What Google got right with ‘News near you’ mobile service & what news orgs can do better

Google News for mobile devices has added a “news near you” section that displays headlines related your device’s current location.

Its ease of use is impressive — just grant the site access to your device’s current location and it pulls up local headlines. While it goes further than any other mobile news aggregation site, it has flaws that leave room for another company or news organization to do better.

The “News near you” section on Google News for mobile.

More on that later, but first the key context on this feature and what Google is up to.

Google executive Eric Schmidt declared at the start of this year that the search giant would be all about preparing for the “mobile revolution.” All of its 2011 strategic initiatives focus on mobile, he said. “Between the geolocation capability of the phone and the power of the phone’s browser platform, it is possible to deliver personalized information about where you are, what you could do there right now, and so forth — and to deliver such a service at scale,” Schmidt wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Google is making mobile its first focus on all products.

Google News has had a local section on its website since 2008, but this new addition to the mobile version has precise location targeting. The desktop site places me in the Washington metro area, and shows me headlines from all over D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The mobile site detects my location specifically (and correctly) in Arlington, Va., and serves only very local news and features.

Now for the flaws, which leave room for a competitor to elbow into this mobile/local aggregation market.

First, the sources I see in my local feed from Google are not so diverse. Most of my headlines are from The Washington Post; a couple come from the Arlington Sun Gazette community newspaper. Google does, however, show me a couple posts from an active local news blog, ARLnow.com. There is room for either Google or a competitor to make a more comprehensive product.

The bigger problem for Google is that location is only one piece of the quest for the holy grail of online news: relevancy. So far, Google News is doing a good job of determining my location and aggregating stories that mention that location. But that’s where it ends, and that’s not good enough. What’s missing is the curation after the aggregation.

Two of the top five “local” stories Google News served me were either not really local or not really a story.

For example, the third story Google News showed me this morning was about the Armed Forces Network receiving broadcast journalism awards. A few of the award winners are here in Arlington, so it is a legitimately local story, but it’s not very relevant to me and certainly not among the top three things I want to read about my community today. The fifth headline in my Google News feed was a job listing for Lockheed Martin (based in Arlington, yes, but not news).

To create a market-dominating filter of local news, someone will need to curate the pool of aggregated news to match each reader’s interests, browsing history and social network activity, in addition to his or her location.

The killer app would be one that filters a breadth of local aggregation like Outside.in through a hyperpersonalized social filter sought by mobile services such as News.me and Trove combined with the personal browsing and search history of Google.

And even with all that, it remains to be seen whether automated filtering can entirely replace the role of a human editor in subjective news judgment. A human news editor would know a job posting is not a local news story no matter how many times it mentions your city’s name.

There remains an opportunity for media companies to be the dominant source of news aggregation and curation in their local markets, if they leverage their human touch and institutional knowledge as an advantage over Google and catch up on some of the technological systems. But many news organizations will first have to conquer reflexive fears about linking out and sending readers to other sites.

Your opinions are welcome here. Can a news organization curate better than Google’s engineering-based system? Will Google’s algorithms eventually be better than a human editor? Or will both approaches co-exist?

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