Disclaimer: much of this post is just idle speculation on the part of the author. If that’s not your sort of thing, stop reading.
Earlier this week Search Engine Land reported on how increasingly Google is including non-news sites in its ‘In The News’ element on its organic search results.
Websites that are not part of the ‘classic’ news media, such as Reddit and high quality blogs, are now being introduced as part of the news-vertical element in Google’s SERPs.
This may seem a fairly innocuous development at the surface, but it has all kinds of implications for the function of Google News as a separate search feature.
News as a Separate Index
For years Google News has relied on its own crawler, Googlebot-News, to gather the latest articles from a tightly controlled collection of approved news sites. This crawler feeds the stories it finds straight in to the Google News index, from where content is shown on the News homepage and inserted in to web search results as a vertical search element.
The ranking algorithms for Google News have always been markedly different from those of regular web search, with more emphasis placed on content and editorial specialities, and less on link profiles. Google News’s ranking algorithms are significantly simpler than those of web search.
Once a website is included in Google News’ separate index, the tactic called ‘newsjacking’ becomes incredibly easy, as by writing a news story with a keyword-optimised headline is usually enough to have Google insert a news-vertical element in its web search results.
You can see this in action every time Google has a new doodle, with news organisations writing a quick story on the topic of the doodle in an attempt to capture some of the incredible volume of traffic to this SERP.
These articles would not rank on their own merit, at least not in time to be able to capitalise on the doodle traffic. However, as Google News operates differently and has a much more simplistic approach to ranking stories, newsjacking is a valid tactic.
By all appearances, Google News maintains a separate index from regular Google web search, operating under different rules for crawling content and showing it in Google’s news vertical.
The Changing Landscape
Recently Google has come under increasing criticism from news publishers, especially in Europe, about how the search engine monetises these publishers’ news stories. There are growing demands for a form of compensation for Google using publishers’ stories in Google News.
Because Google News is a separate feature, with its own rules that are quite separate from that of web search, any demands for changes Europe makes of Google News are likely to be technically feasible. It would after all only impact on the tightly managed News vertical, and have little impact on how web search works.
There are, however, some early signs that Google might be changing the status of its News vertical with regards to web search.
Primarily, the inclusion of non-news websites in the ‘In The News’ box indicates that Google is no longer relying solely on officially approved news websites to fill the news-vertical elements in its search results.
This development, while not particularly dramatic on the surface, actually has far-reaching implications. If Google is now able to show websites in its News vertical elements that are not part of the officially approved Google News index, that can mean either one of two things:
1. The ‘In The News’ algorithms look at content from both the news index and the web index to determine what to show.
2. The news & web indices are no longer separate, and the ‘In The News’ algo looks at the whole web index to find websites fit for inclusion.
The second possibility seems more likely to me. Recent infrastructure updates to Google – Caffeine and Hummingbird especially – make the regular web search platform more suited for dealing with the fast-moving realm of online news. This might mean that there is no longer a strict need for a separate News index and ranking algorithm, as the web search algos can now also handle the demanding tasks of finding all recent news stories and integrating them in search results according to factors of quality and recency.
The Implications for News Publishers
If we assume that the Google News index is no longer an entirely separate entity, there could be some long term repercussions for news publishers.
First and foremost, as an integral part of web search, Google News will behave less and less like an entity in and of itself and will take on more characteristics of web search. That may translate in to ranking algorithms that are more in line with those of web search, which can make ‘newsjacking’ as a tactic less useful.
Additionally, publishers may not have the luxury any more of choosing to have their content included in web search but not in Google News. With a single unified index, it’ll be all or nothing for news publishers – either you allow Google to use all your content for all its verticals, or you block Google entirely and get none of their traffic.
This will also affect how government regulators and judges can treat Google News in ongoing cases such as those in Germany. Google News as a separate system is much more vulnerable to legal restrictions, where the entirety of Google web search is much harder to regulate (as the European Court is finding out with its ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling).
Google might be sending a strong signal to news publishers around the world: “you’re not special any more.” The privileged status news publishers are accorded in Google News is being eroded, and they are being forced to compete with non-news websites for the attention of the news-addicted audience.
It’ll be interesting to keep track of Google’s continued development of its News platform, and the impact it will have on online news publishers. It’s starting to look like both sides are sharpening their knives and preparing for an all-out fight.