Newspaper "Site Search Smackdown": Round 2 - The Telegraph vs The Independent

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 9 April 2008

I'm running a series of smackdowns between British newspaper site search engines, to test how fresh their indexing is. Yesterday, in Round 1, The Daily Mail had the edge over The Sun. The Mail had 9 of their top 10 headlines indexed and findable via search by 9am - The Sun was left in their wake with only half of their top 10 stories in their index. Today it is the turn of The Telegraph and The Independent.

The Independent vs The Telegraph

The rules

The rules of the contest are quite simple. Go to a newspaper homepage at around 9am UK time. This is after the print edition has hit the streets, and when the online version has had overnight to publish the paper's main news. Take a note of the ten most prominent online headlines. Then use the newspaper's own search engine, and type in each of those ten headlines exactly as they appeared. Newspapers score a point if the story comes up in the #1 slot for that search query. Doesn't sound too exacting a test? You'd be surprised how often newspaper search engines fail to deliver...

The Telegraph

The Telegraph have invested heavily in new media technology over the last couple of years, even beginning to dabble their toes into events for developers. I was very interested to see how their search technology performed in this test.

Sadly, it was a case of disaster straight out of the traps. Neither of the two top headlines on the morning I tested could be found via search. "Family splits 'as harmful as global warming'" and "£800 fee as lenders cash in on credit crisis" both eluded me when I typed the headlines into The Telegraph's search.

Things picked up, as the paper went on a run of three consecutive scores, with stories about Zimbabwe, the earnings of the Clintons, and reports of Tibetans being shot. They all turned up in the results as expected.

The next story was about the health of the Duke of Edinburgh. A search for the headline as it was displayed on the homepage - "Duke of Edinburgh's health" - did turn the story up via search, but in the #2 slot behind a more general profile of the Duke's physical well-being.

After that, it was all downhill for the paper. Stories headlined "Redknapp eyes Cup glory", "Tory donor accused" and "Google shares crash" all failed to appear in the results.

In total, five of the top ten headlines were indexed. However, I'm only giving a ½ point for a story returned lower than the #1 ranking. That made 4½ out of 10 for The Telegraph - a slightly lower score than The Sun earned yesterday.

The Independent

The Independent's website seemed to languish for quite some time with very little funding, but has undergone a recent redesign and some investment. Would it pay off in the search arena? With The Telegraph setting the lowest score so far, it ought to be quite easy for The Indy to land a knock-out blow.

Sure enough, the paper got off to a very strong start. The front page splash in print and online was "Mugabe launches chilling fightback", and that was returned in the #1 slot when searched for. The same was the case with the next couple of stories that I began to test, about MP's expenses and a meeting of progressive political leaders.

In fact, The Independent's indexing did not falter throughout the whole of the test. Every single article I searched for by headline returned the correct result in the number one spot. And so, on the scoring method I've devised it has to be a 10 out of 10 for The Independent.

However, that isn't to say the experience was perfect.

I found on multiple occasions that when I entered a search term, I would get a message telling me the search query wasn't valid. I tried to see if it was due to word count, character length, or the inclusion of numbers or punctuation characters, but I couldn't pin down the cause. I had particular trouble with the headline "Teachers strike 'will close more than 10,000 schools'". Sometimes just re-typing the query would make it work, on other occasions I had to drop the last few letters or word to get the search engine to accept my typing. It was a poor user experience, whatever the reason.

The verdict

Regardless of the difficulties I had with some search queries on The Independent, from a pure indexing and retrieval point of view, it was a crushing victory over The Telegraph, which set the lowest score so far. The glitch in The Independent's search system, though, leaves them open to being pipped at the post on a tie-break if another paper can put together a perfect set of scores.

In Round 3

In Round 3 of the 'Newspaper Site Search Smackdown' it will be a battle between The Guardian and The Mirror.

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