Can Google News compete with Twitter and Facebook?

As part of the ongoing rollout of its +1 recommendation system, Google (s goog) has started including +1s from your social graph in its Google News service. Although these recommendations from your friends and followers won’t affect the main news content at the site, there’s clearly the potential for them to do so in the future, and that could turn Google News into a real social-news service instead of a simple aggregator. But has the web giant lost the social news market to Twitter and Facebook, or could the integration of recommendations with the Google+ network allow it to catch up and become a strong competitor?
For now, the +1 recommendations will only appear occasionally in the Spotlight section of Google News, according to a post by staffer Erich Schmidt (not to be confused with chairman Eric Schmidt) at the Google News blog. But just as +1 counts have started showing up in the company’s main search results, it seems likely they will work their way into the Google News algorithm as well. In a very real sense, the +1 is becoming Google’s equivalent of the “like” or “share” buttons on Facebook and of the retweet function on Twitter, and combining that function with news headlines could be a powerful source of recommendations if Google rolls it out for the rest of Google News.

It’s interesting that Google is adding this function to Google News at the same time it’s shutting down or mothballing some other services the web giant has offered, including Google Knol, Google Bookmark lists, Google Wave and Google Friend Connect. That would seem to indicate the company is interested in enhancing Google News rather than ignoring it, which is a positive sign. As I’ve argued before, in many ways, the news aggregator has been under-utilized for years, and even the few social features that have been added over the past year or two seem to be afterthoughts.

Google News has lost ground as news becomes social

In part, this could be a result of Google’s contentious relationship with media companies, which continually accuse it of stealing their content for its service, but it could also be a result of the company’s ambivalence about news as a potential revenue driver. For whatever reason, Google News has taken a back seat in the recommendation wars, as Twitter and Facebook have become the default providers for many news consumers.
Even Yahoo News (s yhoo), the largest aggregator in the news market, has bowed to the power of Facebook as a social-recommendation engine. The company recently connected its service to the social network as part of the rollout of Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” — although it didn’t create an app the way some other providers such as the Washington Post (s wpo) and The Guardian did, but instead integrated Facebook sharing into its existing site. According to some reports, Yahoo has seen a dramatic increase in both sharing and traffic to its news stories, and other mainstream media outlets have reported similar results.

Facebook may have become the default social-news engine for the outlets that are connecting to it and creating sharing apps, but Twitter is still a powerful driver of traffic for many news sites, and arguably offers even more of a streamlined news experience than Facebook does because of the nature of the network. When it comes to short, real-time news items about events such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, Twitter excels — especially when combined with tools such as Storify and other ways of aggregating or curating the news and providing more context. In many ways, as I’ve pointed out a number of times at GigaOM, Twitter has become a real-time newswire.

Social news could get a big boost from Google+

Could the addition of recommendations for news — integrated not just into Google News but into Google’s +1 network — make Google a competitor for either Facebook or Twitter? As both chairman Eric Schmidt and director of product Bradley Horowitz have pointed out, the company plans to make its new social network a platform that is connected to all of its services, so it seems obvious that at some point +1 recommendations from Google News would be merged with a user’s Google+ stream.
Although there has been plenty of debate about the long-term viability of Google’s new social network, I think there’s a lot more power behind it than many of its critics believe. Part of that power will become obvious as Google connects it to services like Gmail and integrates it even further into search — something that neither Facebook nor Twitter can offer — and social sharing of news will benefit from that broader platform as well. That could give it a substantial amount of ammunition in the battle for attention.
For me, Twitter is still the news-consumption tool of choice, in part because I have created lists that help me filter the river of content that continually flows through the network, and because its 140-character nature makes it easier to consume than either Facebook or Google+. But the apparent success of Facebook’s social-reading apps make it clear a growing number of people are happy to use it as their default social news platform. Whether Google has what it takes to become a strong third player in the news-recommendation market is still very much up in the air.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user George Kelly