Surveying search across British online newspapers

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 13 July 2006

Over the last couple of weeks I have been surveying the online search facilities offered by British newspapers, and this post gathers together my conclusions and a table of features across the market.

In all I looked at 13 newspaper sites:

On the whole I found relevancy across the market sector to be rather disappointing. Most site searches ranked results with the most recent stories first, rather than the most relevant, so it was often difficult to find the original coverage of an event. Results instead tended to feature recent stories which mentioned the original event in passing.

Most newspapers offered the opportunity to restrict search results to a specific date range, which was fine for looking up information about 'september 11th' for example, but less useful when I didn't know the exact date of the event I was looking for - for example with either resignation of David Blunkett.

Around half of the newspaper offered a web search service in addition to their site search, but only The Mirror defaulted to web search in favour of their own site search. The Daily Express and The Daily Star default to web search, but neither offer a site search facility.

Some features I looked for were not in evidence on any site. No newspaper appeared to offer search results in RSS or any other XML format. I also found that no site search displayed the destination URL of a story. I was critical of the BBC's recent search re-design for not displaying destination URLs, but this seems to be a site search trend in the media.

There were several newspapers that offered functionality or user interface design elements that were unique in their market-space. Some of these were more useful than others.

The Daily Mail and This Is London, for example, were the only sites to colour code search results in tune with the site's colour coded navigation. I felt this worked really well, and contributed to my verdict that the Daily Mail's search engine result listings were the clearest of all the newspaper sites that I tested.

Daily Mail search results

The Guardian was unique in highlighting in the results the search terms that the user had entered. This relatively simple trick make the results look more tailored to the user, and make it easier to pick out of a mass of information on a search results page just where the relevant content is.

The Guardian search results

The Sun offered several pieces of information in their search results page that were unique - an article word count, and the code of the edition and page number within that edition of where the article first appeared in print. Of these I felt only the former was of much use to the casual user.

The Sun search results

A particular suprise to me was that two of the papers who commercially exploit their back-issue content online, The Sun and The Independent, both offered a very poor search user experience. The Sun was particularly poor in this regard, opening up multiple pop-up windows to display the search results, erroneously logging me out at times, and seeming to default to a search of their picture sales which throws up pictures of topless 'Page 3' models regardless of the original search term.

Of all the papers, The Guardian and The Times seemed to have invested the most time, money and effort in refining their site search experience. Both offered a different take on 'filtering' search results using criteria like original publication, date of publication, and content section or type. Of the two I felt The Times had the slight edge on the user experience front, with their 'crumbtrail' of filters building across the top of the results making it easier to understand what was going on. However, The Guardian also offered author as an additional dimension to filter by.

The Times search filters  The Guardian search filters

Overall therefore I felt that The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Mail were the clear market leaders in site search amongst British newspapers online. Below is a table summarising the features offered by 11 of the major newspaper sites.

Online Newspaper Search - feature summary
Newspaper Daily
Express
Daily
Mail
Financial
Times
The
Guardian
The
Independent
The
Mirror
The
Scotsman
The
Sun
The
Telegraph
This Is
London
The
Times
Results per page 10 10 15 10 25 10 10 100 10 10 10
Article excerpt or abstract Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Sometimes Yes Yes
Date stamp (day/month/year) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Time stamp (hours/minutes) No Yes No No No No No No No No No
Article word count No No No No No No No Yes No No No
Navigational or Section information No Yes No No No No No No Yes Yes No
Specifies original publication No Yes Yes Yes No No Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Specifies original edition No No No No No No No Yes No No No
Specifies original page number No No No No No No No Yes No No No
Author byline No No Yes Yes No No No No Sometimes No No
Results display colour-coded No Yes No No No No No No No Yes No
Search terms highlighted in results No No No Yes No No No No No No No
Relevancy score (%) No No No No Yes No No No No No Yes
Destination URL displayed Yes No No No No No No No No No No
Sponsored links featured in results No Yes No Yes No Yes No No No Yes No
Site offers web search Yes Yes No Yes No Yes No Yes Yes No Yes
Default search Web Site Site Site Site Web Site Two boxes Site Site Site
RSS feed of search results No No No No No No No No No No No
Advanced search options No Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Search by date-range No Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Newspaper Daily
Express
Daily
Mail
Financial
Times
The
Guardian
The
Independent
The
Mirror
The
Scotsman
The
Sun
The
Telegraph
This Is
London
The
Times

1 Comment

Do users (as opposed to geeks who know how to find it anyway) really care about the URL?

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