Google Begins Hyperlocal User-Gen News Pilot
Google Bulletin is a billed as a "lightweight app" that invites anyone to "be the voice of your community."
The hyperlocal news space is about to experience its latest shakeup: Google is getting into the space with an app called Bulletin.
“Bulletin is a free, lightweight app for telling a story by capturing photos, videoclips and text right from your phone, published straight to the web (without having to create a blog or build a website),” Google says on the app’s website. If you are comfortable taking photos or sending messages, you can create a Bulletin story!”
Bulletin is currently in a “limited pilot,” available in Nashville, TN and Oakland, CA, though it is taking signups.
For Google, the creation of Bulletin follows a series of releases over the past year to allow for user-generated publishing by local businesses and consumers. For example, in June 2017, Google My Business merchants and brands were presented with a new discovery tool dubbed Google Post that lets businesses create short announcements, promotions, events, and other news be found directly in query results and on their Google Maps listings.
Google’s move into hyperlocal news appears to skirt the more challenging aspects that actual “citizen journalist” and neighborhood blogs have struggled with the past few years: namely, the difficulty in building scalable audiences and attracting advertising to support such operations.
While networks like the former AOL Patch appear to have stabilized after cutting back on its ambition to cover every block in the U.S., others like hyperlocal network Bklyner, which reports on over 30 Brooklyn, NY neighborhoods, has been threatening to shutter operations unless it can reach a higher number of paid subscribers.
Meanwhile in November, popular local news site networks Gothamist and DNAInfo ceased publishing after voting to unionize.
Interestingly, last week, the Huffington Post said it was closing down its contributor network, which allowed unpaid bloggers to post largely at will, after 13 years.
Unlike those various outlets, Google is promising something more simple and direct. Given the kind of self-publishing platforms people have gotten used to via Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — not to mention the search giant’s own user-gen properties that include its Local Guides (a program with 50 million contributing members), YouTube, and Waze — Bulletin seems like a natural progression.
As Slate, which first reported the news about Bulletin and an event captured on YouTube (of course) in Nashville heralding its the roll out of the test, noted, “Both Oakland and Nashville have burgeoning tech industries and are Google Fiber cities. But they also have high poverty rates and lie beyond the klieg lights of the big media hubs.”
A Hybrid Publishing Approach
While the idea of creating an app for user-gen content is fairly obvious, it would seem to be a departure from Google’s tendency to favor the search-centric web as opposed to the “walled garden” of apps.
But here too, it seems that Google, which has championed the Physical Web as an alternative to apps, has come up with a hybrid solution.
Again, Slate explains Google’s concept of “a progressive web app” as being represented by “a website that looks and functions like an app.”
“Creating a website, creating a blog is a pretty high bar for a lot of people,” a Google spokesperson told the crowd that gathered in Nashville:
What if it was effortless to capture these stories publicly from our smartphones? What if it was possible to publish them instantly to the web without having to do any setup? And what if it was accessible to anyone in our community. So, not just the people we know—there are excellent tools for connecting content to people we know. But connecting content to people we know and to people we don’t know but who share a particular interest. That’s what we’re trying to do with Bulletin.
At first glance, Bulletin would seem to be duplicative of how many people have already been using Facebook and Snapchat for. It’s practically ingrained in a wide swath of the population to share real-time information about everything from weather to high school sports to social justice marches to local concerts and events on Facebook.
On top of that, it’s worth noting that Facebook itself has been attempting to showcase in its standalone Facebook Local app — but it’s unclear what sort of traction that feature, which launched in November, has been getting.
In the end, given Google’s range of local scale and reach, Bulletin might just be the right blend of app and web, as well as local relevance and national scale.
Another possibility Google may be looking cover is “private neighborhood social network” Nextdoor. The four-year-old network has 10 million users across 100,000 neighborhoods, who post updates about everything and anything “hyperlocal,” including crime updates, yard sales, school closings, lost pets, to looking for contractors. It also features a good deal of “direct democracy” as local officials also use the platform to receive and send messages to their constituents.
In addition, while the LSA’s Greg Sterling rejects the notion that Google is seeking to challenge Nextdoor — while Techcrunch has reported it has a $1.5 billion valuation though revenue generation is minimal at best — one source we spoke with points to three things the search giant stands to gain:
- Generating more local content (can Google ever have too much?)
- Engage with users outside of traditional search
- Another venue to serve ads