Automatic for the People

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It's long been held that computers drive economic growth by automating tedious chores that can be done more efficiently by machines. Little did we know that the chores would include news editing. That's the idea proffered by Google as it unveils its computerized news service. The site boldly states: "Google News is highly unusual in that it offers a news service compiled solely by computer algorithms without human intervention. Google employs no editors, managing editors, or executive editors."

Intervention would only muddle the works. Google News is all about speed. There's no time for meddlesome editors to argue over what goes where. Google scans more than 4,000 news publications to build a rolling list of headlines based on what the computer determines to be the most relevant and current news. The site divides stories into eight categories including Entertainment, World, and Business, and refreshes the headlines every 10 to 15 minutes. What you see is a beta version — meaning it's not perfect and there remains to be some "fine tuning" of the algorithms. On Friday morning, for example, at 8:30 am, Google ran a USA Today headline about the Ryder Cup, a golf tournament, while the competition was more concerned with a pending Congressional resolution on the use of force in Iraq. (Apparently, the algorithms can't get enough of Tiger Woods.)

For all the quivering that Google has caused among old-media players, ink-stained editors have little to worry about. Rather, Google's move is a swift jab in its slugfest with Yahoo! Not long ago the twosome played nice, but now they are fisting it out to be Portal Supreme. For the moment, Yahoo! News unquestionably has the edge. Devotees trust the site for up to the minute headlines, photos, and commentary from a cadre of well-known sources. Yahoo! also has well-trodden daily features such as "most popular photo" and other favorites. Most news junkies won't jilt it any time soon.

It's also true that news agents (or intelligent agents as they are sometimes called) aren't new at all. Sites such as the New York Times will electronically send out headlines based upon a reader's interests. Similarly, will suggest books based upon your past purchases. But Google doesn't care so much about your surfing habits. The search technology is predicated on the notion that what gets hit gets served. So Google's search results favor sites that get the most repeat traffic. Call it editorial judgment by dint of popular demand.

But Google News is somewhat limited by the pool of publication it searches — and many of them appear to be obscure Canadian papers. The other downside is that it's easy to lose the thread of a story since the page is updated so frequently. For those interested in tracing a story back to the very first headline posted, you can click on "sort by date". But this typically returns a disappointing laundry list repetitive AP headlines from publications around the globe.

Yahoo! might have the edge right now, but that could evaporate as fast as Colin Powell's opposition to war in Iraq. Indeed, Google News is an innovative stab at solving the info-glut problem that plagues so many of us. In a world of proliferating headlines from around the globe, news aggregation might be best left to the machines. After all, can any human editor really keep pace? The appetite for international news exacerbates the problem. Al Jazerra was an unknown news service for years and now suddenly Americans are interested in its reporting from Qatar. And that plays right to Google's strength since it can ostensibly hunt out headlines in jiffy from around the world.

But the true test for Google will be in its ability to choose headlines that people want to read. And that's certain to improve with time as the company refines its technology. Let's remember, Google came late the search engine party and quickly demolished the other players — even Yahoo! uses its search engine. The news service may very well follow a similar trajectory. So if the portal wars are over, somebody clearly forgot to tell Google.