Fast Flip, Google's hardly secret visual news search product, just made its debut today. It's a premiere that tells us lots about the swirling winds in which the company now finds itself. It also marks two important milestones, one about the slow replacement of news search 1.0 and one about Google's willingness to share its ad revenues with news publishers.
First off, Google search, web search and news search, has been good enough to become and remain the standard for almost a decade. That decade's almost over, though, and we can see news search 1.0 about to fade into history. Cooler than cool was the ability to bring together 4300 or so global news sources into a single interface, with reasonable relevance. The 1.0 experience though has been so list-like, so redundant and duplicative and so lacking clarity as to original source. It's ready to pass on, but needs a few pushes. Bing with its mouse-over capabilities provides on push. The news visualization of Newser provides another. Politico's mobile app operates smartly on the same principle. Overall, give credit to Apple's cover-flow presentation, which is now flowing from music to the rest of the online world, as Apple itself made it part of the new Safari.
We're visual creatures and we like to use the web to scan, not just read lists, and text.
So Fast Flip as a product, as an experience, does that. As Google will tell you, Sergey Brin has long complained about how long it takes news pages too load. Fast Flip -- on a reader level -- is one attempt to deal with that issue. The news reading experience online, we've all known, isn't what it could be.
What Fast Flip does then is give us a quick view of the news -- by individual title, by topics, by recommendations -- so that we can scan and zone in on what we want, then click off to it. That's very Google News search-like, but with pictures. So far, more than three dozen publishers are signed up. Google went to top newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post), top magazines (Business Week, Elle, Popular Mechanics), top broadcasters (BBC News, Frontline), top web-only sites (Techcrunch, Slate, Salon, Daily Beast) and intriguingly three of top independent investigative sites (Center for Investigative Reporting, Pro Publica, Center for Public Integrity). All the companies represented have opted to be part of the program -- they are essentially licensing content to Google.
For publishers, it's a test, one of many at this point.
"We're trying to find out how users relate to a visual interface," Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president of digital operations at the New York Times told me, when I asked what was most important about the Fast Flip.
The company plans to add more, but within the bounds of "keeping it manageable."
It's a smart list, a good mix of older and newer media.
Scan the screenshots, which Google picks up both by RSS feeds and by the use of its crawler, and you can see pages or parts of then. You can't click on any "link" within the screenshot, of course; clicking takes you to that publisher's page, their own url. It's just another way to browse/search, accessed through Google Labs to search with a link planned from Google News itself, but not yet in place. Fast Flip is available for mobile as well, but only for the iPhone and Android-powered phones. No app through any store; access it through the mobile browser.
Coming, if Fast Flip is a hit: Google will license the technology for use by publishers on their own websites.
What the visual test may be cool, it is the business model that may have greater impact.
Google is providing participating publishers with majority of ad revenues earned on the Fast Flip pages. Those are pages hosted on Google.com. Sure, we may say, Google had to do that. In using screenshots of the pages, it is using the intellectual property of the publishers, beyond any reasonable "fair use" argument. That's true, but it's also the first time in a current news product (News Archive possibly) that I can think of that individual publishers -- unlike the wires of AP, AFP, CP and PA -- got ad revenue shares from the use of their content on Google itself. (It's worth noting that because of those pre-existing wire licensing relationships, Google users clicking on AP and AFP screenshots will land on a Google.com hosted page with that content).
Some of us have been making the argument (Content Bridges: Google and Newspapers: Fairplay, Fair Share and "Fair Use") that a "Fair Share" rationalizing of the Google/newspaper relationship is needed. That new deal would involve Google sharing ad revenue -- earned on Google News and Google.com more generally -- when news content spurred Google usage.
My sense: Though this is an experiment -- a six-month one, according to Nisenholtz -- in visual news search, it's also a step forward in Google and the news industry coming to a new financial relationship on text as well.
The financial impact of Fast Flip won't be great -- remember it is still in Labs and much of the public may not happen on it for awhile. Still, the principle is one worth marking.
Back, lastly, to Google in the larger landscape.
Take the business landscape. With half the newspaper industry allied with Yahoo (and thus arch-enemy, Microsoft) through the Newspaper Consortium, it needs to redouble efforts to play well and become a better partner with news companies.
Further, it needs to find the kind of success it has found with search and paid search -- dominant #1 player in both -- in news search. Check out the latest Nielsen news numbers for August, and we find Google able to say, "We're #9!" Hardly a grade it is used to getting. In uniques, Google has moved up 22% year over year. That has plugged it into the ninth spot, moving up from the teens.
Still it is way behind Yahoo News, MSNBC, and AOL. It needs a better news mousetrap.
On the political landscape, it needs to continue making nice. Christine Varney has revitalized the Justice Department's Anti-Trust Division. Google's books deal and general search/paid search dominance have put a big target on its back. At times like these, it is good to have friends, and who could ask for better friends than those with printing presses?