Publishers Should Totally Check Out Google’s Content Recommendation Service

google-recommendationsOn Monday, Google debuted a content suggestion module for news sites that gives readers more stuff to read – adding Google to the list of companies playing in the valuable space at the end of a news or blog post.

And I have to say – after an initial burst of fear – that I quite like what Google’s doing and it’s actually very clever. It starts with mobile, an ever-growing category of news reading, and it’s complementary, not directly competitive, with the companies, CMS modules and home-grown solutions out there.

Google’s suggestions show up on mobile devices only. When a reader gets to a certain part of the page, or scrolls back upwards after getting toward the end of an article, Google inserts a touchable bar at the bottom of the browser window.

It’s tied into Google+ (naturally) and reader can choose to click on the bar to get an overlay of stories from the same publication — ranked according other stories popularity, authorship and some other factors, including what’s popular from that site among a reader’s Google+ circles, if the reader is logged-in.

You can see it in action on stories on Forbes. Read the article (or scroll down as if you did) and then scroll back up slightly.

Here’s why that’s a clever approach:

  1. It doesn’t override whatever system publishers are using now, so there’s no switching cost or decision about whether to replace what a publisher is currently doing. It just takes a line of JavaScript to the mobile template to add *even* more recommendations.
  2. It’s mobile only, which makes it much easier for Google to make a near-universal layout. Mobile versions of websites nearly all have a story channel as wide as the device. That’s not the case on larger screens, where the section of the site devoted to the story can vary hugely, even within the same publication. That variance makes for very difficult — and very site-specific — displays by third-party content recommendation services like Contextly.
  3. This is a guess, but I’d assume that a very large percentage of Android users are signed into Google+ on their mobiles, so getting info to personalize is easy, without the need for cookies.
  4. If your goal is to build up Google+, adding another hook, or even just a simple reminder of it’s existence, getting a presence on the net’s most popular publishers sites is a solid win.
  5. The design respects the stream. The recommendations don’t get in the way of the reading experience. They show up as an option when readers have finished a story and their attention is freed. Compare that to the aggressive and annoying fly-outs that swing out from the bottom right corner of the page when you are only 3/4s through an article or all the junk publishers throw in the periphery of a story that’s supposed to be captivating readers.
  6. The suggestion module gives publisher’s more incentive to add stories to their Google+ page.

But there are drawbacks to the simplistic approach:

  1. While mobile readership is growing, the majority of pageviews still occur on devices larger than mobile. Google’s recommendations won’t show up on those bigger screens, at least for a while. And when Google does want to move in there, it’ll find lots of competition and design complexities.
  2. Google offers no tools to publishers to have control over the content of these links. In keeping with the modern Google, the system is torally algorithm-driven. The only controls, at least at debut, are a simple system to say what pages *not* to show recommendations on; and what things not to show as recommendations.
  3. It’s not clear that readers will want to have to click a bar to see recommendations, especially given that mobile sites have existing recommendations. Even a single click can be a big barrier.

I’m pretty excited to see Google playing down here in the well at the end of articles. It’s clear proof for those who haven’t noticed yet that this spot is incredibly powerful.

And I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of how Google is entering this crowded market. Publishers ought to experiment with Google’s offering as there’s little downside to giving readers another way to explore a publication’s breadth, especially since they don’t have to  throw off what they are currently doing.

In short, I like it. A lot. I say that even though it’s clearly the first salvo of a competitive threat from the net’s biggest and smartest company.

Google is thinking mobile first–for better or worse.

I’d be happy to have sites use both Contextly and Google’s recommendation systems. Google is zagging, and, while I’m pretty sure I can see what comes next in their product iteration, it’s still fun to see a new approach.

Contextly is zagging as well, but in different directions from Google and all the other content recommenders. More on that soon.

But it’s good to know that someone else thinks there’s something more interesting to be done with content recommendations besides ruining publishers’ brands by sending readers to other people’s sites — including crappy ones looking to scam you.

Readers, writers and publishers deserve better, and I’m happy to see Google thinks so as well.

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