The BBC promises to send more traffic to external sites. Again.

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 19 August 2010

With all the talk over the last couple of weeks about news sites and external links, it seemed appropriate that the BBC should come out and make yet another promise to drastically increase the amount of traffic bbc.co.uk is sending downstream. Erik Huggers' commitment follows the pattern laid out by the BBC Trust in 2008, and by the Graf review before it.

The BBC is inherently cautious about sending Licence Fee payers elsewhere. This used to be chiefly because of a worry about how the quality of the destination would impact on the BBC brand. WebGuide hand-picked external sites to review and link to, and as little as 5 years ago, an external link to a DEC appeal was prefaced with an interstitial warning you that you were leaving the safe havens of BBC Online.

BBC WebGuide logo

BBC Webguide in 2002

Panel from the bbc.co.uk homepage linking through to information about the  tsunami in Asian, and through to the DEC appeal site

In 2008, when the BBC Trust was urging bbc.co.uk to send more links to other sites, I questioned some of their findings and motivation. Their report said:

"We are disappointed to see that bbc.co.uk's linking is not leading to more click-throughs [to external sites]. While BBC management's submission to this review states that there were 6.7 million click-throughs to external sites in July 2007, this is a global figure, with 4.6 million click throughs originated in the UK"

I argued that they didn't really have any figures to compare this to in order to say that it was 'disappointing', and that much of their own research indicated that users saw the BBC site as a destination itself, not as a portal:

"I go into it through a narrow channel that I know what I need and I go straight to it." Female, aged 19-30, Glasgow.
"I don't really go for a wander around the site, I just really log on, find the information that I need and get off." Female, aged 19-30, Belfast.

Of course, the argument that the BBC will 'drive more traffic' to elsewhere on the web is always designed to please the Corporation's competitors in that space.

In my experience, the thing most likely to send traffic downstream from bbc.co.uk to guardian.co.uk is the BBC Sport transfer gossip page. That suggests that if they just simply want to drive up the numbers, having a BBC page aggregating links to third party celebrity gossip, and another one with a long list of links to 'And finally...' and weird stories like topless French thieves and owl walking pensioners should do the trick. Whether that would be a public service or not is debatable, but as Tom Loosemore used to teach me when I was at the BBC: "You are what you measure".

The public pledge to 'double the traffic we send externally by 2013' comes with very little context at the moment. You never know, maybe they'll hit upon the idea that when people are using search on bbc.co.uk, it would be worthwhile to show users a prominent selection of relevant external links that might be useful to them ;-)

Next...

In what I faithfully promise will be the last of this recent spate of blog posts about external links on news sites, I wanted to look at some ways that BBC News in particular has linked externally in the past...

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