Google News has sometimes been called a parasite by news organizations, shoring up its dominance of the search business on the backs of publishers whose content it does not pay for. But the company is working at changing that image.
It has started working with media companies to improve their products for readers. Publishers struggle with the urgent necessity of wrenching some kind of reasonable revenue out of the digital sphere, and have been using ad technology that bogs down web pages, mars the experience of the Internet and annoys the very customers they are trying to reach. Google Inc. says it has a role to play in changing that.
Richard Gingras has worked in media – including as the former CEO of Salon Media Group – and is now head of Google News. He spoke with The Globe and Mail during a recent visit to Toronto.
The experience of the Internet is so bogged down in ad clutter right now. What's your view on how that can be fixed while continuing to draw revenue toward publishers who invest in creating content?
It's been such an interesting experience with AMP [Accelerated Mobile Pages, an open-source project launched at Google in 2015 to help publishers build webpages that load quickly on mobile devices – the median load time is less than one second]. We're now seeing in excess of 1.7 billion AMP pages in our index, being produced by more than 860,000 domains around the world; 35 million new AMP pages a week. So it's been very good progress. The Irish Times built its whole mobile site in AMP.
About six months ago, [we launched] a companion open-source project called AMP Ads. When it first went live, you'd see an AMP page load and you might just see white space for the ad – it might take four, five, six seconds for the ad to load. Right now, the ad networks have no incentive to get it right. You want your ad to appear? Make it appear fast. Deal with it on your end.
But then, we realized we could do something more for ads. The average web page has 107 ad requests. One of the things that AMP Ads does, it separates the server request from ad rendering so these things can happen in a smarter way. That's very new. We're just starting to get it out there now. But we think that will help. And we're seeing very good results. [Google says 85 per cent of publishers see better engagement with ads on AMP pages than regular pages, and ads are more viewable.]
Obviously for a publisher it's all about revenue per page. But less is more. You know as well as I do, you go to sites today and you can't even bear to experience it – the janky-ness, an ad that pops up in the middle of your reading experience. You're going, "Why am I on this site?" It's just so self-defeating.
People are reacting to that experience by using ad blockers in ever greater numbers. There's a contract with users that has been violated – I don't mind so much if an advertiser wants to talk to me; I do mind if they're messing up the experience I came to the Internet to get, and doing shady dealing on the side with my personal information.
That's absolutely true. The almost desperate quest for near-term revenue has caused behaviours that are so negative for the brand. Ages ago, like 40 years ago, I was doing some work with The New Yorker, and one of the things I learned was that they fact-checked every ad in the book. If you were offering Adirondack chairs, they'd check you out. They'd order an Adirondack chair. It made perfect, elegant sense: the advertising in our product needs to reflect the values of the brand, because if it doesn't, then it's negative to the brand. It is such an important core principle. Again, it's hard because of the desperation [of many publishers]. But it doesn't make it any less important to figure out how to get that right.
Facebook has developed Instant Articles that also load stories in very little time, and publishers recently have been pulling back on that project. What's the difference between Facebook and Google in how you manage the relationship with publishers?
There's no deal structure to AMP. There's no licensing, no revenue-sharing, no rules about how many ads you can have – I mean, there are rules about what loads first and so on. It leaves the publisher in control of their content, their business model. That's not the case with Instant Articles. It is obviously designed to provide a better experience inside Facebook, with rules that are set by Facebook. That's up to Facebook to decide, but from a publisher perspective, that's not an attractive proposition – and with walled gardens, [it] gets more onerous as time goes on, particularly if you have a dominant environment where you feel like you can't not participate.
There's certainly a lot of traffic on those sites. We've pushed the concept – and some publishers have been doing this – saying, "Instead of doing Instant Articles why don't you share the AMP versions of your documents in Facebook? The speed is almost the same." Hopefully over time Facebook will maybe see the value in making sure that the open ecosystem is also an objective that they share. That's really their decision.
What else are you focused on right now?
One of the things I'd like to get more focus on is how do we do a better job of understanding the expertise behind the article? When I was running Salon, Glenn Greenwald was there. He left to go to the Guardian, where he won his Pulitzer, and then on to the Intercept. Interestingly, our systems don't really recognize Glenn Greenwald as an individual with expertise in say, national surveillance matters; we understand Salon, we understand the Guardian, we understand the Intercept. Can we do a better job understanding expertise? I've always been fascinated by research that shows Google News is not the most trusted, but a most trusted news source. The reason [people] felt that way was that we presented a diversity of articles. It was more than just one perspective.
Where we increasingly want to go is, how do we give on any given subject, a 360-degree perspective on the issue? Yes, you want to give them the breaking news coverage, but that's just one piece. Can you give them a backgrounder on it? Can you give them opinion pieces from different perspectives? If there's some data journalism related to the issue can we surface that? If it's a law before Congress, can we surface the profile and the voting record of your congressman? How do we give you that full perspective on a subject, such that you can be more informed and hopefully form better conclusions?
People want more control over their data. What role does Google play in making the Web better trusted, and more transparent to users?
It's always been my policy that [Google News] doesn't share data with third parties, and that the user is in control. The changes we've made over the last several years is simply, how do we make that more understandable, easier for the user to control? The philosophy hasn't changed. Our tactics could be improved, and user experiences could be improved. The ultimate accountability for Google is the fact that the user can leave at the click of a mouse. There are competitors out there. People say, "Yeah, but you're so dominant." But there are competitors out there, and it's certainly not hard to switch. Either we continue to work to gain and hold their trust, or we don't have a business. Simple as that.
Google is incredibly dominant, but it wasn't that long ago that Yahoo was fairly dominant.
I think about that stuff all the time. Larry Page, to his credit, he always would tell us, recognize that it's a fast-changing world. Do not slack off in continuing to improve your approaches and hold that user's trust. Even things like fake news – that's painful to us. We had comparatively modest number of instances of fake news on Google search, none on Google News. But it only takes one. That one example of the popular vote, that's devastating. [In November, Google searches for election results gave top billing to a blog post inaccurately claiming that Donald Trump had won the popular vote in the U.S. election. Hillary Clinton received the most votes over all, while Mr. Trump won the Electoral College, and therefore the election.] You can only imagine the alarm bells that went off inside Google when that happened. We know that [fake news is] a cat-and-mouse game and there are always going to be issues, but you want to be proactive and make sure those fails don't happen at all – or happen with tremendous infrequency. That one was just a bad fail.
This interview has been edited and condensed.