Google News first impressions: AI has to try harder to cut through the noise

First announced at Google I/O 2018, the new Google News app has now rolled out worldwide. We gave the new app a spin to find out if it has a shot at being the most effective way to read the news. 

Since the events of 2016, online news has been a hot-button issue. There are numerous fears that outlets are getting more and more divisive and partisan, that search engines are inadvertently promoting ‘fake news’, and that the quality of journalism is in decline as publishers struggle to monetise their content in an advertising market dominated by a few key players and haunted by ad-blockers.

You get the sense that the new Google News app is the search giant’s attempt to fix its part of the equation. At its recent Google I/O conference, the company promised that the app would make heavy use of machine learning and AI to deliver news from a variety of different news sources and would give its users the full picture of a story rather than just relying on a single viewpoint.

However, first impressions of the app suggest that Google’s algorithms still have a little way to go if they want to provide a truly ‘curated’ news service.

A promising start, let down by execution

When you open the app, the first thing you’ll see is your top five news stories for the day. On the day we used the service, a story about a summit between the USA and North Korea sat at the top spot (which felt pretty appropriate), but in second place was a local news story about the least punctual bus stops in West London. We’re not averse to being shown local news, but this wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.

Other entries in the top five included a couple of video entries. This makes sense, especially when the source of a news story is a video, but there didn’t appear to be any option to jump from the video to read written coverage of the same announcement. Video is great, and it’s an effective way of quickly understanding a story, but we’re not always in a place where watching is more convenient than reading.

The promised ‘full coverage’ sections of the app are certainly good at bringing together a diverse number of publications, but it struggles to place the most thorough or relevant news stories at the top, and can also struggle to group together related news stories when a news topic is particularly sprawling. When the app sought to pull together all the various news stories about Mario Tennis Aces, it ended up placing a tangentially related opinion piece front and centre, which felt far less useful than an actual news piece about the topic in question.

Subsequent ‘full coverage’ sections on topics such as Brexit seemed to have difficulty pulling together stories on the same issue. There’s so much going on with Britain’s exit from the European Union that putting everything under the top heading ‘Brexit’, ends up feeling a little sprawling and not very useful.

Suffice to say our first impressions of the new app weren’t great. It’s certainly an improvement over Newsstand, but it doesn’t yet seem to have the knack for showing you the most important stories first, or giving you the choice of which format to watch the news in.

Granted, as technology journalists, we’re used to engaging with the news in a more thorough way than most. But when an app seems to stuggle to provide you with a broad overview of events you start to wonder who exactly it’s going to be relevant for.

Google has a lot of work to do if it wants to make it the most efficient and useful way to get up to speed on world events. We have no doubt that it will improve, but as it stands it’s difficult to rely on a service that thinks it’s relevant to surface a story about broadband speeds in the West Midlands to a technology journalist living in London.

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