Google’s move to order results based on what’s newest and most liked has made it a journalistic behemoth nearly overnight. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.)

News may not be very profitable anymore, but it sure is popular.

Consider this: About half a million people pay for digital subscriptions to The New York Times, one of the few newspapers that commands a paid following online. Meanwhile, Google News, which curates primarily free content, draws 1 billion different readers every week. That is over 4,000 times the online subscriber base of the Gray Lady.

The comparison is unfair, of course, but so are the economics of journalism. Google pulls articles from 50,000 sources, processes them through a patented computer algorithm—no editors!—and then gives Googlers what it thinks they want. Back in the day, the search industry began with a focus on authority—the most reliable stuff comes on the first page of results. However, it is moving towards the alternative values of social (what your friends like), and speed (what’s new, or news). For example, type “Obama” or American Idol into Google, and the top of the page shows the Google News results—nabbing the prime real estate above the “first” traditional results, (which are links to the Obama and Idol official pages). This is a subtle but seismic shift for Google, which has walked through a side door to become one of the most important forces in journalism.

And yet, in a news environment where allegations of bias are a constant and “media” stories get their own vertical on The Huffington Post, the power and premises of Google News draw far less attention (outside of the tech press). So a look at revisions to Google’s patent for news can be instructive.

ComputerWorld just dug up Google’s application for revising its news algorithm, from last year, and analyzed what the company’s approach says about the future of news:

The…application offers details on more than a dozen separate metrics the company uses to rank news stories created by other Websites…. Google’s decisions…affect what stories readers see, potentially shaping their view of news events. The metrics cited in the patent application include: the number of articles produced by a news organization during a given time period; the average length of an article from a news source; and the importance of coverage from the news source, [as well as] a breaking news score, usage patterns, human opinion, circulation statistics and the size of the staff associated with a particular news operation.

While Google’s approach—and the premise of many new media defenders—often rewards aggregated, flashy content over the original reporting that it cannibalizes, the patent application includes a detailed metric aiming to value original research and sources.

A tenth metric may include a value representing the number of original named entities the news source produces within a cluster of related articles…[this is worthwhile because] if a news source generates a news story that contains a named entity that other articles [on the same topic] do not contain, this may be an indication that the news source is capable of original reporting (emphasis added).

The weighting of the different metrics is not provided, since Google closely guards its algorithm, so there’s no way to know if this “original named entities” formula actually counts for much (or whether it works). According to the application, other metrics also aim to reflect whether readers, and other websites, have assigned value to a given article, possible because it is original or high quality. So even an obscure or unaccredited news page could earn Google’s valuable blessing if other sources were linking to it. On that score, Google’s best defense has always been offense—if you don’t like the top hits, don’t blame them, blame the web.

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