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.
- 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 Google.com 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 Google.com 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 Google.com 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.