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Is Google Fast Flip Pulling a Fast One?

Search giant says it wants to kiss and make up with print and online publishers, but some are questioning the giant’s real motives

Is Google Fast Flip Pulling a Fast One?

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—A just-released product of Google Labs, Fast Flip is intended to replicate both online and on mobile platforms the experience of reading an actual newspaper, something digital versions of print publications have been doing for several years.

“Today we're adding a new experiment to Google Labs: Google Fast Flip, accessible at fastflip.googlelabs.com,” Krishna Bharat posted to the Google blog Monday afternoon. “Fast Flip is a new reading experience that combines the best elements of print and online articles. Like a print magazine, Fast Flip lets you browse sequentially through bundles of recent news, headlines and popular topics, as well as feeds from individual top publishers.”

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To test its “theory” that the Flip will allow readers to read more because they’re reading faster, Google has already partnered with three dozen top publishers, including The New York Times, Atlantic, the Washington Post, Salon, Fast Company, ProPublica and Newsweek.

“These partners will share the revenue earned from contextually relevant ads. This gives publishers an opportunity to introduce new readers to their content,” said Bharat, a researcher at Google News. “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.”

True to Google form, Fast Flip is easy to use right out of the box and seems to provide a reading experience that could indeed drive more eyeballs to at least the first page of the various articles, but it also is already attracting some criticism regarding its stated intent to bolster an industry it has been at odds with for years.

PC World’s Jared Newman isn't buying any of it. “Unlike Google News, which is basically a launching pad for people to visit other Web sites, Fast Flip dominates the user experience,” he writes. “After clicking on an article, you don't go to that publication's Web page. Instead, you see a significant chunk of the story—five paragraphs or more, by my estimate—on Google's Web site, with Google's ads. You'll even notice that the site's own display ads are missing.

“So where Google News is a traffic-generating machine for news Web sites, Fast Flip is a traffic-generating machine for Google. Call it the death of click-through rates.”

Indeed, while the new model whereby most of the revenue derived from those online ads will be earned by the publishers, it is difficult to imagine that that new revenue will begin to equal the revenue earned from the print ads. Instead, it is likely that many of those advertisers will be contacting Google instead of continuing their campaigns with the papers.

While Newman does concede that Fast Flip could end up rewarding in-depth journalism over flashy headlines, he sees troubling waters ahead for publishers who already rely on Google for traffic. “It'll be even scarier when they're turning directly to Google for revenue. I can't imagine too many publishers looking forward to that.”

There also could be some raised eyebrows among advertisers, who are promised contextual placement for their ads. A quick perusal of stories culled from the search term “porn,” for instance, calls up ads for Scottrade and Yahoo! Autos, which may or may not be problematic for those companies.

While Google Fast Flip is still wet behind the ears and has yet to find its ultimate footing, if indeed it ever does, the larger question remains whether the aggregation of news can ever provide enough revenue to run a major operation like the New York Times. The answer seems bleakly obvious, however, which begs the question why so many major publishers have signed on.

One fears that fear itself (and more than a little loathing) may have driven those decisions.






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Tom Hymes

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