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How Google-savvy are you?

December 26, 2006 10:34 IST

Typically, the population thronging the newsroom of any newspaper, news portal or news channel is diverse. However, there is a tie that binds them together: Google, the world's most popular search engine.

Has this story appeared before? Did Corus have a hand in building India's first railway line? What is the size of the pick-up truck market that Tata Motors can address through its joint venture in Thailand? How many years did Shyama Prasad Mukherjee serve in Parliament?

These questions, with the deadline looming, would have made a despondent wreck out of a reporter some years ago. These days, she will go back to her workstation and return with the answer in a minute, culled from 123,000,567 or 432,487,912 results thrown up in 0.37 or 0.29 seconds- by Google.

The only question journalists avoid pondering over is: what if Google were to wind up tomorrow?

Since as far back as 2003, following an op-ed article in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman, a debate has been raging whether Google is God. Much like God, Google is omnibenevolent, omnipresent and very close to omniscient. It is not yet omnipotent, but seems to be getting there. To begin with, it is teaching new tricks to old media.

As a force, Google has to be reckoned with. Last month, the number of visitors to its site rose 9.1 per cent to 475.7 million as compared with November last year. That put it in the slot of the second most visited web site, ahead of Yahoo! and next only to Microsoft.

In the month, Google accounted for 49.5 per cent of Internet searches - an estimated 3.1 billion queries, a 31 per cent rise over November 2005.

In the second place was Yahoo!, with less than half the number of searches: 1.5 billion. As the convergence of print, audio-visual and the web progresses, its influence grows.

Editors across organisation are being nudged to become more Google-savvy. The headlines must catch the search engine's 'bot' that crawls the web. It does not matter whether they are catchy to the human mind.

Journalists over the years have written for hard-to-please editors and the reader. The search engine is threatening to become the new litmus test of their work.

Already, 'Real Estate' is getting replaced by 'Homes' and 'Scene' is making way for 'Lifestyle'. Globally, a few news sites have begun to give two headlines, one to attract the human reader and the other to lure the algorithm-propelled search engine. There is also talk of limiting the number of characters in the headline, to 40 or so, to make it more net-compatible.

It has yet to be seen whether Google will, at some point, begin to influence the content below the headline, including news selection.

The hope lies in an old cliche, that today's innovation is tomorrow's tradition.

The so-called inverted pyramid structure of a news article - placing the most important information at the top - was shaped in part by a new technology of the 19th century, the telegraph, the Internet of its day.

But things did not turn out too bad. Eventually, they have a way of falling in place.
Suveen K Sinha