Google’s relationship with news publishers has long been contentious. Over the years as newspapers have seen their sales plummet, publishers have grown increasingly distraught over Google’s decision to sell ads on Google.com and Google News alongside newspaper content. The publishers, of course, never see the profits from this.
As in any disagreement, there are two sides and according to Google, their services have helped news publishers. The leader in web search services and advertising asserts that they drive an invaluable amount of traffic to publishers because of their use of the publishers’ timely content.
Google also contends that publishers have always been able to easily block them from indexing their content. The problem, however, is that it becomes a sort of Catch 22 for publishers: if they block Google, they lose much-needed traffic, but if they continue allowing Google to index their content, they never see the proceeds from the ad revenue generated by their news stories.
Google’s news reading service, aptly titled Fast Flip , is being seen as a way for the company to make amends to news publishers — and turn a profit for all involved. Released at the beginning of September, this news hub enables users to access news and magazine articles from several dozen major publishers. The theory is that users will be able to “flip” through this content as quickly as they would the pages of magazine or newspaper.
Fast Flip is loosely based on Google News, but the company believes it will help address the biggest problem faced by most major news sites: their snail pace. Internet users who access their news online must contend with the sites being incredibly slow to load, and once they’ve actually reached the content they want to view, they’re then inundated by pop-up ads, rollover ads, etc. etc.
It is Google’s belief that if reading news online was similar to the experience of scanning through a tangible newspaper or magazine, more people would read. Krishna Bharat, a distinguished Google researcher who developed Google News, agrees that browsing the news on the web is much slower than it is in print-and that’s a problem. “When it is fast, people will look at more news and more ads, and that’s something that publishers want to see,” Bharat said.
Both Bharat and Google hope that users will use Fast Flip as a way to “immerse themselves in the content.” That won’t be hard to do given the layout of the site.
Fast flip is an easy-to-navigate, straightforward collection of news article images that have been collected from the site’s 36 or so partners. The attractively displayed articles are featured shoulder-to-shoulder in three rows, with each article being arranged according to popularity.
Users can also choose from sections they’d like to browse, including politics, business, travel, and entertainment, among others.
Any news junkie visiting the site for the first time will definitely notice the ease of use with which the site can be operated. Fast Flip even enables users to zoom into a specific article, section, or publication, choosing to either read the article on Google or click on it and be taken to the publisher’s website.
Gone are the agonizing moments of waiting for news, ads, and other content to download from news sites. Fast Flip makes “flipping” through content quick and easy, due in part to Google’s intentional stripping of ads and other items that have traditionally slowed down news-related sites.
Other features include a search engine that lets users share content. Based on their reading choices, users will also be shown computer-generated suggestions for other articles they might find interesting.
Google’s Fast Flip news service obviously won’t be the first time that the company will place contextually relevant ads around news articles. But it will be the first time they share resulting revenue with the publishers of that content. Google’s decision to share in their profits may not seem like a big deal to some, but according to Outsell analyst Ken Doctor, it’s a hugely significant change. “It is a chink in Google’s armor. It could be a path to peace and rationalization of the relationship,” Doctor said.
When Google’s willingness to share revenue is coupled with the fact that this new service has the ability to drastically improve traffic for participating publishers, it would seem very likely that publications would be jumping to be included in Fast Flip’s lineup. Though Google has experienced great success getting major publications to index their content, some major hitters in the publishing world have curiously decided not to participate. Top news chains such as the News Corporation, McClatchy, Gannett, MediaNews, and Tribune have — for some reason or another — decided not to participate in Google’s new project.
So, who is in? Major news outlets like BBC News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Newsweek have decided to participate; so have magazines like Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, Esquire, and Good Housekeeping. Fast Flip even offers strictly Web-based publications, such as TechCrunch, Salon.com, and Slate.
Unfortunately, the publishing world is in a dire situation with viewership, subscriptions, and ad revenue down. Though choosing to participate in Google’s Fast Flip news service does offer a number of perks, strangely enough, it can also add to a news-based website’s downfall.
If Fast Flip becomes as popular as Google hopes, it runs the risk of forcing already beleaguered news sites to compete with it. It’s a strange conundrum to be competing with a site that features your own content, but it’s something participating publishers have chosen to risk.
Martin Nisenholtz, Senior Vice President for Digital Operations for the New York Times Company says the competition is a concern, but it’s not reason enough not to participate. “Fast Flip could help showcase sites like The New York Times better than current aggregators like Google News do,” Nisenholtz said.
Fast Flip may offer an initial bump in traffic or ad revenue for some publishers, though most don’t have any grand illusions — or delusions — about the service being the cure-all for what’s going on in both the publishing world and journalism. Richard Gingras, Salon Media Group’s Chief Executive, believes that if nothing else, Salon.com’s participation in the news hub could provide a valuable learning experience. “I don’t look at this as the solution to the future of journalism, but who knows? We could learn a lot from it,” Gingras said.
Gingras, who was an independent news and media adviser to Google for a year before becoming Salon CEO, thinks that Fast Flip will help publishers by shedding light on how user’s viewing habits change when they are able to browse online material at a quicker pace. As a result, it may cause publishers to rethink how they present and market their news sites.
“On the web, you can go page-to-page, but it takes 10 seconds between each page,” Gingras said. “Ten seconds is more than you think, so the way we’ve been doing it isn’t as ‘browseable’ an experience as with print, where you flip through and view a lot of things quickly.”
Gingras is also a firm believer that Fast Flip will not only enable people to read more news online, but it will also add a degree of serendipity — or accidental discovery — to what they end up reading. Essentially, it’s his hope that readers discover interesting articles they didn’t initially seek out, which in turn, will make them check out different sites they weren’t previously familiar with. According to Gingras, Google has been interested in adding the element of serendipity to Google News for quite a while, but may have succeeded with Fast Flip without even trying.
It seems as if the concept behind Fast Flip has lit a fire underneath publishers to seek out faster, more straightforward ways to feature their content. Salon itself has recently set out to make it easier for their readers to find more of its articles without too much hassle. The very popular online publication will soon start beta testing a redesign of their website, which will now focus on organizing content by topics, enabling readers to quickly scan multiple articles that deal with similar subject matter.
“Any publisher these days has to be looking at how to create interesting units of content,” Gingras said. “We have to facilitate the use and access of that content in as many ways as the audience is willing to consume them.”
As of right now, Google doesn’t seem to have any plans to make tools available for external developers seeking to integrate Fast Flip with their websites and applications, but that could change in the future. For now, however, Google’s Fast Flip isn’t perfect and according to a spokesman for Google, there’s a chance that the news service may never become a full-blown Google product, but there are definitely some interesting concepts behind it that are worth looking into.
If nothing else, the user information collected while Fast Flip is around will help publishers explore new ways to display news, and the money received by publishers for their content doesn’t hurt either. We’ll just have to wait and see what comes of Fast Flip.