Google Fast Flip Becomes the News Stand, Pressure on Publishers

Last Updated Sep 15, 2009 5:00 AM EDT

If news publishers and broadcasters already had a love/hate relationship with Google, they must be tearing their hair out in frustration at the company's new Fast Flip offering. It's one of those seemingly tiny changes that represents a leap in how people perceive they can do things. The "thing" in this case is presenting news and information. Look at the layout:

You can click the arrows and scroll through offerings, picking individual pages. But you can also choose a given "section" of the news. Go to a given display of a page and a convenient thin bar to the left gives you access to more page images through which you can scroll. Click on a given page when displayed in full browser window mode and a new window opens at the originating site.

I can't think of another company that could have pulled this off. Not that the idea of visually presenting images of pages is far removed from all the experiments that have been done in user interfaces and information presentation. But it's the combination of having the relationships with the publishers, the knowledge of how to push data fast, experience in clean uncluttered interface design, and a relationship with an audience that expects to find round-ups of news at a site that makes this work.

What is so remarkable in the approach is the sense of a new vision of the news stand. But instead of the March of the Covers peeking out from shelves, it's as if you ripped open the magazines and newspapers, clipped out all the individual articles, and arranged them dynamically by subject, interspersing them and letting someone pick and choose the content. Plus, you've got full-context text searching. What's a reader not to love?

Google noted that it did this in partnership with several dozen publishers, though the way the company counts "publishers" is odd. For example, it lists the Washington Post and Newsweek, although the former owns the latter, so it's really one publisher. But why quibble? It's one of the less flashy but smarter things I've seen combining technology and media.

And that's why it is going to make the publishers crazy. None of them -- especially including the Associated Press, which complains so often about how it's victimized by aggregation -- could get close to pulling this off. They can't afford to walk away from the opportunity, because it's a step into what media distribution might well become. At the same time, they become more thoroughly tied to Google and they can't even complain about it. (You can read more about the business model in coverage by my BNET Media colleague, David Weir.)

In fact, the only ones likely to be complaining are the publishers that didn't get asked to the dance, meaning they don't get a cut of the revenue from "contextually relevant ads" that the names showing will receive. And given what I see on this experimental version (which wasn't showing any ads, contextual or not, when I looked), the freeze might be an ice age in length. In a way, Google's real weakness in search is bringing too much information. Yes, heresy, I know, but it's true. How many people can go beyond the first few pages? From a practical perspective, there are only so many pages on a given topic that you can display and actually get people to look at.

Google probably would argue (given I'm writing this at a point that everyone in the company is likely sleeping, except maybe some of the developers getting ready to knock off for the night) that the more, the merrier, because when you search for a topic, the relevant pages would be delivered up. And there's something to be said there. However, like any news stand, the advantage is to the big names that command prime placement.

But as I think about this, perhaps I'm looking at it the wrong way. A search in Google News delivers a list of pages with a link to even more, but what comes first on the list, while often a Big Name, is frequently something less familiar. Publishers might find that the first move advantage dissipates to nothing when it comes to how people really use Google: as a way to find information on specific topics.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.