Google today is rolling out its take on the news feed, a personalized stream of articles, videos, and other content. The feed will appear in its flagship app for Android and iOS, simply called Google. The feed, which includes items drawn from your search history and topics you choose to follow, is designed to turn Google’s app into a destination for browsing as well as search. Google is hoping you’ll begin opening its app the way you do Facebook or Twitter, checking it reflexively throughout the day for quick hits of news and information.
Google previewed its new feed in December, when it introduced the feature to its Android app. Previously, the space below the search bar was reserved for Google Now, the company’s predictive search feature, which displayed personalized weather, traffic, sports scores, and other information.
With the introduction of the feed, the Google Now brand is going away, and the updates it used to contain are moving to a secondary tab called “updates.” The main space underneath the search bar will now contain a stream of cards related to your interests. In a demo at Google’s offices in San Francisco on Tuesday, a product manager’s feed included articles about the Oakland Athletics, a trending article about the Tour de France, and a 10-month old blog post about a classical musician who she had previously seen in concert.
In most feeds, a 10-month-old blog post would appear stale and unwelcome. Google says it’s a sign of the company’s strengths — it can reach into the long tail of articles on the web, and surface them to audiences that missed them the first time around. Facebook and Twitter give priority to latest updates; Google says it’s working to prioritize relevance.
When you perform searches in the app, a subset of results will now show a “follow” button alongside results. News, sports, and entertainment stories are among the categories where you can expect to see follow buttons to start. Tap them and Google will work to bring you related content into the feed.
You can customize the feed by tapping the three dots on top of each card. From there you can follow a subject or share the item on other social networks. You can also tell Google you’re “done with this story” and avoid seeing future updates, or tell it you don’t want to see any more articles from a particular publisher. You can’t follow individual publishers today, but publishers will surely clamor for it, and Google told me it will consider adding that feature eventually.
The Google feed came to my account Tuesday afternoon, and I spent a long while scrolling through it. The feed offered up articles on several of my interests: Netflix, Instagram, Game of Thrones, and the video game I’m currently playing (and have watched a bunch of YouTube videos about). The best topic I saw in the feed was “fake news,” and featured an article from Lifehacker on how to spot it.
Scroll far enough and you’ll get a basic, ambient sense of the day’s news. But few of the items I saw compelled me to read the article. Part of what makes Facebook and Twitter’s feeds compelling is the social endorsement that links there carry: you read because your friends tell you to, and you trust your friends. They also give you commentary and analysis around what you’re reading. In short, they feel lively — and the Google feed can feel stale by comparison.
It also draws on the underlying search technology responsible for Google’s featured snippets, which have historically spread misinformation about a wide range of subjects. The Outline reported earlier this year that Google promoted false news stories asserting that, among other things, Barack Obama was the “king of America” and was plotting a coup. Ben Gomes, who runs search at Google, told reporters Tuesday that the company had implemented “a whole bunch of changes” to prevent similar misinformation from spreading in the feed.
The most surprising thing about the Google feed, at least at launch, is how little video it contains. At a time when its peers are racing to cram as much video in their feeds as possible, Google’s is still mostly a text-based affair. When YouTube cards appear, videos won’t play within the feed — tapping kicks you out to the app or to a mobile-web version of the video. The cards are formatted in such a way that it’s easy to miss that they’re even videos. It’s all surprisingly clumsy.
For now, Google says there won’t be ads in the feed, although I imagine it would love to put them there eventually. Google is an ad business, after all, and it’s running out of places to put new ads on mobile devices. Earlier this year, it added a fourth advertising unit to search results in its mobile app, making you scroll down three screens before you see unpaid search results for some queries.
But with each passing year, we have had fewer reasons to open the Google app. Native apps from Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and others command more of our attention, making us less likely to begin our queries at the search bar. More recently, Siri, Alexa, and Cortana have been built into our device hardware, allowing us to bypass Google and search with our voice. Financially, Google is still on solid footing. But the trends are worrisome — the analyst Ben Thompson, among others, has written about the prospect that we have already hit “Peak Google.”
Viewed in that light, a Google feed was all but inevitable. The question is how quickly Google can improve it — and whether its users, whose lives are already dominated by feeds, will make room for another one.