The other day, when I was blogging about Google’s news cluster timelines, I lamented their lack of a unified approach towards visualizing news over time. Their launch of Google News Timeline thus gives mixed feelings: it’s a cool interface, but it still doesn’t unify their approach to this space.
First, the good: the interface is aesthetic and responsive. It works very nicely on structured data (like music releases), and strikes me as a nice incremental improvement on the applications I’ve seen that use David Huynh’s SIMILE Timeline widget. It also lets you make queries based on a variety of data sources:
News Sources : News results (including article snippets, images and videos) from the past 30 days or so are from Google News. Older news results are from Google News Archive Search.
Magazines and Newspapers: You can search for magazines and newspapers that have been digitized and are available through Google News Archive Search and Google Book Search. Images of the front covers of these publications are displayed on the timeline, based on their original publication date.
Blogs: You can view blog post results on the timeline by selecting “Blogs” from the data source menu and typing the name of the blog in the query field.
Baseball Scores: Baseball scores from Retrosheet are displayed on the timeline by selecting “Sports Scores” from the menu bar and entering the name of a team.
Wikipedia Events, Births, and Deaths: You can add events, births, and deaths from Wikipedia by selecting “Wikipedia” from the menu bar and entering the category you’d like displayed on the timeline.
Media from Freebase: You can view information from Freebase about various types of media, including books, music and movies. For example, you can display albums of a particular artist or movies featuring a specific actor.
This variety seems like an embarrassment of riches–and yet I can’t produce the timelines I (and I’d think many people) want. For example, I’d like a timeline of the acquisition activity around Sun–starting from the reports about a month ago of IBM planning to acquire Sun through today’s news that Oracle is to be the lucky suitor. I can find the relevant set of stories using Newssift, but no timeline visualization (at least not yet). Meanwhile, Google gives me a cool interface and lots of options for formulating queries, but not the flexibility I want to pick my set of documents.
I think it’s telling that the best timelines come from searching on structured data. Not only is this data cleaner, but the access to it is based on set retrieval, unlike the ranked retrieval pervasive on Google.com. Perhaps that’s what Google struggles to provide a unified approach: there’s a mismatch between their ranked retrieval algorithms and interfaces designed for set retrieval. Or maybe I just need to wait for a few more beta releases, and it will all come together.