Growing up in India, Krishna Bharat read his local paper, watched national television, and listened to the BBC World Service.
“I was amazed how complementary the three perspectives were,” Bharat recounts. These days, he is Google’s principal scientist and best known for developing Google News, which has rapidly become one of the major news aggregators on the internet since it launched in 2002.
“One was a national perspective, one was local and one was the international perspective. And that is something that I’ve always valued. I think that Google News is trying to personify that by bringing together news from different parts of the planet – with different perspectives – on a given issue.”
Although his interest in online news began while he was a postgraduate computer science student in the mid-1990s, it was the outpouring of conflicting views following 11 September 2001 that lead Bharat to develop Google News. Suddenly, it seemed essential to find multiple perspectives on world events.
“Google News makes it possible – makes it trivial, actually – to read news from multiple points of view on any given issue, and when I see that happening, I feel that we have succeeded,” he says.
Bharat is gratified that Google’s statistics show users reading multiple news stories about individual topics. “It would concern you if a citizen were reading news consistently from one point of view because they probably wouldn’t understand all the arguments. The very fact that people are reading leftwing sites and right-wing sites and centrist sites and getting a balanced viewpoint tells me that they are getting essentially educated in the process.”
To Bharat, the internet is full of such opportunities to provide readers with a richer experience of the news. It has globalised newspapers’ readership so that British papers can now realistically expect to reach readers in the US or India. It has reduced barriers to entry to niche publications written by experts or for tiny local audiences that would never sustain a newspaper or radio station.
The net has changed newspapers’ relationships with their readers, creating opportunities to engage with bloggers and citizen journalists to augment traditional newsgathering. Look at citizen journalism projects like OhmyNews or America’s CurrentTV, Bharat says. “This is still a small fraction, but the internet has a way of expanding rapidly, so 10 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 100 times as many bloggers who are actually trying to report on the news. I think it’s important for the news industry to be part of this growth.”
Better still the internet allows new, richer forms of journalism that invite readers to explore stories further. “Traditionally, newspapers have restricted themselves to the space available in the printed newspapers. We’re seeing that on the web as well, but in practice we can actually link that off to more information and create a richer experience,” he says.
The only problem, it seems, is the sudden glut of information. And for that, of course, Bharat has just the solution.
Since its launch, Google has consistently presented Google News as an unbiased reflection of editorial content, which limits human biases by relying on coldy impartial mathematical algorithms to reflect the choices made by journalists around the world. “We look at how many editors have chosen to run brand-new articles on a subject, and we interpret that as the amount of interest in the editorial community and that’s the basis of the ranking. It’s not like we have an arbitrary process. We just ask the editors of the world what they find interesting.”
But not all journalists and publishers are as sanguine. Google News has periodically provoked controversy about what it includes in its news search, along with allegations that it is abusing publishers’ copyright by displaying their headlines and thumbnails of their photographs.
“I can understand why some of these misunderstandings are happening. People might be concerned that we are trying to supersede them, which is not at all the case. I think the experience people get in Google News is complementary to what they get in the newspaper.
“You go to your favourite newspaper to get the local news, its opinion on world news and everything that you want. Google News is just a place where you can find out what else has been said around the world. We don’t have our own editorial staff and we don’t own any content. We ultimately send traffic out to the newspapers out there.”
Google News works by ‘crawling’ news websites for updates far more frequently than the wider internet searched by the main Google search. It can do this, in part, by limiting the number of sites included in the news crawl. About 10,000 news sites are now searched by Google News in all the languages in which the service is available: a minuscule number compared with the billions of items on the wider internet.
But selecting sites for inclusion means determining what is “news” – an essentially editorial decision that has inevitably caused friction, not least because Google does not disclose the full list of its news sources “for competitive reasons”.
Journalists have frequently raised eyebrows at the inclusion of press releases among the news sources.
It’s a practice that Bharat defends, noting that PR material is clearly labelled: “In the browseable headlines, we never show press releases, because it’s not a news article. But when you’re doing a search and you’re doing an exploratory process on a subject, it’s important to know what the genesis of the story is, and often the press release gives you the genesis of the story. Many newspapers merely rewrite the press release, so it’s nice to see the official word.”
But press releases are just one debate. In January, an anti-fascist group highlighted the fact that announcements from the British National Party are included in Google News.
The BNP is still included in Google News today. Some right-wing US e-zines, however, have been crying foul after Google removed them following allegations that they publish material inciting racial hatred, which is against Google News’s inclusion policy.
“When we do remove a source for hate speech we communicate with them exactly what it is that they said that is a problem, and in the case of the sources that you’re referring to, I’m sure that’s fairly noncontroversial,” says Bharat.
In response to the controversy over the US sites, PR consultant and influential blogger Steve Rubel recently called for Google to be more transparent about its inclusion policy for Google News.
“I think the broad outline of the policy has been disclosed to the public, but yeah, this is something we could consider,” said Bharat.
While most news organisations are happy for the traffic that Google News drives to their sites, some have taken a rather different view.
In March 2005, AFP sued Google for copyright infringement in an effort to prevent the search engine from displaying its text and photographs on Google News. The French agency’s material has since been removed from the site.
In January, Gavin O’Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, told the Financial Times: “We need search engines, and they do help consumers navigate an increasingly complicated medium, but they’re building [their business] on the back of kleptomania.”
It’s a claim that Bharat rejects. “That’s a bit exaggerated, because every newspaper has the option of not participating. I don’t like the idea that people think we are taking something that they don’t want us to take. Almost all the newspaper providers in the world are still with us,” he says.
But publishers’ attitudes would surely change if Google were to begin selling advertising on Google News to compete with them directly.
“We have no immediate plans to monetise Google News. To the extent that it builds goodwill and fills a gap that was there in our coverage of information, we’re very happy.”