Web browsers bring personalized news to their New Tab pages

Yesterday, I wrote about the Sleipnir browser’s innovative Site Updates feature; where they automatically put new articles and content from your favorite websites on the browser’s new tab. The other web browsers are also moving to add news to their new tabs, and I’d also like to take a minute to compare their curated news approaches to Sleipnir’s ad-hoc and more personalized solution.

The Microsoft Edge browser displays curated content in “My news feed powered by MSN” on its new tab page. These news stories show up underneath a row of small tiles featuring the user’s most visited websites. Edge also mixes in a substantial amount of untargeted advertisements for other Microsoft hardware and software as native advertisements.

The ads are clearly untargeted, because I see ads for hardware, apps, and services that I’ve already got associated with my Microsoft Account. Users can customize the news feed a little by choosing some high-level categories of news they might be interested in; though it doesn’t appear to pick up any signals based on what stories users click on nor their browsing history.

Microsoft will collect your browsing history in Edge and Internet Explorer by default, but this data collection seems to be entirely for the benefit of the company rather than its users’.

Opera Discover has turned into Opera News in the most recent release. Opera News offers curated news from websites they’ve partnered with, and only lets users choose from a variety of content categories.

However, they are running experiments in their early release channels that will automatically adjust what websites (and categories?) users see content from based on their browsing history.[1] Five visits to a content partner’s website seem to be enough to signal that the user wants more from that site. This still limits the automated news to Opera’s curated partners.

Opera is also thinly hinting that they may let users manually add RSS feeds to Opera News in the future; though they also stress that they’ll not promise that they will include this feature.[2]

New Firefox installations with little or no browsing history to draw on may see some suggested tiles on its New Tab page, until the user populates their history with enough data to display their top sites based on frecency. Until top sites appear, however, users will see tiles with rotating news stories from some Mozilla partner websites.

Like Microsoft Edge, Firefox has experimented with including some advertisements on its tiles. However, Mozilla announced last December that it would stop its experimentation with ads in suggested tiles[3]. Mozilla doesn’t seem to be working on an aggregated news service or anything similar for Firefox at this time.

Although Google Now isn’t playing the same game as the other browsers here, it’s worth mentioning that Google has been experimenting with including Cards from Now in Google Chrome through several iterations over the last few years.

These “Cards”, as Google calls them, include personalized news recommendations based on your browsing history and interests. It isn’t entirely clear what signals Google Now uses to determine a user’s interest in a website, but Google is pulling in a substantial amount of data from synchronized Chrome browser histories, search result pages, and their advertising and analytics platforms.

Apple hasn’t added anything to Safari yet, but they’ve added a News app on iOS 9. This app pulls in syndication feeds and other data sources, but there doesn’t seem to be anything similar to the automatic personalization nor subscriptions like you get with Sleipnir.

As with Sleipnir, neither Opera nor Google’s implementations are smart enough to filter out pages that the user has already visited. It shouldn’t be excessively hard to filter out news stories already in the user’s browser history; as they’re the browser they’ve full access to the user’s history. The user has already read this should be a very strong signal that they should recommend other news stories, yet they all fail at this simple filtering exercise.

Having content you find very interesting randomly show up on the new tab could potentially be very distracting and damaging to every-day productivity. Every time a new tab is opened, the news feed will initiate a small attack on your concentration in an attempt to grab people’s attention. I doubt we’ll need to conduct any new studies to find that distractions are distracting.

As attention is the new form of currency in the digital media landscape, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the browsers will start exploiting their key position in people’s everyday interaction in the web to direct that attention where they want.

Edge and Firefox are the so far the only browsers who have gone down the road of explicitly adding advertisements on their new tabs. However, I predict that all browsers going for a curated approach will soon be overrun by native advertisements.

I find it very fascinating that only a fringe web browser like Sleipnir chooses to build its news wall on top of open web standards. The approaches taken by Edge and Opera are built around their own content or content from a curated list of partners, with the browser providers being the gatekeepers of what news stories are seen by their users.

Opera seems to be moving towards a mix of curated partner content and user-centric content, but it’s unclear whether the end product will be as open and democratic as Sleipnir’s Site Updates.

Sleipnir’s approach does run the risk of locking their users in a self-reinforcing echo-chamber where the only voices they hear, and their only sources of news are sources they’re already familiar with and trust.

News from the sites you’re already familiar with and love isn’t a bad thing in itself, but Opera’s mixed curation news feed breaks up the all-encompassing “filter bubble” effect you get with Sleipnir at the expense of total control.

For the browsers that don’t currently have a news scheme of their own, the promises of native advertisements or possibly revenue from traffic drive arrangements will soon lead them to introduce a news feed of their own.

I only hope that the promise of a quick cash cow will not be so strong as to block future innovation and products built on open web technologies. The web already has enough closed ecosystems/services built around news like Facebook, Twitter, and Flipboard; it doesn’t need anymore.