The gorilla moves into local news

For lots of people I know (including me, I have to admit) Google News has effectively become their online newspaper. I don’t know where it stacks up in terms of news portals, and whether Yahoo News or MSN have bigger market share, but for many the day starts with a browse through Google’s version of the newspaper — and now that paper will include local news as well as world news. Can the 800-pound gorilla make local work? And does that help or hurt newspaper sites?

The first thing I wondered was whether Google was just looking at the placeline and/or the source for its stories, since the section in my version of the new Google News showed that the five stories were all from the Toronto Star. Was that paper being ranked higher just because it has the word Toronto in its name? Not according to the Google blog.

We’re not simply looking at the byline or the source, but instead we analyze every word in every story to understand what location the news is about and where the source is located.

As always with Google, the algorithm is king. And the local section on my page did a pretty remarkable job of pulling together news from most of the local outlets, including radio-station websites such as 680News, as well as newspapers like the Star and the Globe — although it did pick up stories from as far away as Kingston and Montreal, so it’s not foolproof. But it’s still as good or better than many of the other news aggregators I’ve tried, including Yahoo (which used to be my start page).

Update: Topix founder Rich Skrenta has a response to Google’s launch that is worth reading, and there’s a post on the Topix blog that also looks at the impact of Google moving into the company’s local search space. The point of the post seems to be that “local news is not a search problem.”

I may be somewhat biased toward the “Web is friend, not foe” argument as far as newspapers are concerned, but I think this helps newspaper websites rather than hurts them. I know that there will be the inevitable arguments, like the ones the World Newspaper Association and others keep trotting out, that Google is “stealing” eyeballs and readers who just want a quick summary of the news, but I think that continues to miss the point.

In a nutshell, if a quick summary or the first paragraph of your story captures all that you have to offer, then you don’t deserve to have those readers in the first place. Write well, add value and readers will continue to come to you — and now even more may wind up coming, as a result of features like Google’s localized news. (Update: Greg Sterling has some market share numbers for Google News at Screenwerk).

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