Google Blog Search just got a few upgrades — it apparently wants to become more like algorithm-driven news aggregator Techmeme, before that site let in the humans. Specifically, Blog Search has added more items to its “clusters” of stories about a particular topic, as Jeremy Hylton, Google’s head of search quality in New York, details to Search Engine Land. Now it’s trying to feature “the freshest and most authoritative blog content” using “a lot of signals…. [S]o the post that breaks a story and gets a lot of links is more likely to become the lead story.”
To be sure, this is better than how Blog Search used to work. Before, it was a hodge-podge of blog posts, often grouped around similar stories or often not. Still, like Google News — Google’s falsely dichotomized other site for “news” — Blog Search is nowhere near as good as Techmeme.
Techmeme has been algorithmically organizing stories since 2005, using a wide range of factors like timeliness, links and overall authority to figure out what stories to display. But unlike Google’s Blog Search, Techmeme has gotten more social with the times. It added a human editor to help determine what stories are most accurate and relevant — an open admittance that algorithms alone cannot aggregate the best stories quickly and accurately. Then, following the explosion of microblogging service Twitter, Techmeme began letting any Twitter user “tip” a story to make it appear on the site. Just link to a story and include the phrase “tip @techmeme” in the tweet. The combination of machine, human and the social web has — as far as I’ve been able to tell — increased the quality of the aggregator. Fresh stories are even fresher; the best stories are featured more often.
Of course, Blog Search and Google News cover a wide range of topics; Techmeme’s empire only spans to politics (Memeorandum), gossip (WeSmirch) and baseball (Ballbug). And those other sites don’t yet have humans and Twitter users actively helping to shape what stories appear on the site, so they’re not quite as crisp as Techmeme. Still, those sites get enough things right to be a good way to keep track of those topics. As an avid political news junkie, I check out Memeorandum almost as often as I check out Techmeme — I never bother going to Google News nor Google Blog Search.
So what’s the big problem here?
Generally, Google seems stubbornly wedded to the idea that only machines can filter news, while humans should have no role. Until it starts taking advantage of human actions — like real-time tweets about news stories — I don’t really see how its going to accomplish its goal of providing “the freshest and most authoritative blog content.”
There are more basic problems it should try to handle first. Like, why is Blog Search separate from News, still? Neither Techmeme nor social aggregators like Digg or Reddit have ever bothered trying to separate blogs out. But Google — in what seems to be a long-standing act of favoritism towards newspapers, the Associated Press, and a few random sites — says that only sites that have editors can appear in News. Everything else gets lumped into Blog Search. In order to qualify as “News,” online publications have to go through a manual review process at Google. As if that’s not subjective enough for a site that’s apparently trying to highlight objective reporting, Google News also clearly favors publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and some really random ones, like Channel Web, that I never see breaking news or providing sharp analysis, yet somehow makes it onto Google News nearly every day. Meanwhile, most tech blogs that have an editorial process and are in Google News end up marginalized, including our competitors like TechCrunch, AllThingsD, and — to reveal my own bias, yes, VentureBeat — along with many others.
Perhaps this favoritism, at least for the newspapers, has something to do with the constant pressure traditional media companies have been putting on Google to get it to do things like pay them for articles? If Google Blog Search is using links and other “signals” to determine relevance more and more effectively, why not combine it with Google News and let blogs compete on a level playing field with news sources? After all, quite often these days, it’s blogs and not traditional media that break news stories and provide the most meaningful analysis. In the meantime, though, Google News is appearing in every Google user’s top toolbar, and Blog Search is buried in the drop-down menu (guess which one gets more traffic).
Then there’s the fundamental question Google Blog Search’s accuracy. Let’s look at Blog Search’s “Technology” category. What’s this, the top story is about “Unity Kit of the Month Blog Hop Starts Here” — apparently a series of cross-linked, half-spam posts about arts and crafts. Oopsies!
So, I’m sorry, but as with Google News, I just can’t take Google Blog Search seriously as a news aggregator. Both are great for archived searches for things like checking competitors’ coverage of companies, but Google has a long way to go before they become more relevant to the news.