Newspaper "Site Search Smackdown": Round 3 - The Guardian vs The Mirror

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 10 April 2008

I'm running a series of smackdowns between British newspaper site search engines, to test how fresh their indexing is. In Round 1, The Sun was put down by The Mail. Yesterday's Round 2 saw a perfect 10 from The Independent, and the lowest score so far, from The Telegraph. Today it is the turn of The Guardian and The Mirror to face the test.

The Guardian vs The Mirror

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 Guardian

The Guardian, like The Independent yesterday, is another paper that has recently been rolling out a new look and new functionality across their site. Things started well for the paper in the search test with correct results being returned for the paper's top two stories on Saturday April 5th - 'New clashes in China ahead of torch's arrival in UK' and 'Mugabe ready to contest run-off'.

However, it all went wrong on the third story - "Bomb plotters made 'martyr' videos" didn't appear in the results when searched for. Straight away that scuppered The Guardian's chance of matching yesterday's 10 out of 10 performance from The Independent.

However, the paper still had a chance of smacking down today's opponent - The Mirror - and a run of three more stories indexed put The Guardian in a strong position with 5 out of 6 searches in the test coming good.

There was a bit of faltering at the end however, as two more stories evaded search recall. "Briton saved from death sentence" and "Father's grief over daughter's remains on beach" returned results, but they didn't include the stories that had featured on the newspaper's online front page. All in all it was 7 out of 10 for The Guardian.

The Mirror

With The Guardian only scoring 7, The Mirror was in with a shout of winning, but got off to a dreadful start. The two main stories on the newspapers homepage could not be retrieved via search.

Not only did the stories about "Peter Banks, 44, dubbed 'Britain's worst drink-driver'" and "Liquid Bombs Trial: Court shown videos of hate made by fanatics" not return the right results, they also initially returned error messages.

The Mirror search limits

The Mirror's search engine tells users that they cannot input more than 5 words or 40 characters. This slightly defeated my test, as I had been relying on typing in the headlines exactly as they appeared on the site's homepage. It wasn't possible with these limitations, and so I began just typing in the first five words from the ten headlines I was searching for. These were not necessarily the best keywords in every case, but I didn't feel it was fair on the other newspapers to make up my own keyword rich search terms to try and find the stories just because The Mirror has such a limited input.

Nevertheless, after the first two glitches, results picked up, and the next 4 stories all returned the item I was looking for just by using the first five words in the headline. The Mirror had four points, with four searches to go, chasing The Guardian's total of seven. This was going to turn out to be a close call.

Then, more disaster. A search for the 'Calvin Harris loses laptop and' portion of the headline "Calvin Harris loses laptop and new songs in Heathrow Terminal 5 baggage chaos" didn't bring it back as the top story, but in second slot instead.

(Nor did it explain why you'd check in a laptop with the only copy of your album at an airport where you know there is a very public history of losing bags, but I digress.)

The next story - "Chris Tarrant agrees to £12m divorce payout" - didn't appear in the results at all, and it was effectively game over for The Mirror against The Guardian.

In total The Mirror had five stories you could retrieve at #1 by typing in the first five words of the headline, and two further stories that appeared second in the results when you searched for them. That gave the paper 6 points overall.

The verdict

The Guardian just pipped The Mirror to the post today, with seven points as opposed to six. However, neither paper was near challenging the leaders, The Daily Mail with nine points, and The Independent with an impressive ten.

In Round 4

Tomorrow the final two challengers will be attempting to dislodge the Mail and the Indy from the top spots, when it is the turn of The Times and The Daily Express to face the Newspaper Site Search Smackdown.

1 Comment

Interesting series - and thanks for the feedback. The Mirror's web team have now removed the 5-word restriction, and are continuing to tweak the algorithm to improve the relevancy of the results. And more improvements to come...

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