At the TechCrunch50 conference on Sept.14 in San Francisco, Google unveiled the latest product from Google Labs: Google Fast Flip (http://fastflip.googlelabs.com), described by Google's Krishna Bharat as "a new reading experience that combines the best elements of print and online articles." The product is not only an interesting application of visual searching, but it also represents an effort on the part of Google to work with publishers to share revenues-something not done with Google News.
A Fast Trip Through Fast Flip
Since only the first pages of stories are displayed as screen shots, "flipping through content is very fast, so you can quickly look through a lot of pages until you find something interesting," Bharat notes. "In short, you get fast browsing, natural magazine-style navigation, recommendations from friends and other members of the community, and a selection of content that is serendipitous and personalized."
Content from 39 publishers is provided (and there's sure to be more as time goes by). When readers find a story they want to read completely, they simply click through to the publisher's site, where the display screen reverts to the traditional webpage presentation of that publisher. A complete listing of current content partners is available at http://fastflip.googlelabs.com/sources.
Fast Flip groups stories by Sections-Politics, Business, U.S., World, Sports, Sci/Tech, Entertainment, Health, Opinion and Travel-as well as by Popularity (Recent, Most Viewed, Recommended and Headlines) Topics, or Sources. You move through the pages by using the left/right arrows along each row of stories. By clicking on a story, users are taken directly to the full story at the publisher's website.
Fast Flip On-the-Go
Fast Flip is also designed to work on mobile devices. At launch, it works on iPhone and Android mobile devices. "Going forward," Google explains, "we'll explore rolling out support for other mobile platforms." On the iPhone, the system works very well, with each page of content filling the screen. Users can quickly either click on the story to move to the publisher's website or to swipe left or right to get to the next story. This ease of use and clear design will make this popular with anyone on-the-go needing to get a quick update on news, sports scores, or other information. For more details on the mobile option, see http://fastflip.googlelabs.com/mobile.
A More Visual User Interface in Web 2.0 World
Google's Bharat notes that "Fast Flip also personalizes the experience for you, by taking cues from selections you make to show you more content from sources, topics, and journalists that you seem to like."
Google provides Web 2.0 features that enable users to follow friends and topics, discover new content, or create their own custom magazines around searches. "Users can also search for any subjects they want and basically create their own topics, almost like a custom magazine, on the fly," Google notes. "The stories in this section are recommended by users of Google Fast Flip in direct and indirect ways. We take cues from how often they read stories, e-mail stories and register a public vote for stories by clicking on the ‘Like' button on each article." Google Fast Flip allows readers to vote on an article to tell the world they liked it. Clicking on the "Like" button on a story page lodges a public vote for that story, which is one of the factors in whether Fast Flip includes stories the "Recommended" section. At the bottom of the homepage, Fast Flip users who are signed in to their Google Account can see which stories friends in their Gmail contact list have "liked."
A New Revenue Sharing Scheme for Google and Publishers
Google's content partners share revenue earned from the contextually relevant ads. Industry analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell sees this as a significant experiment for publishers. He says, "Google, in licensing the screenshots (which it will receive by RSS feed or grab with its crawler), has agreed to give publishers the majority of ad revenue earned on Google-hosted Fast Flip pages. If Fast Flip succeeds with consumers, Google says it is ready to license the technology for use by publishers on their own websites."
This gives publishers a chance to bring new readers to their content. "It also tests our theory that being able to read articles faster means people will read more of them, driving more ad revenue to publishers," Google's Bharat explains. "The publishing industry faces many challenges today, and there is no magic bullet. However, we believe that encouraging readers to read more news is a necessary part of the solution. We think Fast Flip could be one way to help, and we're looking to find other ways to help as well in the near future."
In the first half of 2009, newspaper industry ad sales reportedly fell by 29%, giving publishers good reason to test the waters of online content provision with Google.
The Future Is Visual
Visual search engines (VSEs) are becoming very popular, and it was widely anticipated that Microsoft (through Bing) and Google would enter this growing search niche. VSEs seek to find ways to replicate not the content of print materials but the user experience of browsing and scanning through printed materials looking for cues-keywords, pictures, headlines-that might make the reader want to read more.
Today there are many very interesting VSE products available freely over the web. Some of the designs used to present these web results may be through dynamic maps, lists, tag clouds, stacks, or other methods. Since Fast Flip is still a product of Google Labs-and users are encouraged to not only interact with the system by selecting articles that they "like" from the results pages and give opinions and suggestions to Google Labs on the product-we can expect to see Fast Flip change and evolve over time.
As more publishers come on board, Fast Flip may become more competitive with other news aggregators (including Google News and Google Reader) as well. "The New Search 1.0 experience has been so list-like, so redundant and duplicative and so lacking clarity as to original source," Doctor notes, "it will be replaced; the question is with what?"
Will Fast Flip Succeed?
Perhaps the biggest news here is the fact that Google is reaching out to publishers and offering them financial incentives for participating in Fast Flip (something it does not do with Google News). "This is the first time Google has been willing to share some of its ad revenue from its own web pages with news publishers and media companies," journalist and consultant Steve Outing notes. "[So this] seems significant to me."
To some extent, this will depend on how important the visual aspect is to users. At this point, if you want comprehensive coverage of news events, you would probably want to go far beyond the 39 content partners available through Fast Flip.
The very fact that this is a Google product means that Fast Flip will introduce many more people to VSEs and their potential power for information retrieval. With the increased bandwidth standard for most users today, VSE-regardless of the fate of Bing or Fast Flip or any other product available today-may be the real winner, moving from the sidelines into the center stage of information retrieval for more people than ever before.
Major News Sources in Fast Flip
Center for Investigative Reporting
Center for Public Integrity
The Christian Science Monitor
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Visual Search Engines for News
Bing and Fast Flip are just two of the latest Visual Search Engines for finding news. Here are others you may want to check out:
eyePlorer (still in beta) http://eyeplorer.com/show
Google Fast Flip http://fastflip.googlelabs.com