Google’s Cohen: Make Sure User Experience Comes First, Not Search Engine Visibility

Google’s dominance in chiseling user behavior has redefined news consumption. In one recent report citing comScore data, more users obtain news from the Internet giant than from any other news properties. In addition, Google News reportedly sends 1 billion referrals a month to publishers.

The root of Google’s success at organizing information, brokering ads and making immense profit is PageRank. That “secret sauce” virtually created the link economy and erected a technological empire that spans from search to mobile to cloud computing. And so it’s worth revisiting how Google News has become an inseparable mate to journalism.

That PageRank is closely guarded is an understatement, but the principle behind the algorithm has been widely chronicled: Google founder Larry Page believes that the amount of “inbound links” garnered by a Web page generally reflects its relevancy on a particular subject. It’s a system that factors in users’ votes in the form of link volume.

Google also “analyzes the page that casts the vote.” The company reportedly assigns a quality score to each Web site it indexes, with 10 being the highest mark. News sites get extra recognition in this regard. NYTimes.com gets 9. Wsj.com gets 8, and my former employer, ajc.com, gets 7. Check them out for yourself. (It’s common for a small business to get a 3.)

Why do links matter? Links increase the size of your audience. The publisher then can charge advertisers more, particularly for display ads on the cost-per-impression basis.

That’s why “link building” is a top priority to search engine optimizers. It is so lucrative that buying and selling links has become a cottage industry within search marketing. Dubious practices have fed off this frenzy — among them “link farms,” which Google frowns upon.

Google News chief Josh Cohen says a key to success in online publishing is this: Focus on “creating a more engaging experience for the users so that they spend a longer period of time per visit.”

But, if Google cares so much about journalism, why not tweak PageRank and give more weight to news sites? (AP, which has been negotiating its contract with Google, reportedly wants its content ranked higher.)

“One person’s branded or ‘high quality’ information isn’t necessarily going to align with another’s. So having some human come in and say, ‘Well, this is good journalism and that is bad journalism’ isn’t consistent with our approach of trying to show unbiased results,” said Cohen, product manager for Google News, in a phone interview.

Google beat other search engines to the top because of this commitment to users and its precision. In his book, “Googled,” New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta writes that early search engines spewed results solely based on the number of keywords. Some of them manipulated search results by giving more visibility to their sponsors and advertisers.

Google’s “organic search” results are considered sacred. PageRank won’t favor anyone’s content. In fact, a wall exists between organic search and paid search in Google, almost like a news operation’s separation of editorial and advertising. No matter how much you spend on Google’s AdWords or AdSense advertising programs, your “organic” search ranking won’t be affected.

But some people have figured out how to game the system and rank high in Google’s general Web search. In recent posts, ReadWriteWeb.com, TechCrunch and other bloggers note Google’s failure to filter sites like Demand’s eHow.com or Answer.com that publish thousands of pages a day by hiring low-paid freelancers to generate more clickthroughs and get online ad revenues.

“Content” is what everyone seems to want these days. That’s why you see a rise of customized news creators like Brafton, a company that creates tailored news feeds for paying clients for the sole purposes of search engine optimization. At an annual Internet advertising conference in Las Vegas called PubCon in November, a German-headquartered company, TextBroker, had a sales booth. It promised to create articles. The starting rate? A penny a word.

So, how much does Google value news content?

“I think they value it significantly. They have an entire search engine dedicated to news,” said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, an online trade publication.

Google News’s own search engine crawls what it consider legitimate news sites and indexes content in real time. Google News, debuted in 2006, takes into account who produces the news reports. In other words, reputation matters in the rankings.

“On the News side, we certainly do take a look at the qualitative measures in trying to do our results, but that’s done algorithmically,” said Cohen.

Cohen said news sites should focus on the user experience after the user is referred from Google News and lands on the very page where the content is carried. Make sure the user experience comes first, not the search engine visibility, he said.

“Don’t write pages or create products for search engine optimization. If it’s helpful and benefits the user, it’s going to reflect in the ranking as well,” Cohen said.

Two experimental products recently released by Google News aim to heighten user experience when it comes to reading news. “Fast Flip” enables users to flip through news content as they would with a magazine, while Living Stories” sorts news updates topically. “Living Stories,” created by Google software engineers with input from The New York Times and The Washington Post, is designed to draw online readers deeper into current affairs.

Publishers can organize all stories on one subject under one URL, “all in one place.” That balances “The Atomic Unit of Consumption,” a term coined by Google’s Vice President of Search Products and User Experience Marissa Mayer. The “atomic” framework recognizes that people are not reading from page to page within a publication like they do with print products. Each article online, she says, is independent of the rest of the publication.

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Sullivan said Google News still has to do a better job of giving higher rankings to those who break the news first. Another aggregator containing your information may show up higher because that site’s domain has more “link juice,” such as the social referral site, Digg.

Google spokesman Chris Gaither says Google News is aware of the issue: “We try to balance those two things. Crediting the original source and letting users see the latest information.”

Whether Google is a monopoly or a leech, consider this sobering nugget, from the Pew Research Center:

“The Internet, which emerged this year as a leading source for campaign news, has now surpassed all other media except television as an outlet for national and international news.”

That finding was from 2008.

Charles Yoo is a freelance Web editor based in New York. Until July, he worked for ajc.com, the online arm of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a property of Cox Enterprises. He interviewed Google representatives via Google Voice. The author also uses Gmail and has an account with Google Wave and AdWords.

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