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Why Is Google Highlighting Long-Form Articles?

Google is now calling out long articles in a special box above search results. This is a rostrum that long-form journalism and essays have lacked since the dawn of the Internet age. But why is Google interested in specially indexing quality content? We suspect there may be a curation play at work.

Why Is Google Highlighting Long-Form Articles?

People ask Google some deep questions, like "why am I here?" "should I have a third child?" and "why is my scab turning that color?" Apparently 10% of our time on Google is spent digging into broad topics like these. So Google is curating and featuring authoritative treatises on popular subjects to provide a starting point for intellectual expansion. If you Google "abortion" or "nature," essays and long-form journalism by respected authors will pop up as the first results under a new In-Depth Articles header.

Generally the assumption in online publishing is that readers want everything in bite-sized chunks. The thinking is that consumers have the attention span of a goldfish and will get distracted by a notification or a sudden urge to Tweet if a blog post or article is too long. There are data to support this, but there is also evidence that readers appreciate long pieces and will stick with them to the end. And Google pushing hefty word counts might be just what long-form needs.

In a blog post announcing In-Depth results, technical staffer Pandu Nayak wrote:

I'm happy to see people continue to invest in thoughtful in-depth content that will remain relevant for months or even years after publication. This is exactly what you'll find in the new feature. In addition to well-known publishers, you'll also find some great articles from lesser-known publications and blogs.

It all sounds blissful on our end. A win for long-form, useful information for people Googling tough questions, and beastly exposure for anyone whose piece makes it into an In-Depth section. But if "algorithmic signals" will be choosing what to feature (Google says humans won’t be involved in curation at all), will the section be able to succeed in presenting quality work that is varied? Does it need to? Of course Google is a for-profit service that individuals choose to use, but it is so crushingly ubiquitous that we can’t deny the influence and reach these articles will have.

Google is nudging publishers to streamline their content presentation so it can be considered for inclusion in In-Depth. Google lists a number of factors that should be standardized like using markup, implementing consistent authorship and pagination/canonicalization markup (rel=next, rel=prev, rel=canonical, etc.), and including logos. The company also mentions that sites which protect content behind a paywall or other restriction should implement First Click Free.

None of these measures are particularly unusual or onerous. Most professional sites will conform by default. But Google claims that one of the strengths of In-Depth is that, "In addition to well-known publishers, you'll also find some great articles from lesser-known publications and blogs." So small sites will especially want to conform for the chance of making it into In-Depth.

What does Google get out of this feature? The company says their goal is to surface quality work that might otherwise get pushed down by the news cycle and daily information deluge. And as this Nieman Lab post by Caroline O’Donovan points out, the In-Depth section could also affect the quality of information readers demand by reducing their reliance on general and uncrafted entries in information aggregators like Wikipedia. The more people read masterful long-form, the more they will rely on it for intelligent context. So perhaps this is a way for Google to divert readers from other tools and networks that aggregate quality content and build up its own index of encyclopedia-quality work.

There may also be a social networking angle. If people are able to easily access exactly what they need, they may not have go-to publications in the same way they do now—they can identify the author and explore all their best works. "We really want to help users find it all from across the web," Google product manager Jake Hubert told Nieman. "This makes it easier for users to discover this kind of content, that used to be not as easy to discover." Where the author of a Wikipedia article is usually irrelevant, the connections between individuals authoring pieces featured in In-Depth will become much more important; presumably many of these authors have already linked their bylines with Google+ (as it’s standard practice to do now in companies like ours.)

We’re trying to address the issue of context here at Co.Labs with extra-long "slow live blog" stories that help readers get a handle on broad topics. Let’s hope it pays off.

[Image: Flickr user JMR_Photography]