Google News’ AI revolution strikes balance between personalization and the bigger picture

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Google has launched a major revamp to its news feature at Google I/O 2018. 15 years after its launch, Google News is to offer more personalization with the help of AI. Perhaps that’s surprising – surely Google has always been using AI across every feature? Well yes, to some extent. But this update brings artificial intelligence fully into the fold.

It may feel strange talking about AI and news at the moment. Concern over ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’ has become particularly pronounced recently. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal have thrown the spotlight on the relationship between platforms, publishers, and our data. That might explain why Google seems to be trying to counter balance the move towards greater personalization with a new feature called Full Coverage.

Full Coverage has been designed by Google as a means to tackle current concerns around ‘echo chambers’ and polarization in discourse. Such a move highlights a greater awareness of the impact the platform can have on politics and society. It suggests by using AI in context, there’s a way to get the balance right.

“In order to make it easier to keep up and make sense of [today’s constant flow of news and information from different sources and media][, we set out to bring our news products into one unified experience”, explained Trystan Uphill in a blog post.


Personalizing Google News with AI

By making use of advanced machine learning and AI techniques, Google will now offer you a more personalized way to read the news. With a new ‘For You’ tab, Google will organize a feed of news based on everything that the search engine knows about you. This will be based on a range of things, from your browsing habits to your location.

“The more you use the app, the better the app gets” Upstill explains.

In a new feature called ‘Newscasts’ Google News will make use of natural language processing techniques to bring together wide range of sources on a single topic. It seems strange to think that Google wasn’t doing this before, but in actual fact it says a lot about how the platform dictates how we understand the scope of a debate or the way a news cycle is reported and presented. With newscasts it should be easier to illustrate the sheer range of voices currently out there.

Fundamentally, Google News is making its news feature smarter – where previously it relied upon keywords, there is an added dimension whereby Google’s AI algorithms become much more adept at understanding how different news stories evolve, and how different things relate to one another.

Tackling the impact of personalization

With Full Coverage, Google News will provide a range of perspectives on a given news story. This seems to be a move to directly challenge the increased concern around online ‘echo chambers.’

Here’s what Upstill says:

“Having a productive conversation or debate requires everyone to have access to the same information. That’s why content in Full Coverage is the same for everyone—it’s an unpersonalized view of events from a range of trusted news sources.”

Essentially, it’s about ensuring people have access to a broad overview of stories. Of course, Google is here acting a lot like a publisher or curator of news – even when giving a broad picture around a news story there still will be an element of editorializing (whether that’s human or algorithmic). However, it nevertheless demonstrates that Google has some awareness of the issues around online discourse and how its artificial intelligence systems can lead to a certain degree of polarization.

It’s now easier to subscribe and follow your favourite news sources

The evolution of digital publishing has seen the rise of subscription models for many publishers. But that hasn’t always been that well-aligned for readers searching Google.

However, it will now be easier to read and follow your favorite news sources on Google News. Not only will you now be able to subscribe to news sources through your Google account, you’ll also be able to see paywalled content your subscribed to in your Google News feeds.

That will certainly be a better reading experience. In turn, that means Google is helping to cement themselves as the go-to place for news. Of course, Google could hardly be said to be under threat. But as native applications and social media platforms have come to define the news experience for many readers in recent years, this is a way of Google staking a claim in an area in which it may be ever so slightly vulnerable.


Also published on Medium.

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