The editorial search engine

It’s impossible to build a computer system that helps people find or filter information without at some point making editorial judgements. That’s because search and collaborative filtering algorithms embody human judgement about what is important to know. I’ve been pointing this out for years, and it seems particularly relevant to the journalism profession today as it grapples with the digital medium. It’s this observation which is the bridge between the front page and the search results page, and it suggests a new generation of digital news products that are far more useful than just online translations of a newspaper.

It’s easy to understand where human judgement enters into information filtering algorithms, if you think about how such things are built. At some point a programmer writes some code for, say, a search engine, and tests it by looking at the output on a variety of different queries. Are the results good? In what way do they fall short of the social goals of the software? How should the code be changed? It’s not possible to write a search engine without a strong concept of what “good” results are, and that is an editorial judgement.

I bring this up now for two reasons. One is an ongoing, active debate over “news applications” — small programs designed with journalistic intent — and their role in journalism. Meanwhile, for several years Google’s public language has been slowly shifting from “our search results are objective” to “our search results represent our opinion.” The transition seems to have been completed a few weeks ago, when Matt Cutts spoke to Wired about Google’s new page ranking algorithm:

In some sense when people come to Google, that’s exactly what they’re asking for — our editorial judgment. They’re expressed via algorithms. When someone comes to Google, the only way to be neutral is either to randomize the links or to do it alphabetically.

There it is, from the mouth of the bot. “Our editorial judgment” is “expressed via algorithms.” Google is saying that they have and employ editorial judgement, and that they write algorithms to embody it. They use algorithms instead of hand-curated lists of links, which was Yahoo’s failed web navigation strategy of the late 1990s, because manual curation doesn’t scale to whole-web sizes and can’t be personalized. Yet hand selection of articles is what human editors do every day in assembling the front page. It is valuable, but can’t fulfill every need.

Informing people takes more than reporting
Like a web search engine, journalism is about getting people the accurate information they need or want. But professional journalism is built upon pre-digital institutions and economic models, and newsrooms are geared around content creation, not getting people information. The distinction is important, and journalism’s lack of attention to information filtering and organization seems like a big omission, an omission that explains why technology companies have become powerful players in news.

I don’t mean to suggest that going out and getting the story — aka “reporting” — isn’t important. Obviously, someone has to provide the original report that then ricochets through the web via social media, links, and endless reblogging. Further, there is evidence that very few people do original reporting. Last year I counted the percentage of news outlets did their own reporting on one big story, and found that only 13 of 121 stories listed on Google News did not simply copy information found elsewhere. A contemporaneous Pew study of the news ecosystem of Baltimore found that most reporting was still done by print newspapers, with very little contributed by “new media,” though this study has been criticized for a number of potentially serious category problems. I’ve also repeatedly experienced the power that a single original report can have, as when I made a few phone calls to discover that Jurgen Habermas is not on Twitter, or worked with AP colleagues to get the first confirmation from network operators that Egypt had dropped off the internet. Working in a newsroom, obsessively watching the news propagate through the web, I see this every day: it’s amazing how few people actually pump original reports into the ecosystem.

But reporting isn’t everything. It’s not nearly enough. Reporting is just one part of ensuring that important public information is available, findable, and known. This is where journalism can learn something from search engines, because I suspect what we really want is a hybrid of human and algorithmic judgement.

As conceived in the pre-digital era, news is a non-personalized, non-interactive stream of updates about a small number of local or global stories. The first and most obvious departure from this model would be the ability to search within a news product for particular stories of interest. But the search function on most news websites is terrible, and mostly fails at the core task of helping people find the best stories about a topic of interest. If you doubt this, try going to your favorite news site and searching for that good story that you read there last month. Partially this is technical neglect. But at root this problem is about newsroom culture: the primary product is seen to be getting the news out, not helping people find what is there. (Also, professional journalism is really bad at linking between stories, and most news orgs don’t do fine-grained tracking of social sharing of their content, which are two of primary signals that search engines use to determine which articles are the most relevant.)

Story-specific news applications
We are seeing signs of a new kind of hybrid journalism that is as much about software as it is about about reporting. It’s still difficult to put names to what is happening, but terms like “news application” are emerging. There has been much recent discussion of the news app, including a session at the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in February, and landmark posts on the topic at Poynter and NiemanLab. Good examples of the genre include ProPublica’s dialysis facility locator, which combines investigative reporting with a search engine built on top of government data, and the Los Angeles Time’s real-time crime map, which plots LAPD data across multiple precincts and automatically detects statistically significant spikes. Both can be thought of as story-specific search engines, optimized for particular editorial purposes.

Yet the news apps of today are just toes in the water. It is no disrespect to all of the talented people currently working in the field say this, because we are at the beginning of something very big. One common thread in recent discussion of news apps has been a certain disappointment at the slow rate of adoption of the journalist-programmer paradigm throughout the industry. Indeed, with Matt Waite’s layoff from Politifact, despite a Pulitzer Prize for his work, some people are wondering if there’s any future at all in the form. My response is that we haven’t even begun to see the full potential of software combined with journalism. We are under-selling the news app because we are under-imagining it.

I want to apply search engine technology to tell stories. “Story” might not even be the right metaphor, because the experience I envision is interactive and non-linear, adapting to the user’s level of knowledge and interest, worth return visits and handy in varied circumstances. I don’t want a topic page, I want a topic app. Suppose I’m interested in — or I have been directed via headline to — the subject of refugees and internal migration. A text story about refugees due to war and other catastrophes is an obvious introduction, especially if it includes maps and other multimedia. And that would typically be the end of  the story by today’s conventions. But we can do deeper. The International Organization for Migration maintains detailed statistics on the topic. We could plot that data, make it searchable and linkable. Now we’re at about the level of a good news app today. Let’s go further by making it live, not a visualization of a data set but a visualization of a data feed, an automatically updating information resource that is by definition evergreen. And then let’s pull in all of the good stories concerning migration, whether or not our own newsroom wrote them. (As a consumer, the reporting supply chain is not my problem, and I’ve argued before that news organizations need to do much more content syndication and sharing.) Let’s build a search engine on top of every last scrap of refugee-related content we can find. We could start with classic keyword search techniques, augment them by link analysis weighted toward sources we trust, and ingest and analyze the social streams of whichever communities deal with the issue. Then we can tune the whole system using our editorial-judgment-expressed-as-algorithms to serve up the most accurate and relevant content not only today, but every day in the future. Licensed content we can show within our product, and all else we can simply link to, but the search engine needs to be a complete index.

Rather than (always, only) writing stories, we should be trying to solve the problem of comprehensively informing the user on a particular topic. Web search is great, and we certainly need top-level “index everything” systems, but I’m thinking of more narrowly focussed projects. Choose a topic and start with traditional reporting, content creation, in-house explainers and multimedia stories. Then integrate a story-specific search engine that gathers together absolutely everything else that can be gathered on that topic, and applies whatever niche filtering, social curation, visualization, interaction and communication techniques are most appropriate. We can shape the algorithms to suit the subject. To really pull this off, such editorially-driven search engines need to be both live in the sense of automatically incorporating new material from external feeds, and comprehensive in the sense of being an interface to as much information on the topic as possible. Comprehensiveness will keep users coming back to your product and not someone else’s, and the idea of covering 100% of a story is itself powerful.

Other people’s content is content too
The brutal economics of online publishing dictate that we meet the needs of our users with as little paid staff time as possible. That drives the production process toward algorithms and outsourced content. This might mean indexing and linking to other people’s work, syndication deals that let a news site run content created by other people, or a blog network that bright people like to contribute to. It’s very hard for the culture of professional journalism to accept this idea, the idea that they should leverage other people’s work as far as they possibly can for as cheap as they can possibly get it, because many journalists and publishers feel burned by aggregation. But aggregation is incredibly useful, while the feelings and job descriptions of newsroom personnel are irrelevant to the consumer. As Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy put it, “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” and the idea that a single newsroom can produce the world’s best content on every topic is a damaging myth. That’s the fundamental value proposition of aggregation — all of the best stuff in one place. The word “best” represents editorial judgement in the classic sense, still a key part of a news organization’s brand, and that judgement can be embodied in whatever algorithms and social software are designed to do the aggregation. I realize that there are economic issues around getting paid for producing content, but that’s the sort of thing that needs to be solved by better content marketplaces, not lawsuits and walled gardens.

None of this means that reporters shouldn’t produce regular stories on their beats, or that there aren’t plenty of topics which require lots of original reporting and original content. But asking who did the reporting or made the content misses the point. A really good news application/interactive story/editorial search engine should be able to teach us as much as we care to learn about the topic, regardless of the state of our previous knowledge, and no matter who originally created the most relevant material.

What I am suggesting comes down to this: maybe a digital news product isn’t a collection of stories, but a system for learning about the world. For that to happen, news applications are going to need to do a lot of algorithmically-enhanced organization of content originally created by other people. This idea is antithetical to current newsroom culture and the traditional structure of the journalism industry. But it also points the way to more useful digital news products: more integration of outside sources, better search and personalization, and story-specific news applications that embody whatever combination of original content, human curation, and editorial algorithms will best help the user to learn.

[Updated 27 March with more material on social signals in search, Bill Joy’s maxim, and other good bits.]
[Updated 1 April with section titles.]

The Search Problem vs. The News Problem

I think I’ve found a useful distinction between the “search” and “news” problems. News organizations like to complain that search engines are taking their business, but that’s only because no one has yet built a passable news engine.

Search is when the user asks the computer for a particular type of information, and the computer finds it.

News is when the computer has to figure out, by itself, what information a user wants in each moment.

This definition has useful consequences. For example, it says that accurately modeling the user and their needs is going to be absolutely essential for news, because the news problem doesn’t have a query to go on. All a news selection algorithm can know is what the user has done in the past. For this reason, I don’t believe that online news systems can truly be useful until they take into account everything of ourselves that we’ve put online, including Facebook profiles and emails, and viewing histories.

And yes, I do want my news engine to keep track of cool YouTube uploads and recommend videos to me. This in addition to telling me that Iran has a secret uranium enrichment facility. In the online era, “news” probably just means recently published useful information, of which journalistic reporting is clearly a very small segment.

It’s worth remembering that keyword web search wasn’t all that useful until Google debuted in 1998 with an early version of the now-classic PageRank algorithm.  I suspect that we have not yet seen the equivalent for news. In other words, the first killer news app has yet to be deployed. Because such an app will need to know a great deal about you, it will probably pull in data from Facebook and Gmail, at a minimum. But no one really knows yet how to turn a pile of emails into a filter that selects from the best of the web, blogosphere, Twitter, and mainstream media.

Classic journalism organizations are at a disadvantage in designing modern news apps, because broadcast media taught them bad habits. News organizations still think in terms of editors who select content for the audience. This one-size fits all attitude seems ridiculous in the internet era, a relic of the age when it would have been inconceivably expensive to print a different paper for each customer.

Of course, there are some serious potential problems with the logical end-goal of total customization. The loss of a socially shared narrative is one; the Daily Me effect where an individual is never challenged by anything outside of what they already believe is another. But shared narratives seem to emerge in social networks regardless of how we organize them — this is the core meaning of something “going viral.” And I believe the narcissism problem can be addressed through information maps. In fact, maps are so important that we should add another required feature to our hypothetical killer news app: it must in some way present a useful menu of the vast scope of available information. This is another function that existing search products have hardly begun to address.

Not that we have algorithms today that are as good as human editors as putting together a front page. But we will. Netflix’s recent million dollar award for a 10% improvement in their film recommendation system is a useful reminder of how seriously certain companies are taking the problem of predicting user preferences.

The explosion of blog, Twitter, and Wikipedia consumption demonstrates that classic news editors may not have been so good at giving us what we want, anyway.

Why We Need Open Search, and How to Make Money Doing It

Anything that’s hard to put into words is hard to put into Google. What are the right keywords if I want to learn about 18th century British aristocratic slang? What if I have a picture of someone and I want to know who it is?  How to I tell Google to count the number of web pages that are written in Chinese?

We’ve all lived with Google for so long that most of us can’t even conceive of other methods of information retrieval. But as computer scientists and librarians will tell you, boolean keyword search is not the end-all. There are other classic search techniques, such as latent semantic analysis which tries to return results which are “conceptually similar” to the user’s query, even if the relevant documents don’t contain any of the search terms. I also believe that full-scale maps of the online world are important, I would like to know which web sites act as bridges between languages, and I want tools to track the source of statements made online. These sorts of applications might be a huge advance over keyword search, but large-scale search experiments are, at the moment, prohibitively expensive.


The problem is that the web is really big, and only a few companies have invested in the hardware and software required to index all of it. A full crawl of the web is expensive and valuable, and all of the companies who have one (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, SEOmoz) have so far chosen to keep their databases private. Essentially, there is a natural monopoly here. We would like a thousand garage-scale search ventures to bloom in the best Silicon Valley tradition, but it’s just too expensive to get into the business.

DotBot is the only open web index project I am aware of. They are crawling the entire web and making the results available for download via BitTorrent, because

We believe the internet should be open to everyone. Currently, only a select few corporations have access to an index of the world wide web. Our intention is to change that.

Bravo! However, a web crawl is a truly enormous file. The first part of the DotBot index, with just 600,000 pages, clocks in at 3.2 gigabytes. Extrapolating to the more than 44 billion pages so far crawled, I estimate that they currently have 234 terabytes of data. At today’s storage technology prices of about $100 per terabyte, it would cost $24,000 just to store the file. Real-world use also requires backups, redundancy, and maintenance, all of which push data center costs to something closer to $1000 per terabyte. And this says nothing of trying to download a web crawl over the network — it turns out that sending hard drives in the mail is still the fastest and cheapest way to move big data.

Full web indices are just too big to play with casually; there will always be a very small number of them.

I think the solution to this is to turn web indices and other large quasi-public datasets into infrastructure: a few large companies collect the data and run the servers, other companies buy fine-grained access at market rates. We’ve had this model for years in the telecommunications industry, where big companies own the lines and lease access to anyone who is willing to pay.

The key to the whole proposition is a precise definition of access. Google’s keyword “access” is very narrow. Something like SQL queries would expand the space of expressible questions, but you still couldn’t run image comparison algorithms or do the computational linguistics processing necessary for true semantic search. The right way to extract the full potential of a database is to run arbitrary programs on it, and that means the data has to be local.

The only model for open search that works both technologically and financially is to store the web index on a cloud, let your users run their own software against it, and sell the compute cycles.

It is my hope that this is what DotBot is up to. The pieces are all in place already: Amazon and others sell cheap cloud-computing services, and the basic computer science of large-scale parallel data processing is now well understood. To be precise, I want an open search company that sells map-reduce access to their index. Map-reduce is a standard framework for breaking down large computational tasks into small pieces that can be distributed across hundreds or thousands of processors, and Google already uses it internally for all their own applications — but they don’t currently let anyone else run it on their data.

I really think there’s money to be made in providing open search infrastructure, because I really think there’s money to be made in better search. In fact I see an entire category of applications that hasn’t yet been explored outside of a few very well-funded labs (Google, Bellcore, the NSA): “information engineering,” the question of what you can do with all of the world’s data available for processing at high speed. Got an idea for better search? Want to ask new questions of the entire internet? Working on an investigative journalism story that requires specialized data-mining? Code the algorithm in map-reduce, and buy the compute time in tenth-of-a-second chunks on the web index cloud. Suddenly, experimentation is cheap — and anyone who can figure out something valuable to do with a web index can build a business out of it without massive prior investment.

The business landscape will change if web indices do become infrastructure. Most significantly, Google will lose its search monopoly. Competition will probably force them to open up access their web indices, and this is good. As Google knows, the world’s data is exceedingly valuable — too valuable to leave in the hands of a few large companies. There is an issue of public interest here. Fortunately, there is money to be made in selling open access. Just as energy drives change in physical systems, money drives changes in economic systems. I don’t know who is going to do it or when, but open search infrastructure is probably inevitable. If Google has any sense, they’ll enter the search infrastructure market long before they’re forced (say,  before Yahoo and Bing do it first.)

Let me know when it happens. There are some things I want to do with the internet.