Google has introduced a new product to browse news that will share advertising revenue with participating publishers. Fast Flip displays news stories from different partner publications via screenshots of the articles, which the user can quickly flick through.
Fast Flip essentially allows readers to browse news faster, and more visually. The 39 news partners currently listed include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, Techcrunch, Slate, the Daily Beast, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Atlantic. The homepage shows screenshots of articles displayed in horizontal rows sorted by recent, most popular, etc, or by section (such as finance, sport) or by topics, which are generated automatically by rising stories in the news. Clicking on any of the small screenshots jumps to a larger version of that specific story, and users can click on arrows to swiftly sift through other stories.
The individual screenshot allows the reader to read a considerable chunk of the article and there is advertising space alongside. Clicking on this larger screenshot takes to you the publisher's site, and links above the picture offer access to other stories from that publication. According to the Guardian, the new services focuses on features, opinion and other longer articles, but it is not clear how what criteria Google's algorithm uses to choose pieces.
It is also searchable: search for a topic and Fast Flip will offer a limited amount of articles on that theme. The Guardian quoted Google's business product manager Josh Cohen who said that a user could "type in a query and in essence create a custom magazine on the fly."
Speed is key to enjoyable news reading, believes Google. Krishna Bharat, a Google researcher, describes the motivation for producing Fast Flip on the Google Blog: "What we need instead is a way to flip through articles really fast without unnatural delays, just as we can in print."
It also includes a personalisation aspect for those who sign in with a Google account, by "taking cues from selections you make to show you more content from sources, topics and journalists that you seem to like." Articles can also be shared: readers are given the option to email or 'like' a story on the individual screenshot page, and account holders can see which stories their contacts have 'liked.' The aim is to create a reading experience that is both "serendipitous and personalized," according to Bharat.
Fast Flip is also available on Android phones and the iPhone, via the mobile browser rather than an application.
Ken Doctor of Content Bridges hailed Fast Flip as marking a milestone in "the slow replacement of news search 1.0," which he thinks is "so list-like, so redundant and duplicative and so lacking clarity as to the original source." He believes that "we're visual creatures and we like to use the web to scan."
And on to the revenue sharing aspect...
The 'partner' news outlets will share the revenue earned from "contextually relevant ads," Bharat specifies. Although the percentage share has not been disclosed, the NYT and Guardian reported that Google said it would be "the majority of revenue." He also suggests that the service will help publishers by giving them "an opportunity to introduce new readers to their content" and maybe read more of this: "it also tests our theory that being able to read articles faster means people will read more of them, driving more ad revenue to publishers."
This could be seen as a significant step in the relationship between publishers and Google, a relationship which has been strained in recent months, as publishers maintain that Google has built a business model using their content and that Google News provides competition with newspaper homepages. Tension increased when, after six ad-free years, Google introduced advertisements alongside search results on the US version of Google News. Google has defended its model by pointing to the amount of traffic Google News and Google search send to newspaper websites. But a revenue share is surely what publishers have been hoping for.
PaidContent's Staci Kramer, however, advised caution when proclaiming this latest development as ground-breaking. PaidContent spoke to Martin Nisenholtz, the senior vice president for digital operations at the NYT Co, who said that "This is not about any kind of large strategic relationship issue," and stressed that the company was not participating for financial reasons, but to receive feedback on user behaviour. And clearly, there is the risk that because of the size of the screenshot, readers may well not click through to read the rest of the article.
Bharat mentioned that "we believe that encouraging readers to read more news is a necessary part of the solution" to the publishing industry's challenges, and "we're looking to find other ways to help as well in the near future." Nieman Lab quoted Google spokesman Michael Kirkland who said that this was "the first of several different types of experiments" to try to help publishers get more out of the web.
Google News already offers features that allow users to browse and search news in different ways, such as Spotlight and Timeline, although neither of these offer revenue share to the publisher. Regardless of the actual size or value of the revenue share, the fact that Google has 'partnered' with publishers to start Fast Flip could well be a sign of further cooperation and a period of détente in relations between the two. And for the consumer, new ways to access news that offer efficiency and the chance to discover more content are always welcome. It remains to be seen, however, how useful readers do find Fast Flip and whether they appreciate the way articles are chosen and presented.