like the health-care bill or the investigations into Russia and the elections, might have an additional breakout box underneath the story that says "Fact Check." This would link to PolitiFact, Snopes or other fact-checker sites. It's a system that Google implemented back in April, and only publishers that have met Schema.org's stringent ClaimReview markup criteria get the nod as reliable sources.
What's more, Google's new feed is highly customizable. You can go into preferences and select the kinds of topics you don't want to see, and you can also make sure certain search results -- like when you wanted to know if the mole on your elbow is cancerous -- don't get culled into Google's algorithm. Plus, Google won't show certain sensitive content in the feed. A Google spokesperson said in a statement:
"The feed is intended to be your window to the web and to the world, keeping you in the know about the topics you care about. Built on Google's strengths in machine-learning technologies, we want to help connect you with useful information, but we also want to be careful not to show potentially upsetting or sensitive content when you haven't asked for it. For instance, we avoid surfacing certain sensitive types of content such as porn or hate speech, and we avoid inferring certain sensitive interests about you in order to tailor your feed (such as topics related to your religion or sexual orientation). We always welcome feedback and also make it easy for you to control the set of interests used to create your feed in the Google app settings and at myaccount.google.com."
Google's feed is then highly tailored, highly customizable and is defined entirely by your interests and what you search for. This stands in contrast to Facebook's News Feed, which relies mostly on your social graph, the people you know and whether or not a story has high engagement (aka what's popular). And while Google didn't say it explicitly, the appearance of the "Fact Check" box on hot-button topics is clearly a way the company is addressing the increasing criticism against fake news.
Seeing as Facebook has come under fire for being too much of an echo chamber and promoting news from unreliable news sources (which is really where the fake news phenomenon originated), it's easy to see how relying on your social graph for news might not be such a great thing. Facebook has done a lot in the past year to address this by hiring more fact-checkers and surfacing more diverse stories, but it still has quite a steep hill to climb to mend its reputation.
Still, it's a criticism that Google foresaw. As we said earlier, the company has expressed a desire to show a diverse set of viewpoints in the feed, especially in the Related Articles section. In a statement, Google said: "We've been thoughtful about designing a user experience that highlights a variety of perspectives on these topics: showing multiple viewpoints from multiple sources, as well as other related articles. Users will be able to fact-check, see other relevant information and get a more holistic understanding about a story." Whether or not users will want such diverse viewpoints in the first place (they might decide to block them in the app) is another story.
Over the years, both Google and Facebook have attempted to dive into unfamiliar territories, with varying levels of success. Google tried to get into social with Google+, which ultimately proved to be something of a failure (it still exists, but more as a community site than a social network). Facebook, on the other hand, has shifted from a social network to become more of a source of news. It's certainly made a lot of money doing so (thanks to advertising), but it suffered significant community backlash by not taking this responsibility seriously.
Now Google is turning to the feed business too, but this is something well-rooted in something the company knows best: Search. And Google's new and updated feed is basically just an extension of search. "Your feed keeps you in the know even when you're not searching," says Ben Gomes, another Google VP of engineering. "It's a stream of updates on topics are interesting to you." And who better than Google, to know exactly who you are, and what you like.
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