Friday, June 19, 2009

Reinventing the Newsstand: Google Flipper Project Highlights News Content Graphically

There has been a virtual tsunami of new product announcements coming out of Google lately, a wave of innovation that makes you wonder at times why private investors were so intent on putting money into in media companies with inflated multiples recently while content companies like Google were sinking significant funds into core product improvements. With consultants left and right making money telling companies how to be more innovative, the simple answer seems to be to invest in it. One key investment from Google is a new project revealed by TechCrunch named "Flipper" that offers a very different look to its online news search services through thumbnail images of news articles.

Google has been making extensive use of its thumbnail graphic generation technologies in many of its services, including up-to-the-moment screen grabs of pages recently visited in its Chrome Web browser. In the Flipper project, however, Google is showcasing not random pages selected by a browser user but articles selected by its news search engine. The thumbnails in the Flipper demo show a good chunk of the layout of selected news pages, grouped in various categories such as recent articles, hot topics, specific publications, most viewed and so on. The effect of this technique leave a strong impression that one is looking at a customized newsstand - except that instead of looking at the covers of magazines and newspapers one is looking at the images of specific articles tailored to a person's interests.

In an era in which search engines have made any page a potential first-visited front page for Web sites, this concept is particularly important to publishers. The graphics, multimedia and value-add content are supposed to be key differentiators for mainstream publishers' content, but in today's search engines these valuable assets are not well exposed in comparison to other sources when typical search results expose little other than a headline and a snippet of text. Thumbnail images can give a news browser a quick sense of which articles have deep and engaging content and which ones are a little bit thinner on content. That could turn out to be a key plus for publishers trying to differentiate their wares amidst a sea of potentially acceptable substitute content sources.

Of course, this will also put more pressure on publishers to focus more on ensuring that the layout of their content will turn out to be appealing in a newsstand such as the Flipper project is showcasing. But its likely to be beneficial pressure that may enable publishers to rise above competitors based on virtues other than search engine optimization. It also may enable advertisers to get a better sense that premium publishers offer qualities that run deeper than mere page view statistics - and to realize that providing content on publishers' sites that adds to the visual and editorial value of a publisher's content is an increasingly important virtue for promoting their advertising goals. While it's still unclear as to whether Flipper will see the light of day in its current form, it's a technology that is well adapted to mobile markets as well as PC browsers - and as such is likely to work its way into many Google offerings in the foreseeable future.
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