Is Google News scapegoating technology to cover up its inherent flaw?

When news is breaking, Google News is the last place on Earth anyone interested would want to be.

Well, the company is citing a technical problem as the reason that the Google News front page was an hour later than other online media outlets in reporting the death of NBC's Tim Russert.

If that's the real reason -- and you can color me six shades of skeptical -- it's a technical problem that appears to crop up immediately following the final breaths of celebrities ... not to mention other major breaking news events.

According to this The New York Times report:

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.

The "technical problem" (eyebrow-raising quotation marks are mine) must also have bitten Google News in the behind upon the sudden death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell on May 15 of last year. On that occasion, perhaps owing to Falwell's greater fame, it took Google News less time -- just over a half-hour -- to catch up with its speedier media brethren.

The real technical problem with Google News is that it depends solely on software to assemble its main page -- nary an editor is involved -- a fact Google has long touted as a virtue. (Yes, this is personal, too.)

Google News is great at aggregating news once coverage has gotten rolling across the Internet. That's what they do: sweep major stories into nice neat piles (actually, not always so neat). It's also great at indexing stories -- mine are often available via Google News within 20 minutes of being posted.

However, it's the need for a pile that makes Google News so slow when a story is red hot. Until that pile forms, the software apparently is reluctant to deem the story worthy of being featured on the front page.

It's not just major news outlets such as CNN that do better: Even social media sites such as Fark do a better job than Google News of putting the biggest news events in front of their audiences fast. This occurs because Fark has editors who can wield such power. While I cannot say for certain, I'd bet good money that Fark reported Russert's death well before Google News.

Personally, I learned of Russert's death via an e-mail from another editor who had spotted a one-line bulletin on the Web site of CNN, an organization that understands the meaning of breaking news. As I started rummaging around the Internet looking for details, it never even occurred to me to check Google News.

That's because when news is breaking -- and I mean breaking right now -- Google News is the last place on Earth anyone interested would want to be. An hour or so later, they're champs.

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Paul McNamara

Network World
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