Alas, Google News Archive, We Hardly Knew Ye

By  |  Friday, May 20, 2011 at 9:25 am

The Boston Phoenix is reporting that Google has decided to quit further work on Google News Archive, its plan to scan and index 250 years’ worth of microfilm copies of newspapers and turn them into a searchable database. The Phoenix says that Google wants to concentrate on projects of more immediate benefit to newspaper companies, and speculates that the News Archive may have been tougher to implement and less popular than Google expected.

It’s sad news. No other Web company except Google would have had the ambition and good intentions to try and do this in the first place; it’s possible that very concept of a grand unified index of the world’s newspapers just died. But  while the project was a success in terms of sheer bulk–according to the Phoenix, Google scanned 60 million pages–it had crippling usability issues. I suspect that many folks who’d find it immensely useful have no clue that it exists–and even if they do, they may find it weirdly difficult to navigate.

Let’s see…

  • The News Archive is so buried that it’s almost as if Google is willfully hiding it. It’s not among the seven services listed across the top of Google pages. It isn’t one of the thirteen on the “More” menu. It isn’t even included in the 49 (!!) Google services on the Even More page.
  • Google says that News Archive results are sometimes included right in search results, but I don’t see them even when they’d be profoundly appropriate. Like, for instance, when you search for “man walks on moon.”
  • It does sometimes show results from the archive if you do a search, then click on Timeline. But not always. And there’s no way to jump from this timeline to an archive search.
  • Even if you do a search on such as “pittsburgh gazette archive,” you won’t be sent to the archive’s relevant pages.
  • Google News Archive barely benefits from integration with any higher-profile Google services of related purpose. It’s hard to find in Google News (you need to do a search, then click on “Archives”). And there’s no way to do one search and get results from both Google Books and the archive.
  • The archive has a timeline feature. But, confusingly, it’s not the same thing as Google News Timeline--another excellent but obscure Google service.
  • What it’s got is unpredictable and, sometimes, glitchy. For Computerworld (which it mistakenly calls Computer World), it has twenty issues from 1967, 51 from 1967, 27 from 1969, 50 from 1970, 1 from 1971, nothing from 1972-1975, 1976-1978 more or less in their entirety, several 1994 issues accidentally rolled into one big document, and a few random pages from other issues.
  • If you figure out how to get to the Google News Archive homepage, you still can’t pull up a browsable list of specific papers (or any indication at all of which newspapers are included). Even though it exists.
  • There’s a page of News Archive Search Help, but it’s out of whack with the service itself. For instance, its carefully annotated screen shot doesn’t look like the screen I get when I do a search. And it says that the Google News homepage has a link to the archive. Nope.

In short, it’s almost as if News Archive was always an orphan, long before Google officially orphaned it. I kinda wonder: if it had been adequately easy to find and use, might it have been a popular service that Google wouldn’t dream of ditching?

Of course, one of the cool things about old news is that it doesn’t change–those sixty million pages that Google has scanned will remain a useful reference tool. I’ll continue to use the archive. Doing so has always been a frustrating experience; now it’ll be a bittersweet one as well.



16 Comments For This Post

  1. sittininlab Says:

    I love google news timeline! I got it to come up one time in one search, and then never saw it again! I so wanted it back.

    Perhaps just as ambitious, some scientific journals are trying to digitize all of their archival content. As expected, the ones with deep pockets are doing this better than the ones with low profiles.

    This is important because in the all online world, people are not as likely to go from their desks to a library to get an article that may or may not be relevant. One can also hope that with the digital record arcane and ignored results may get new life.

  2. Charles Forsythe Says:

    I didn't even know about this. Maybe the project would have gotten more interest if it had been more visible.

  3. Jason Says:

    I think this was the main problem, the content seemed to only be able at and not in the main google index.

    You'd have to know that a newspaper printed an article to find it, rather than just 'googling' it.

    The other problem with the service is that the pages are presented as images, which makes them really hard to read on screen, it always felt clunky and for a user experience perspective wasn’t upto Google’s usual excellent standards.

    Our product, Netcopy, solves these problems, articles are added to the main google index and we present pages as images AND plain text.

    Like this:

    It's a shame the Google project has stalled. Perhaps with a slightly different approach it could gain more traction?

  4. AnnB Says:

    Don’t bet on the archive remaining useful.

    Don’t bet on it remaining a useful tool.

    Google let it’s usenet archive (the history of the early Internet) rely on a broken search engine (yes, really) until a Wired report shamed it.

    And Blogger search has been busted for years with zero interest in fixing it.

    Look for these archives t deteriorate too.

  5. Geoff Says:

    I'm glad at least that they're not killing what they've already put up, and that my hometown newspaper made it in under the wire. One thing I never figured out was whether there was a print function, or if it was disabled intentionally. Did anyone figure out a better way than making a screenshot?

  6. Shawn Says:

    Google News Archive is a great resource and I’m sad to see it go. Google could use its main website to publicize it (just as they do historical events like Pacman’s anniversary) and it would become an instant resource for internet users. I hope someone at Google has the good sense to keep it alive in some new form.

  7. Jane Says:

    Google News Archive was an immensely valuable tool for research. I used it frequently and was anxiously awaiting for additional issues to be added. Clunky or not, it was often the best or only way to find the information I needed. It is regretful that Google made this decision.

  8. Kyle Says:

    Our library in Silverton Oregon has most of the 20th century with only the 1980s decade missing and a few 40s missing here and there but mostly there.

    Somebody donated the microfilm to our library.

  9. Robert Says:

    Mr. McCracken points out Google’s strange unwillingness to even let the net public know about their newspaper archives service. I recommended it to people who always said to me “I can’t find it on their site”. I could never understand that. And now GUI functionality has dropped –ie. its hard to maneuver the page you want to get a proper screenshot to save it. Too bad

  10. Rosemarie Says:

    Went to Google News Timeline today and saw this banner: "Google News Timeline is going away soon due to the imminent demise of Google Labs. It was a pleasure to serve you!"

    This is awful news! I used this resource extensively for getting the feel of life in the 1930's for a project I'm working on. News stories, classifieds, department store advertisements. It was like having a microfilm reader at your desktop.

  11. Joe Says:

    Rosemarie, I feel the same as you. I loved searching these archives. As the above article said, I don't think many knew these Google archives existed. I'm so dissappointed. I have been trying to find where or who I can contact at Google to tell them how sorry I am to lose this. Does anyone know how and who to contact at Google about this?

  12. Kyle Says:

    You replied to her and not me? I am sorry if I caused any trouble or confusion as it's not my highest intention to do so.

  13. Kyle Says:

    I love researching weather articles and technology advanced for cities so this kind of thing would've made me in heaven but it was obviously not in God's will to happen. 🙁

    I am not really shcokedc it was gone since the service was very poor anyways so it's better Google gave an answer even though God treats me like a bad guy

  14. josephkeating Says:

    Can someone tell me how to narrow a time line search in the Google News archives. I was able to do it easily before Google changed it. Now I get years of hits that I don't want no matter what years
    I enter on the form. Also, is it possible to search the the newspapers where the image of full front page is displayed in a long row with the designated years ???

  15. Kyle Says:

    I still think Google is covering up some kind of conspiracy in their newspaper project they don't want those smart people who can handle complicates thinking to find and expose.

  16. Kyle Says:

    Seriously: If they've got nothing to hide or lose then why go thru all that BS on hiding their attempt at making newspaper digital archives online in the first place?