Google's effort to make Google News more personally relevant to users has hit a nerve. Readers of InformationWeek's initial coverage of the changes have posted over 80 comments in the past few hours, most of which object to the changes.
"Absolutely horrible!" declares InformationWeek reader Christopher Buckingham. "The original Google News was vastly superior. The new version is, as another commenter said, 'The New Coke.' Bring back the classic Google News and Fast Flip."
Reader Mike Cleary voiced his displeasure in an e-mail. "I don't want [personalization]," he wrote. "I browse. I want serendipity. I want stuff to catch my eye across a broad range of topics. I don't want Google to put blinders on me so I can 'find' the stuff I'm interested in. If I want it, I'll find it. But I have to know about it first, so I need the lens wide."
The situation is similar on other online news sites, on Twitter, and in Google's Support Forum.
All eight comments currently posted on the Nieman Journalism blog express unhappiness with the changes. A person posting under the name Dale Gentry writes, "I would like to say I immensely dislike using the new Google news format. I believe I understand the several different rationales for the change. One reason I like the old format is precisely the opposite of the common (Google) definition of personalization. I relish finding new, and interesting, topics that diverge from my usual interests. …"
Google itself asked users to weigh in on the changes in a preview version last month and has received a whopping 451 responses.
The majority of the comments are negative (and the "New Coke" comparison is repeated). One of the more polite responses: "I know a lot of people whine about change simply because they do not like change. They make no distinction between good change and bad change, they just like things to stay the same. I am not one of those people. I totally embrace changes that make things better even if I have difficulty adapting. This change has not one redeeming feature that I can find. …"
Nonetheless, a Google spokesperson said, "It's really too early to characterize the response. We've tested our latest design thoroughly, and we anticipate our users will really like it."
Indeed, despite the volume of complaints, it's entirely possible that the majority of Google News users approves of the changes. Approving users tend not to bother voicing their contentment. The Internet was made for complaining and voluble dissatisfaction generally accompanies every substantive change at large Internet services.
When Google revised its iGoogle personalized homepage in 2008, there were similar howls of protest, at InformationWeek and elsewhere. Yet, iGoogle seems to be doing just fine these days.
But the controversy goes beyond design choices, a perennial sore spot for Google. The most troubling issue is whether offering personalized news is a social good.
A number of critics of the Google News changes have suggested that news stories should challenge readers with new ideas rather than serving as accessories that match existing opinions. As one InformationWeek reader put it, "I liked the news that wasn't personal to me. Personalization promotes living in a smaller and smaller isolated bucket where you never know what is going on in the world."
Update: Following publication of this article, a Google spokesperson addressed concerns raised about personalization, writing in an e-mail:
"We created Google News in 2002 with the goal of helping people find multiple perspectives on the news of the day. In this redesign, highlighting the Top Stories that many news outlets are covering remains a key element of Google News. We also are more prominently displaying Spotlight, which highlights stories of more lasting interest and allows users to discover stories they might not have thought to search for.
That said, we do think that users can benefit from customizing their Google News homepages. We want to encourage Google News users to tell us more about their interests so we can show them news tailored to what individual users care about most in addition to the big stories of the day.
So personalization and serendipity co-exist in the redesigned Google News."