Google’s News Partnerships APAC head: ‘Committed to responding to needs of Indian publishers… challenging when govt is involved’

Kate Beddoe, director of Google’s News Partnerships in APAC, believes India is a market where Google can have a very strong impact on ensuring access to quality information through a sustainable and growing business of news. She spoke with Nandagopal Rajan on how Google is engaging with publishers, updating the product to cater to the needs of readers, and balancing the many forces at play in the space of news. Edited excerpts from a video interview.

As you engage with publishers, what is your North Star goal? What is it that you finally want to achieve? Is it improving the visibility of the publishers, is it improving your ad business?

Kate Beddoe: As a former journalist, and as somebody who has spent an entire career in the news industry, the thing that is most important to me is that we find the right balance of how can I help quality news reach an audience in a meaningful way. But in order to do that, how do we find the business models that will allow that quality content to exist and reach audiences? For me, the North Star is a balance in the relationship between users, technology and news organisations themselves, and finding a workable equilibrium on those three factors.

How important is it then to ensure you have a level playing field, because you have different types of publishers, some big, some small… and you have the technology also coming into the picture with the algorithm. How do you manage all of that, especially in times where news and the delivery of news, the access to news is so critical, especially in the democracies?

Kate Beddoe: There are a combination of things that we need to balance. I think on one hand there is the response to users and you know, what is it that they’re looking for, and how do we serve the needs they have. We have increasingly found that people are looking for very local-based news which is becoming increasingly important. We saw that during the pandemic as well. People didn’t want to discuss the pandemic in general, they wanted to know what was happening that was most relevant to them. And so, there is an element of user behaviour and we track very carefully what users want and need, and how they are expressing their preferences for content. There is a very strong sense that we get through the way that we send traffic to different news organisations, as to what content is best to answer the kinds of questions that people have.

But there is a whole journey that goes into making sure there are quality answers to questions that is everything from media literacy, and how critical people are about thinking about the content they are consuming and where it’s coming from. Instead of trusted sources, there’s somebody that writes with authority on this topic, through to the way that news organisations themselves are focusing on, you know, taking their beats to make sure they are accurate and fact-checked and then the signals that we can take from the interaction between those two things to make sure that we are elevating quality content, regardless of where it comes from. So we are very focused on making sure there are a diverse range of quality content voices that meet user needs in every country we are working with.

Google has been working on taking search out of search by serving content based on user preferences. Does that also come with the pitfalls of creating echo chambers for the readers?

Kate Beddoe: So we tend to talk about our products as query-based surfaces like search, and then query-less surfaces… Discover would be a great example of that and it is so strong in India. Google News would be another example of that. The question of balance and whether or not we are just reaffirming consumers’ behaviours and beliefs is something that we look at, and we think very carefully about. So one of the things that you will see in Google News, for example, is that when you see an article it will offer you more on this topic. And the more on this topic is deliberately designed to offer you a diverse perspective on the topic so that you are hearing from a range of different voices. That’s one example of the way we are trying to embed the sense of user curiosity and how can you go deeper on this from a broader perspective. I think that the challenge of affirming echo chambers is something that is probably much broader than just Google and something that we really are very keen to collaborate and work very constructively with the industry on.

Are you also working on new products like Showcase which maybe gives more control on what should be read compared to what people want to read?

Kate Beddoe: That’s an interesting challenge. There’s a lot I love about the Showcase product and the way that it helps to signal the kind of quality content through the 90 publishers that we have signed up for the programme in India. We have heard feedback for years around editors wanting to be able to use some of our space to identify what they think is important. I think there is always going to be a challenge with digital media, in that it is more measurable to see what consumers are actually interested in reading. I don’t think that anybody has yet cracked the challenge of getting people to read what they need to know, against what they want to know or what entertains them.

More broadly, we are moving into an environment where the competition for attention is something that we see universally. People can spend time reading very long form articles or they can spend a very short amount of time consuming a much more visually rich expression of the same information. We know that people are going to want to go to the more visually rich but shorter time spent consuming (information). That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the same value, but I think that there’s a lot of questions that we are very keen to work with the industry on how do we bring trust and authenticity to a group of readers who have a much shorter attention span than, perhaps, we are used to creating content for.

Of late Google has been surfacing a lot of the smaller publishers or websites often not from the mainstream. Is there a mechanism within Google to keep an eye on content that you end up surfacing?

Kate Beddoe: I’m not an algorithm expert. What I can say is that our way of surfacing content is relatively simplistic. Within search, we are looking at where a user is and what responses have we seen to other questions. It’s very rare that you get a question that’s never been asked before in search. And so we look at things like have other users clicked on this content… if they have clicked and if they bounce back and ask a slightly different question, we know that (content) hasn’t really answered their question. So what we are looking at is very much focused on the engagement and interaction that people are having with the small amount of content that surfaces on our platforms. Because we don’t host all of this content, we don’t have visibility into that in-depth version of it that, perhaps, other platforms where all the content is fully hosted would have. I’m dramatically oversimplifying what is, I’m sure, very complicated for all our engineers, but at the simplest level that’s what we’re attempting to do. There’s no question of how it plays through from a broader corporate perspective.

News is just 2% of what Google handles and in that sense it is pretty low down the hierarchy. But given the impact of that 2% on everything that we do, is it getting a little bit more headspace in the organisation as such?

Kate Beddoe: Definitely. I think when you look at organisations within Google, such as the partnerships work that I do, it is important to us that we have a very strong relationship and that we are fulfilling our need and desire to be elevating and showcasing quality content. And that’s because our product is better when there are better answers. If users came to Google and didn’t feel like they could trust the information they were getting in response to the questions they were asking, we would not be an effective product.

But it is also important to us that we’re working on the sustainability of the industry. And so as much as we run some amazing programmes where we are working with training, I think we have trained literally thousands of journalists through the News Lab and over 40,000 journalists have gone through our training around quality content. But we are similarly running programmes around advertising, where we have worked with over 300 publishers in India, or reader revenue where we are much more focused and you know and we are running programmes on digital transformation with 20 publishers. All of this is designed to make sure that the business of news is supporting the goal of that quality content.

India is a very different market with a lot more dependence on search for distribution of news and algorithm changes hence have a very significant impact on the business of news. Is that something that you are mindful of?

Kate Beddoe: We work a lot with news organisations to increase their specific presence so that direct entry is important. The thing that is important is that when it comes to the changes that we make in the way different content is shown, it is really about making sure that we are continuing to meet the needs of users, and that we are answering their questions.

I’ll give you a really specific example from about 18 months ago, when the pandemic hit. There was a working assumption that this was an international story for most people. And so what we were looking for was what is the most authoritative source of content at an international level for what was a story that was happening in other places. And then what happened very quickly was that it became a very local story. And so we had originally been focusing on authoritative work and people that could talk about it as a global issue. And we, very quickly, had people who could answer the most specific questions: Can I send my kids to school? What’s happening in my neighbourhood? Where is the vaccine available to me? That’s a very extreme example of where the change in the story and the change in the news and needs reflects that.

I think the other thing that I can say with confidence is that when we make changes to the algorithm there are always some people who do better than others as part of that. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone saying, ‘Hey, I noticed that algorithm change because my traffic increased’. But I think there’s kind of two layers to this. One is the impact it has in terms of just overall volume. And that’s where you know, if you’re focused on advertising that has a very clear direction. If you are focused on reader revenue, then I think what you are really trying to do is have a much deeper relationship with your readers so that fluctuations that come from traffic are much more marginal if you know your users and you are connecting with them in a meaningful way. Things like Showcase give readers the option to follow a particular publication and the intention is always to try and drive at the funnel from awareness into that tighter relationship. The impact of any changes in search really are happening at the awareness level, they shouldn’t be impacting the deeper level because that’s the relationship that you own.

How does Google view reader revenue models coming into the mix now? You spoke about Showcase, but is there anything else in the works?

Kate Beddoe: Subscribe with Google in India in particular is intended to help with that retention strategy. And so you can, within the product itself, make sure that readers know that within Google News, for example, you can see content from the things that you are subscribed to so that you have got a frictionless experience and you don’t have to hit a paywall if you click through from one of our surfaces to your content. That has a huge benefit in reducing that highly manual login process. The goal is to try and reduce churn there because people get really frustrated by having to constantly sign into things and they drop out of your consideration funnel at some point. So that’s a great tool.

The one that I really love is called News Consumer Insights that very specifically looks at a cohort of over 500 publishers from around the world and allows you to benchmark your own readers behaviours and start to understand with some fairly high level categorisation how many brand advocates do you have versus people who are just curious and dipping in.

Firstly, we provide the tool for free so that you can just start to get a basic read of that. But also, we work more specifically with publishers to say what would the optimisation look like for you to try and increase and push people through that consideration funnel and we do that off the back of engagements with publishers all around the world and have quite a good insight that we kind of share as part of the Google News Initiative because we think it is really important for the future of journalism that readers understand and pay for quality content.

Over the past few years you have had a lot of deals with news publishers across the world and are funding them to improve their journalism. But of late some governments are also coming into the picture and saying you should do more or have a different deal. Is that making you uncomfortable?

Kate Beddoe: I think Google works best with the news industry when we are genuinely partnered on common goals. And I think we have so many things that are so important to both sides. We have talked about quality content, we have talked about digital sustainability, we haven’t touched on nature of changing user behaviours and how do we make sure the content is reaching people regardless of format. I think that’s one of the areas we really need to focus on. It is harder to do that when there is a third party in the mix. And so, when I look at the work that we do all across the region, I am really satisfied and proud of the contribution that we make to the news industry, when we can operate in partnership with the news industry.

I will also say that being based in Australia and being an Australian, I worked very closely on the news media bargaining code where the government did get into the middle. And I would say that we learned some very valuable lessons as to why you want to be listening and why we need to be a good partner and we need to be responding to the needs of the industry. In a way that means we don’t end up with the complexity and the delays and the mess of having a regulation in the middle of what should be a great partnership.

As a result of that, India was actually the first country where we turned around and said what do we learn from that experience and how do we make sure we are better partners. So the launch of Showcase in India happened very quickly after the launch in Australia because we had learnt the lesson that we need to show up and we need to be listening. One of the things about our relationships in India is that we work with, I think, every partner in some form, we work with a thousand publishers in India. Some of them are absolutely the right kind of candidates for something like Showcase and so we have got 90 publishers that work there. Others have very different needs. And so, we are committed to responding to the needs of Indian publishers in India in a way that works. I think when you have government involved, it becomes more challenging to recognise and respond to those nuances.

How much are you investing in fact checking especially in a market like India and are you also thinking of bringing it on to your surfaces in a much more visible way?

Kate Beddoe: Fact checking is an area we have invested in quite significantly and over 40,000 publishers have gone through our programmes. We don’t host content though, so we can’t be entirely responsible for being the kind of arbiters of what is and isn’t true. We see it very much as a collaborative effort. Our work with FactShala and DataLEADS in order to do that training is something that we have been committed to for many years. That is something that’s going to be ongoing, because the challenges of disinformation are going to be ongoing. Our response is to make sure we are part of a solution that involves all of those different people that were talking about before. Users have a role to play in being critical thinkers and better educated. Journalists have a role to play and some of the greatest work that we have done has been in the collaborative fact checking work that we’ve done in India or around elections, and I love to see it when when news organisations actually work together to elevate the cause of making sure what has been communicated is accurate and represents quality. We absolutely have a role to play in that but we can’t be responsible for it.

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