Hey Google! There’s Life Outside New York

About a week ago, Google rolled out a new search feature: in-depth articles. At the bottom of a given search page Google will now show a block of new results with longer articles or content related to the topic — piece that are relevant for a longer time after they’re originally published.

At the suggestion of fellow Rioters, I decided to take this new search feature out for a spin. Writing about Google searches is a little tricky, in part because we know that Google adapts search results separately for every user — you may get slightly different results that I did, depending on your search history and interests. If you didn’t know that Google tweaks search results, go pick up a copy of The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser and read it before you go on the Internet again.

Searching for some favorite authors or specific people — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey,  and Jeff Bezos — doesn’t seem to offer many long reads. You do get some nice links to biographical information and their bibliography off to the side of the more standard web results, but nothing more interesting than that.

In contrast, a search for Jonathan Franzen pulls up a couple of pieces he’s written — an adaptation of a 2011 commencement address and an essay on David Foster Wallace — and a 2010 profile from Time magazine. A search for Zadie Smith pulls up similar results: a New York Review of Books essay, a review of NW in the New York Times and a piece in the New Yorker. Jeffrey Eugenides has a few long reads attached to him as does Philip Roth, but there are no long reads for authors listed as similar searches like Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Dave Eggers, or Junot Díaz.

Given those results, it appears that Google is favoring contemporary writers with active bylines or attention in New York-centric publications, if they even bother to offer results for a specific author or person. It’s probably not surprising, then, that you don’t get any long reads results for women’s fiction writers like Jennifer Weiner or Sarah Pekkanen or for any versions of “gender gap in literature.” Frankly, it’s a little boring. There’s good writing at publications based outside the East Coast.

The results are much better when you get away from people and start to play around with terms — Amazon, independent bookstores, reading, writing or just books. The sources become more wide-ranging and the conversation gets a little bit of variety, although it still seems pulled towards the debates that get written about the most rather than the ones that are most relevant.

However flawed, I’m still excited about this new Google development. There are many writers and publications doing long-form writing that deserves to been by a wider audience. By curating that content and pushing it forward well after a publication date, this new feature will give great content more life. I can only hope that Google will continue to expand the results going forward to get a bigger variety of publications represented.

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