Google Living Stories – Just Snazzy Topic Pages or is Google onto Something?

Today Google unveiled its Living Stories prototype, showcasing its vision of a new format for presenting news stories online. Essentially the idea is that for ongoing stories news organizations would maintain a single, consistent “living” URL that is continually updated with the latest developments.

Google has been collaborating with The New York Times and The Washington Post on the prototype; eight examples have been created to-date such as this Living Story on health care reform:

Google Living Stories

(click on the image to see a larger screenshot)

At first pass Living Stories sound a lot like topic pages which nearly every news site produces in some fashion now. But there is a fundamental difference between the two and Living Stories are ultimately a compliment to topic pages, not a replacement. Topic pages consolidate all of a site’s coverage on general, popular subjects such as specific news figures or companies. A Living Story takes it one level deeper by applying the concept to a specific story about that topic.

Unfortunately for him, Tiger Woods offers a good example of why news sites would want to use both. His current troubles are a perfect case for creating a Living Story since new developments continue to emerge in that story. But as big as the scandal is right now it certainly does not represent everything there is about Tiger. So sports news sites in particular will also benefit from having a Tiger Woods topic page that encompasses his entire career and provides users easy access to his latest news, stats, biography, etc.

In looking at the current Living Story examples one thing that struck me is that news sites will need to be careful not to pick subjects that are too broad to be effective. Stories like “The War in Afghanistan” or “The Struggle Over Health Care” do have a specific focus but it would be easy for those pages to try to cover too much and as a result become overwhelming to users.

So bottom line, are Living Stories a good idea?

Publishers will understandably be concerned about losing page views but a strong, consistent URL with frequent updates may well get more views (both on-site and via search referrals) than lots of scattered, separate articles would collectively. So I think it is a concept that is worth experimenting with. The main caveat being that Living Stories should ultimately be hosted on the actual news sites, not on Google.

For more information, see Principles of Living Stories and this video from Google:

UPDATE:
February 17, 2010 – Google News announced that the Living Stories code would be made open source to allow for more sites to experiment with the format. With the shift to the public phase of the experiment The New York Times and The Washington Post will no longer be updating their test pages hosted on Google Labs.

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