Peter Clifton from BBC News Online

‘Cyber Frontiers’ – a Coventry Conversations session

Peter Clifton made a very strong presentation on what the BBC News Online website is, how it has been developing through the years since it first went online, and what challenges it is facing.

He told about the everyday challenges to deliver quality content suitable for a large audience. He also disclosed some information about the latest redesign (the biggest one since the website was launched), on which around 70-80 people had been working for about 1800 months.

The website is updated with around 600, sometimes 700 stories a day, which then have thousands of edits. These numbers make the BBC News Online website one of the biggest publishers online. The team is trying to make data distinctive, implementing different concepts of data visualisation – for example, number of car crashes on a specific road, location-based statistics shown on a map, with real time updates, etc.

One of the interesting points in his session was on writing headlines and stories for different platforms and media. The website’s content management system is used for preparing content for mobile versions of news, as well as excerpts, summaries, etc. They have two versions of the story – a long one, and a 4-paragraph story. What is more – each story has a short and long headline – the long one is prepared in accordance with SEO guidelines – and the short one – with the technical limits of the mobile devices in mind.

The next challenge and focus of the BBC News Online team is optimizing the website and content for mobile platforms. Mobile has both limitations (eg. the small screen and bad keyboards) and new opportunities (eg. location-based services and content distribution).

An interesting point was the transition from index page to landing page. The users have long ago stopped typing URLs and browsing websites from the index page. User behaviour reports from the last years clearly show that most users land on some page through either a referral link or from the results of a search. Thus, the structure of websites should focus on landing pages vs. index pages.

Another solution I was impressed with from the presentation was the semi-automated tagging that the BBC Online team has incorporated in their CMS. When anyone posts a story, the system scans through the content and proposes tags. If the author thinks they are relevant, he can accept them and then add his new ones as well.

When you produce such a large amount of digital content, there are quite a lot of creative and useful ways to systematise and use this information. A good idea they implemented was automatically generating index pages for all the players in the Football league. When a player or team has been tagged in some stories, the website generates an index page for them and when the user clicks on the name, all stories that have been tagged with the name appear (similar to the IMDb). There can be almost endless uses of properly tagged and systematized content, and what is more, the user can have their own filters applied to customize the search results.

In the backend of the BBC Online portal, each journalist has their own personalized dashboard, with live chat for all journalists, vans tracking map, etc. In this way, they can be easily connected, to cooperate and co-write a story, ask for help or make quick decisions based on how many people and resources are there to cover a story.

One of the next big challenges the BBC team is already working on are the IPTV connected TV sets. They can be used for delivering local content, as well as with TV apps (like Android’s App Marketplace or Apple’s Appstore). It has the potential of personalization of content delivered, as well as setting alerts, using pre-defined searches, on-demand services and probably hundreds of more ineractive and creative uses.

EDIT: Google has introduced Google TV, click on the link to see how Google see the future of interconnected TVs.

The way they have reorganised their workspace is pretty interesting as well. Before, the Online team used to work in another office a couple of floors up from the Newsroom, and were referred to as ‘the online guys’. Lately, they have been moved right next to the Inbox and Newsroom, so they have a glimpse of everything that is going on and being covered at the moment.

The weekly / daily meetings editors hold have also changed – now all the Heads of departments take turns to hold the meetings and the main focus isn’t ‘what do we broadcast on TV, what on radio, what do we publish online’, but rather ‘What will we deliver across all platforms?’

Peter Clifton also disclosed some user statistics. Apparently, users spend an average of 5 minutes on the website before moving to another one. I was very surprised to find this out, because the website I was administering back in Bulgaria, Multirama.bg, had also users spending an average of 5 minutes. The difference is though that Multirama.bg was quite a new website with little to no content – it is a retail / online shop, so I was expecting usage of the BBC website to be quite bigger. I think they can aim for bigger numbers 🙂

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