Mountain view, California: The death of Tim Russert of NBC News this month quickly became a top article on the nation’s biggest news sites.
The front page of Google News took about an hour to catch up.
Google blamed a technical problem for the delay and said it was not a sign that its news site, whose content is compiled entirely by computer programs, lacks timeliness.
Still, while news organizations continue to worry about what Google is doing to their business, the company is far from achieving the kind of dominant position in news that it has in other areas. Six years after its start, Google News appears to be stuck in neutral and struggling to keep up with rivals.
Lagging behind: Krishna Bharat, creator of Google News. Google executives defend the news site, saying traffic is not a paramount goal.
Several online news experts say Google News has changed little, especially when compared with services such as Google Maps and Gmail, which add new features at a rapid pace.
Perhaps as a result, traffic growth is sluggish. With 11.4 million users in May, Google News ranked No. 8 among news sites, far behind Yahoo News, which was No. 1 with 35.8 million visitors, according to Nielsen Online.
Its growth rate of 10% over the last two years is far slower than those of most other large news websites. In the last two years, second-ranked MSNBC.com grew by 42%, adding 10.4 million users. Traffic at CNN.com and NYTimes.com grew even faster.
While it is clearly past the experimental stage, Google News still shows no ads, and there are no signs that Google is serious about making money from the site directly.
“I’ve actually been surprised at how little it has evolved, at least on the surface,” said Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the journalism school of Arizona State University. “I’m guessing that Google isn’t so sure what to do with it.”
Google executives defend the news site, saying traffic is not a paramount goal. Google News, they say, helps the company produce better search results and helps users find news sources that they might not know about otherwise. “For us, news is about search and helping people find information,” said Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice-president for search and user experience, who oversees Google News.
Mayer called Google News one of the company’s most innovative products, and said that it helped the bottom-line because Google News readers were among the most active users of Google’s search and other services. News results also show up on the company’s main search pages, along with ads.
“It directly feeds the main business,” Mayer said.
From its inception, Google News was built differently from most other large news websites. While news aggregators, like Yahoo and AOL, and original news sites, like CNN.com and MSNBC.com, create and license content and rely on editors to select and package articles, Google News is entirely automated.
In the same way that Google’s computers crawl through the Web to add pages to its search engine, the company’s news service scans websites and compiles the articles it collects into an index.
It then groups together articles on a particular subject and uses various signals—the placement of an article on a news site, the authority of a news publisher on a given topic, whether the article appears elsewhere—to rank those articles by importance.
Google News, unlike most other news services, which try to keep readers on their sites, packages the results as a set of links, sending readers to the sites where the articles appear.
By and large, news industry executives have come to accept Google News.
Still, some fret that news aggregators like Google News are eroding what little control news sites have over users. Instead of entering a preferred news site through its front page, users are being routed to a single article, perhaps deep inside the site, and when they are done reading it, they move on.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES