Google is constantly changing its algorithms to try to provide users with the stories they want to read. It recently added a +1 button to connect users to stories their friends have enjoyed, but now it's broadening its scope. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, the search giant has also added connections to social media for its Google News that allow it to pick up on the most popular stories on the sites.
Exactly how Google uses social media for its algorithms is something of a mystery. Whenever employees are interviewed, they always stop just short of releasing information on what Mike Cassidy, Google's product management director of search, has called the "special sauce." Nevertheless, Nieman Lab was able to get a few details.
Google News has undergone a few changes since its introduction. When it was first launched in 2002, it had 4,000 news sources. This number has grown to over 50,000. These sources are the only ones the algorithm will display on the service as a guarantee users are getting news from credible sources.
The most obvious integration of social media is the section entitled "Most Shared." Stories are broken up by the most popular in the last 24 hours, the last week, and the last month. The algorithm uses multiple social media sites to aggregate this material.
Although spokesperson for Google News, Jeannie Hornung, wasn't forthcoming which specific social media sites are involved in the algorithm, even she couldn't deny Twitter's significance. When users click on a story on the front page, it links them to a story-specific page with a side bar full of tweets that contain similar keywords. "It's using the same technology that real-time search uses," she said. The tweets aren't a raw feed, but are rather based on relevance and authority.
"The Tweets section appears when there's a high level of activity on Twitter focused on that story and those tweets add diversity to the full coverage page. For example, we demote tweets that are on a broad topic not necessarily tied to the specific news story, that simply restate a headline and/or that link to a story already included on the full coverage page."
Hornung mentioned that social media and tweets are more important for the full coverage pages on a particular topic rather than on the main page that displays all new stories. She said, "It really is -- not to diminish it at all -- it is an incremental enhancement to the full coverage page, not the main page. So I wouldn't say adding tweets to full coverage is a sign of anything larger than a moderate enhancement to the full coverage page."
Changes to algorithms in the past has affected certain media organizations. Most recently, Demand Media's eHow suffered a loss in traffic due to one of these changes. After several media organizations over exaggerated its losses, it was forced to issue a statement defending its finances. Although it claims to being doing well, it has still been negatively affected by the changes.
How can media organizations avoid a similar fate with this newest change? Tweet, tweet, tweet?