Google, long seen as an enemy by many in the news industry, is making a bold attempt to be seen as a friend with a new service it hopes will make it easier for readers to read newspaper and magazine articles.
On Monday, the company introduced an experimental news hub called Fast Flip that allows users to view news articles from dozens of major publishers and flip through them as quickly as they would the pages of a magazine. Google will place ads around the news articles and share resulting revenue with publishers.
Fast Flip, which is based on Google News, tries to address what Google considers a major problem with news sites: they often are slow to load, and so they turn off many readers. Google, the leader in Web search services and advertising, argues that if reading news online was closer to the experience of scanning through physical newspapers or magazines, people would read more. “Browsing news on the Web is much slower than it is in print,” said Krishna Bharat, a distinguished researcher at Google who developed Google News in 2002. “When it is fast, people will look at more news and more ads, and that’s something that publishers want to see.”
The service is being initiated with the cooperation of about three dozen publishers, including major news outlets like BBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek; magazines like Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, Esquire and Good Housekeeping; and Web-only publications like TechCrunch, Salon.com and Slate.
Some of the publishers said they viewed the experiment with caution, adding that no single solution could address the industry’s main problem: plunging advertising revenues. “I don’t look at this as the solution to the future of journalism,” said Richard Gingras, the chief executive of Salon Media Group, who previously worked as an adviser to Google executives on media strategy. “But who knows? We will learn from it.”
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Fast Flip, which is available at fastflip.googlelabs.com, first appears as a collection of images of news articles that Google has culled from the sites of its partners. The articles are displayed side by side in various horizontal rails that show them arranged by popularity; sections like politics, business, travel or entertainment; topics like tennis, Iran or the Beatles; and news source.
Flipping from one article to the next, or from one rail to the next, is quick. The articles, which are images of Web pages that have been stripped of ads and other items that slow them down, load with scant delay. Readers can zoom into a specific section, publication or article. They can often read the majority of an article directly on Google, although if they click on it, they will be taken to the publisher’s Web site. “We are helping people immerse themselves in the content,” Mr. Bharat said.
Microsoft is also trying to make Web content more visually appealing with the new Visual Search feature introduced Monday on its Bing search engine. Although not directed at news, it displays some categories of search results using thumbnail images instead of text.
Google plans to place display ads alongside the stories and share the resulting revenue with publishers. Mr. Bharat declined to discuss what percentage of the revenue will be kept by Google but said publishers would receive the majority.
Some publishers acknowledged that, if successful, Fast Flip would compete with already beleaguered news Web sites. But they were persuaded the experiment could be useful. “Of course there is a concern,” said Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations for The New York Times Company . “That doesn’t mean you don’t participate.”
He added that Fast Flip could help showcase sites like The New York Times better than current aggregators like Google News do.
Some news publishers have long complained that Google has unfairly profited at their expense by selling ads on Google.com and Google News alongside newspaper content. Google has countered that its services help news publishers by driving traffic to them, and that any publisher is free to block Google from indexing its content. “The interesting thing about this service, when compared to search, is that there is a revenue model for us on Google,” said Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic.
Ken Doctor, an analyst with Outsell, said that the decision by Google to begin paying publishers for news content on its site is a significant change. “It is a chink in Google’s armor,” Mr. Doctor said. “It could be a path to peace and rationalization of the relationship.”
While the experiment includes some major publishers, several of the top newspaper chains, including the News Corporation, Gannett, McClatchy, Tribune and MediaNews, are not part of it.
Mr. Bharat said that while Fast Flip tries to recreate some of the experience of reading news offline, the service will also incorporate many Web features. For instance, it will rely partly on Google’s algorithms and partly on user behavior to rank articles. Those that are clicked on or e-mailed the most often will rise in the rankings. And when users save an article they like, friends may be automatically notified.
There have been other attempts to make reading electronic news more efficient. They include Times Reader, an application that allows users to download The Times onto their computers, and versions of papers available for e-book readers like Amazon.com’s Kindle. But those efforts have gained only limited acceptance.
Mr. Bharat said Google will offer a version of Fast Flip for some phones, and may allow news publishers to use its underlying technology directly on their sites.