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Slow media: Google announced that it will start integrating links to in-depth articles into its search results; This Is What Happens When Publishers Invest In Long Stories

A small but significant victory for slow media

BY HAMISH MCKENZIE 
ON AUGUST 6, 2013

Google announced today that it will start integrating links to in-depth articles into its search results. So, if you search for “censorship,” says Google’s Pandu Nayak, “you’ll find a thought-provoking article by Salman Rushdie in The New Yorker, a piece by our very own Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in the Guardian, and another great article about Iran.” That means longform journalism will be treated almost the same as news, which is already featured in many search results courtesy of Google News. This is good news for people who care about “slow media” – the type of journalistic content that is not tied to a specific moment, that resists the eroding forces of faddism, and that favors quality over quantity. Not only does it unlock the power of the archive, but it sends a message that this sort of content, usually more nourishing than the “first draft of history” or slap-dash blog posts (such as this one!), deserves a pedestal that is different from, but equal to, that given to more time-sensitive information. Now that we live in an age of Twitter, we are vulnearble to automatically placing a higher value on content that gets to us the fastest. Because of its ability to instantly satisfy this thirst for “newness,” Twitter emphasizes the now while eschewing the timeless. Until now, Google’s default settings have pretty much done the same. Type “Obama” into a Google search box right now and you’ll be delivered links to his Wikipedia entry, White House bio, and then three news articles relevant to today. Nowhere on that first page is there a link to, say, Dave Remnick’s biography of the President, or Michael Lewis’s inside look at the Presidency, published by Vanity Fair.

google-indepth

An example of Google’s results for “in-depth articles.”The best thing about Google’s move is that it incentivizes publishers – no matter their brand – to produce quality longform reporting that carries the promise of being discovered in Google searches for years to come, potentially driving millions of new readers to their sites and staking a claim to a few pixels of history. While for now the results appear to carry a bias towards large, established magazines and newspapers, small-town papers or even blogs will be featured if their stories are especially definitive or informative, according to a Google product manager who spoke to GigaOm’s Jeff Roberts. He also said that Google in the future will display more than three article links in the results. It would be great to see Twitter follow suit. Its search feature is also a powerful media-discovery tool. Perhaps one day it could offset its inclination to over-emphasize the moment by pinning to the top of its search results one to three relevant tweets or stories that stand up to the test of time. That action could provide valuable context for the disembodied news frenzy that explodes in times of big, breaking stories. In the meantime, however, Google deserves credit for taking the lead on promoting longform content. It is a move that gives “slow media” the respect it deserves.

2013-05-10

This Is What Happens When Publishers Invest In Long Stories

We decided to experiment with a new, super-long article format akin to “slow live blogging.” When we looked at the traffic charts below, our jaws dropped. Here’s what we learned about long form stories–and why quality, not velocity, is the future of online news.

By: Chris Dannen

As web publishers we’re obsessed with analytics. Any strategy that moves the needle gets our attention. So you can imagine my surprise when a new way of writing articles blew up my assumptions about how to drive traffic.

Before I go on–looking at analytics is tricky. Because we have imperfect information about our audience, it can be difficult to translate aggregate reader behavior into real insights. We may see trends or correlations in the data, but they do not necessarily imply causation, and trying to analyze traffic too closely can coax editors and writers into an unhealthy diet of red herrings.

Sometimes, though, a trend is so big and consistent that it’s impossible not to engage in a little educated speculation. The last month of our traffic at FastCo.Labs has presented is with one such scenario.

Our Big Experiment With “Stub” Stories

In mid-April, we went live with a half dozen articles which we call “stubs.” The idea here is to plant a flag in a story right away with a short post–a “stub”–and then build the article as the story develops over time, rather than just cranking out short, discrete posts every time something new breaks. One of our writers refers to this aptly as a “slow live blog.”

Stub stories work like this: You write the first installment like any other story. But when more news breaks, you go back to the article, insert an update at the top, and change the headline and subheadline (known in our business as the “hed” and “dek”) to reflect the update. Our system updates the story “slug” when the headline changes–check the URL of this story, and you’ll see words from the headline in the URL: /this-is-what-happens-when-publishers-invest-in-long-stories. But the number preceding the slug–on this article, it’s 3009577–is a unique node ID which never changes. So essentially, every time we update an article, we get a fresh URL with a fresh headline, but pointing back to the same (newly updated) article. So, it’s like having many URLs and many headlines which lead back to the same big, multi-faceted article. We called these “Tracking” stories.

Before we dive into the results of this little experiment, I’ll explain the origin of the hypothesis. Our top editors had long felt that the discrete article format was insufficient for covering really big, unwieldy topics like the death of the file system, or the frustrating lack of women in software, or how to think like an engineer. When we launched Co.Labs, it was the natural proving grounds for the concept. We hoped the “slow live blog” approach would give us more flexibility and speed when it came to writing and producing news. Instead of starting with a fresh article every time we want to cover something inside a regular beat, which might require a long catch-up introduction, context, background and so forth, we could just put fresh news at the top and let the reader scroll down to read previous updates if they hadn’t been following this story.

Blurring The Lines Between News and Features

The stub theory accounted for handling shorter news posts, but how did longer reported pieces fit in? Our strategy was to still produce feature stories as discrete articles, but then to tie them back to the stub article with lots of prominent links, again taking advantage of the storyline and context we had built up there, making our feature stories sharper and less full of catch-up material. We use big headings to call out the connection, like so:

Our interview with a former Frog Design strategist about what’s wrong with today’s wearable computing devices, for example, branched off the original stub where people can read back through news around the topic and ultimately find out why we decided that interview was apropos. It’s not just reader-friendly to provide easy access to this sort of context, but it’s also transparent–it gives the reader insight into why we cover the stories we do, and why they’re timely.

Soon we realized there were all sorts of opportunities to try this format. Other stubs we started: how to price your software product;the slow growth of the Internet of thingsthe rise of bitcoin as a legitimate currencythe hype around big data; and even broader topics like the future of the user interface. We even thought the stub format might be useful for more introspective topics like how software culture is changing news.

What “Stub” Stories Did To Our Traffic

We prepared about a half-dozen of these stubs in draft, and scheduled them to go live the second week of April. As soon as we did, there were drastic, marked changes in our analytics. The first thing that caught my eye was a big drop in daily bounce rate:3009577-inline-0bounceratedaily

Encouraged, we switched to the hourly view, where the change was even more marked:

3009577-inline-1bounceratehourly

Whoa! Next we checked out the average visit duration, which reflected similar changes:

3009577-inline-2hourlyduration

Using Google Analytics customizable graphs, we were able to plot visit duration against pages per visit, which stayed stable even as duration jumped:

3009577-inline-3visitdurationpagespervisit

For fun, we also plotted bounce rate against average time on page, on a daily basis:

3009577-inline-4bouncevtimeonpage

And finally, this screenshot tells the full story. Bounce rate vs. average visit duration actually inverted like an X, and has stayed stable since:

3009577-inline-5bouncevaveragevisitduration

Big-time disclaimer here–it’s too early to tell how permanent these effects will be, and we can’t know for sure that the changes are attributable to these stub articles. But we’ve racked our brains to think of other factors at work here–some big boost in inbound links? Some external event? A technical change? But after about a month, we’ve seen these changes stabilize, and we haven’t been able to isolate any other contributing factors. We’re not saying this is causation, because there’s no way to be sure. But it sure as hell looks like it’s working.

Long Form Is The Past And Future

Last year, on a trip to the Bay Area, I had a conversation on background with an entrepreneur and angel investor about the future of the content business. He was bearish. Insisting that people didn’t want to read long stuff online, he told me that we’d be wiser to find ways to express ourselves in as few words as possible–going so far as to suggest that, someday, we would all communicate primarily via emoji-like symbols. (I’m not kidding.) Incredulous, I limped back to New York worried I might be working in a terminally ill business.

But some of the brighter minds in media don’t think that’s the case. In fact, we’re not the only organization betting on long form quality. Here’s the CEO of Vox Media Jim Bankoff talking at TechCrunch Disrupt on May 2, 2013 (emphasis mine):

We know somethings as a fact. Globally there is a $250 billion advertising market of which 70 percent is really built on brand building… the top of the funnel, to use the marketing jargon. If you look at the web, which is a $25 billion slice of that pie, 80 percent of it is direct response–it’s search… it’s bottom of the funnel stuff. So there’s a big market opportunity there that hasn’t been captured. Where is all the brand building going […] that we had seen previously in magazines and newspapers and even in broadcast going to go, as consumers turn their attention to digital media? We believe there’s a big opportunity there, but someone has to actually go after it–someone has to bring the quality back.

The Downside Of Long Quality Articles

These stories have presented us with all sorts of technical challenges. Over the last month, as these stories accreted updates, they’ve gotten so long that they actually overran our server cache by a factor of 10 and took down our site for a short time; the cache was built to handle articles around 10 kilobytes, not 100 kilobytes.

Another issue is that our CMS interface, on the backend, isn’t really meant to handle this sort of story production. We have to interlink our features and stubs manually, which drives up production time (and therefore cost). There is also much more opportunity for lots of human error, because updating a stub means manually inserting new text at the top of the body text, and cutting/pasting older updates “below the fold” like so:

It’s a tedious process for our web producer, and we’re working on ways to alter the article format and the composer UI to be more hospitable to this sort of reporting. Ultimately, automation will cure all these small ills, and we’ll be (hopefully) left with just the upside.

We’ll keep posting about our traffic experiments in the future–but if you have questions about our methods, or perhaps counter-arguments, tweet at us and we’ll keep the conversation going. Or let me know what you think at my personal Twitter handle. And, as always, feel free to add your own definitive analysis in the comments.

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

One Response to Slow media: Google announced that it will start integrating links to in-depth articles into its search results; This Is What Happens When Publishers Invest In Long Stories

  1. Pingback: Slow media: Google announced that it will start integrating links to in-depth... - My Internet Of Things

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