The first thing several editors noticed about Google News product manager Nathan Stoll last week was his age.
Speaking to the Society of Editors conference, Stoll looked out into an audience whose average age was a decade – or perhaps closer to two – above his own.
Just four years removed from an undergraduate computer science degree at Stanford University and with no background in journalism, Stoll acknowledges the “disproportionate responsibility” he bears by managing one of the great disruptive technologies in the publishing industry.
His success at Google, says Stoll, is measured in part by his ability to assuage publishers’ fears about the company.
“The publishing community has to succeed and believe that we have a complementary relationship,” he tells Press Gazette.
But judging by the prickly reception he received in Glasgow, Stoll has a long way to go before he can count himself successful by that measure.
For some publishers – watching covetously as Google earns billions from contextual advertising – the search engine’s success rests on little more than copyright kleptomania. Using snippets of journalists’ expensive labour, Google is creating search-result pages that earn it a fortune.
To others, though, such talk is madness. Complaining that your stories are indexed on Google News is akin to resenting WHSmith for daring to display your title prominently, some say. For that camp, the only question is how best to monetise the traffic that Google drives to their sites.
And it is that view that Stoll is eager to support. Google, he insists, is not a competing media company – it is merely a technology company that makes its money from advertising on search. As such, he says, it can exist only in symbiosis with a vibrant online publishing industry.
It is in Google’s interests to support the different models that online publishers may want to try, he insists, pointing to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which Google has helped remain visible to its search users despite implementing a subscription wall.
Google, he claims, is also attempting to help publishers create new products that they can monetise as they see fit, such as a recently launched news archive tool.
“We’re essentially creating a new distribution channel for the average consumer to get to news archive content that might be pay-per-view, free, ad-monetised or based on a subscription model,” he says.
The Google gatekeepers The main recurring complaint about Google News is its opaque policy about how it handles the one editorial choice that human editors must make – which sites to include in Google News.
A team within Google reviews hundreds of “source-inclusion requests” for Google News. Sites are added if they meet a simple set of criteria, Stoll says.
But he is coy about specifics. Only sites edited and organised by an identifiable organisation qualify for inclusion – sites produced by individuals or which allow unedited posting of material are not eligible. And there are some rules that bar “hate speech”.
Google also takes a broad definition of “news”. Satire sites such as The Onion are included, albeit with a health warning.
“It won’t show up on the front page, because satire doesn’t belong there, but it would show up in a search, because it clearly is part of the conversation around particular events,” says Stoll.
Google is also hoping to improve its search results to reward original journalism. Stoll alluded to a story, originally published by USA Today in May, that the US National Security Agency was collecting millions of Americans’ telephone records.
“When they ran that story, every other newspaper quoted them, because nobody else had the story. So one of the things we’d like to do a better job with is rating original journalism more highly. We should have been able to tell that USA Today had the original story.”
For love not money While the money made from Google’s main web search incenses some newspaper executives, the commercial logic behind its news aggregator rather elicits bewilderment. Unlike the main Google search tool, Google News does not carry advertisements. Indeed, for some publishers, that is the only reason they tolerate its existence.
“We don’t think of it as a revenue-generating or a cost product,” Stoll says.
In fact, Google News is something of a by-product. Despite generating no revenue, the news aggregator is valuable to the company, because the research that goes into developing it is also helping to improve the company’s main search algorithm.
Researchers working on Google News have focused in particular on ranking information in terms of timeliness. It is their work in this area, says Stoll, that accounts for the fact that news stories increasingly appear near the top of search results even within Google’s canonical web search.
“It’s important for a search engine to understand the freshness of content on the internet, and to the extent that we have a team focused on that, the brand helps our users to understand that Google as a search engine understands fresh content,” says Stoll.
Other justifications for the product are more idealistic. “Why did we launch an Arabic version of Google News? There’s not a market there, so there’s not a huge monetary reason for us to do that. But the value for the world at large is pretty significant if we can figure how to make Arabic perspectives available to the western world and western perspectives more available to the Arabic-speaking world.”
Negotiating the rights issue While the debate about the relationship between publishers and search engines has until now been polarised – between those who would welcome Google to index their sites and those who would follow the example of Belgian newspapers by suing it for copyright infringement. Stoll may soon find himself ironing out a compromise.
Following the Belgian case, which should be appealed this month, Google has been reminding publishers that they can opt out of inclusion in Google’s index by using the Web Robots Exclusion Protocol, a well-established system that allows website owners to block search engine sites.
Stoll took his opportunity on the stage in Glasgow to remind editors of this option. But he later also acknowledged that Google would work with publishers seeking to establish a new digital rights system known as the Automated Content Access Protocol (Acap).
Promoted by a group of publishing bodies including the World Association of Newspapers, Acap should allow publishers to issue more detailed terms and conditions for search engines that access their content.
If this new tool helps publishers blur the positions between the search engine pros or antis – those who desire traffic and those who would chose to opt out altogether – the young man from California may still succeed in persuading publishers that he is a friend, not foe.