Back on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, Google News turned 10 years old. Like many other superstars who have spent too much time in the media spotlight, the news search engine needs to check itself into rehab and relook at its news settings.

Maybe then it can figure out why the number of unique visitors to Google News remained flat in the U.S. while Yahoo News has grown dramatically.

Google News was launched a decade ago with 4,000 news sources. Back then, Stephanie Olsen of CNET News interviewed Marissa Mayer, who was then the Google product manager who had developed the news search engine with five staff engineers over the previous nine months.

“This product is about innovation,” Mayer said. “This development isn’t about bringing all services to all people. This is about developing an interesting piece of technology.”

So, what does this interesting piece of technology do?

Google News is a computer-generated news site that now aggregates headlines from more than 50,000 news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together in “clusters,” and then displays them according to each reader’s personalized interests. Ten years ago, this was a paradigm shift.

Traditionally, news readers first picked a publication and then looked for headlines that interested them. Google News does things very differently. It offers links to several articles on every story, so its readers can first decide what subject interests them and then select which publishers’ accounts of each story they’d like to read.

Over the past 10 years, this paradigm shift has been a little unsettling to some editors, despite the fact that when Google News readers click on the headline that interests them, they go directly to the site which published that story.

But what really angered publishers was the fact that Google News found and displayed press releases by crawling selected press release distribution services, as if they were just another source of useful and timely news information.

This meant the media was being “disintermediated.”

On Jan. 23, 2006, Krishna Bharat, Distinguished Scientist and Founder of Google News, announced on the Official Google Blog:

We’re taking Google News out of beta! When we launched the English-language edition in September 2002, we entered untested waters with a grand experiment in news browsing – using computers to organize the world’s news in real time and providing a bird’s eye view of what’s being reported on virtually any topic. 

We’ve certainly gotten a lot of feedback from both readers and editors. For example, readers told us they loved the news clusters but they didn’t want press releases on the home page (although they are still useful to have in the search results).

The number of unique visitors to Google News continued to climb.

Then on June 30, 2010, Google News revamped its homepage. At the same time, users were allowed to choose which news sources they’d like to see more or less often, including all blogs and all press releases.

The following day, Thomas Claburn of InformationWeek wrote an article that compared the Google News redesign to the “New Coke” flop. Claburn wrote, “Google’s effort to make Google News more personally relevant to users has hit a nerve.” He added, “The controversy goes beyond design choices, a perennial sore spot for Google. The most troubling issue is whether offering personalized news is a social good.”

What’s happened since then?

According to Compete PRO, the number of unique visitors to Google News has decreased 2% from 9.3 million in October 2010 to 9.1 million in October 2012. By comparison, the number of unique visitors to Yahoo! News has increased 62% from 38.3 million in October 2010 to more than 62.2 million in October 2012.

It’s also worth noting that Yahoo! News doesn’t groups similar stories together in “clusters,” doesn’t display them according to each reader’s personalized interests, and has human editors who decide which stories go on their homepage. In fact, the same week that Mayer was named as CEO of Yahoo!, Hillary Frey was named as editor-in-chief of Yahoo! News.

That why I imagine that the team at Google News might want to check into rehab for anxiety, exhaustion and stress.

So, did the brouhaha over the Google News homepage redesign and personalization cause the news search engine’s fall from grace?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. YouTube has redesigned its homepage a couple of times and it now gets more than 800 million unique visitors a month worldwide.

That’s why I feel there was another cause for the downfall of Google News. What is it? To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the content, stupid!”

As Google News has expanded its news sources from 4,000 a decade ago to 50,000 today, it has also contracted its definition of “news.”

According to Google News (publishers) Help, there are a handful of important guidelines for getting into Google News. The first two are:

  • News content. Sites included in Google News should offer timely reporting on matters that are important or interesting to our audience. We generally do not include how-to articles, advice columns, job postings, or strictly informational content such as weather forecasts and stock data.
  • We mean it — stick to the news! Google News is not a marketing service. We don’t want to send users to sites created primarily for promoting a product or organization.

Why would these news quality guidelines constrict the growth of Google News?

According to Google Trends, web search interest in news has been relatively flat in the United States since 2004, while web search interest in how to has almost tripled over the same period. And news search interest in how to is now four times greater than news search interest in news.

So, keeping how-to articles out of Google News could be as counter-productive as using its ability to personalize your news to delete all blogs and all press releases from the search results.

And if Google News doesn’t want to send users to “sites created primarily for promoting a product or organization,” then riddle me this: Why are press releases still useful to have in the search results (although Google News doesn’t want them on the home page)?

The best answer to this question that I’ve heard came from a member of the Yahoo News team.

When Yahoo! News was upgraded back in March 2004, it started started to included selected press release distribution services, including Business Wire, CNW Group, GlobeNewswire, Marketwire, and PR Newswire, in its search results.

I asked a member of the Yahoo News team why they’d done that. He said:

In many industries, the trade press has imploded. So, if we hadn’t included press releases in our results, then our users would often find no results at all when they searched for new product announcements.

So, what’s the future look like?

In a recent post, “Google News turns 10,” Bharat said, “It’s undeniable that the online news landscape has changed immensely. Smartphones and social networks have transformed how news is accessed and sourced, and shifted the relationship between readers and authors. Open journalism is the norm, and aggregation by humans and machines is an integral part of the ecosystem.”

He added, “Opportunities abound, and we are excited for where we can take this product in the next decade. While change is inevitable, one thing remains the same: our mission is to bring you the news you want, when you need it, from a diverse set of sources.”

At the end of the day, I think “the news you want” is “the news you can use.” And this includes how-to articles. Hopefully the diverse set of sources that Google News provides in the future will continue to include blogs and press releases.