Thursday, October 29, 2009

Google CEO on personalized news

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been talking quite a bit about personalization in online news recently. First, Eric said:
We and the industry ... [should] personalize the news.

At its best, the on-line version of a newspaper should learn from the information I'm giving it -- what I've read, who I am and what I like -- to automatically send me stories and photos that will interest me.
Then, Eric described how newspapers could make money using personalized advertising:
Imagine a magazine online that knew everything about you, knew what you had read, allowed you to go deep into a subject and also showed you things... that are serendipit[ous] ... popular ... highly targetable ... [and] highly advertisable. Ultimately, money will be made.
Finally, Eric claimed Google has a moral duty to help newspapers succeed:
Google sees itself as trying to make the world a better place. And our values are that more information is positive -- transparency. And the historic role of the press was to provide transparency, from Watergate on and so forth. So we really do have a moral responsibility to help solve this problem.

Well-funded, targeted professionally managed investigative journalism is a necessary precondition in my view to a functioning democracy ... That's what we worry about ... There [must be] enough revenue that ... the newspaper [can] fulfill its mission.
Eric's words come at a time when, as the New York Times reports, newspapers are cratering, with "revenue down 16.6 percent last year and about 28 percent so far this year."

For more on personalized news, please see my earlier posts, "People who read this article also read", "A brief history of Findory", and "Personalizing the newspaper".

For more on personalized advertising, please see my July 2007 post, "What to advertise when there is no commercial intent?"

Update: Some more useful references in the comments.

Update: Five weeks later, Eric Schmidt, in the WSJ, imagines a newspaper that "knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read" and that makes sure that "like the news I am reading, the ads are tailored just for me" instead of being "static pitches for products I'd never use." He also criticizes newspapers for treating readers "as a stranger ... every time [they] return."


Marc Najork said...

Historical notes: Many years before creating Google News, Krishna Bharat worked on an experimental personalized electronic newspaper, the "Krakatoa Chronicle". A paper describing this work appeared at the 1995 World Wide Web Conference.

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Marc. Fishwrap and The Daily Me also were around that time. The idea of personalized online news has been around a while; its roots probably could be traced all the way back to Memex in the 1940s.

If people are interested in what Google currently is doing in online news personalization, a great and fairly current reference is the WWW 2007 paper out of Google, "Google News Personalization" (PDF). The very recently launched personalization features in Google Reader ([1]) also might be worth noting.

Barry Kelly said...

Imagine a magazine online that knew everything about you

Sounds like a vision of hell, and an excellent reason to stop using Google services.

Greg Linden said...

Hi, Barry. I agree that Eric's words were poorly chosen. I think what he meant there is closer to what he said in the other interview, that "the online version of a newspaper should learn from the information I'm giving it -- what I've read, who I am and what I like -- to automatically send me ... [things] that will interest me."

Anonymous said...

Eric is speaking like a politico ... if it were anything like what he says there would be real alternatives ... the reality is that Eric has been lucky ... his tenure before google showed he had no clue beyond his technical expertise ... his time at Novell showed only that he was a fool.

Unknown said...

I don't know if you remember the session at FOO we were both in, where someone said "I already have a perfect personal news source, it's called the Economist"

That has really stuck with me. Maybe the reason no one has completely succeeded in personalized news is that self-selecting a small set of publications, feeds and link sites does a good enough job for most people?

Unknown said...

Just wanted to follow up on kiwitobes comment that no one has yet succeded in the personalized new space. Feeds2.0, feedhub, dayly perfect, leaptag, ...

Any idea why it didn't work?

Greg Linden said...

Yes, Paco, and please don't forget about Findory too.

Findory failed for a few reasons, partially mistakes in business and financing that prevented adequate expansion, marketing, and licensing of content, partially not quite nailing the product, partially not focusing on targeting of advertising.

I think there is a substantial need, especially on the advertising/revenue side, for personalization of news. I think whoever ultimately succeeds will have a trivially easy to use product -- it just works for consumers -- where the advertising revenue is an order of magnitude higher than non-personalized competitors. So, success will be driven more by improving revenue for news sites (which, in turn, funds a higher quality experience for readers) than directly by consumers moving to sites that offer personalized news. This likely means that the existing big news sites are most likely to be the winners.

I think you are right that what someone sees using a personalized news site is subtle, more an incrementally pleasing experience -- "Huh, that news story is interesting, glad I saw that" -- than that the experience is obviously hugely better.

In general, looking beyond news to websites in general, personalization is an incremental improvement. Because it is hard to implement, it should not be the first thing you reach for. If you haven't nailed the basic experience on your website -- search, browse, speed, catalog, and usability -- then there usually is lower hanging fruit there to put effort into first.

Unknown said...

Insightful comments Greg!
What a basic experience would look like in the space? What are the fundamentals to deal with prior to introducing personalization?