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How examining search queries can reap benefits for the news agenda

Credit: By Julo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When crime reporter Laura Amico checked what her readers had been searching for one afternoon in Google Analytics she got a scoop.

She found that readers of Homicide Watch DC, a site she set up in September 2010 to report on murders in Washington DC, were looking for details of an unreported story.

Amico did not recognise the name being searched for so decided to run some checks, which she now does on a regular basis and something she has blogged about.

"If I see a search for John Smith, I might search Facebook for 'RIP Johnny', or 'Johnny killed'," she told Journalism.co.uk.

After cross checking the search terms, Amico found that search queries in analytics led her to a story, enabling her to report on the murder before the police filed their report.

Take a look at this blog post by Amico which includes a screen grab of search terms from a particular day. You can almost write the story from what her readers were looking for information on.

And responding to search queries is not the preserve of small sites. News organisations at the other end of the scale have added search feeds into the news agenda.

In January 2011 US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and critically injured at a political meeting in Arizona. Fox News initially focused their story on the gunman.

Fox News uses software Chartbeat to monitor real-time analytics of its website, and after posting initial reports of the shooting, the editorial team realised the audience wanted more information on Giffords, her husband and her family life so switched from focusing on the attacker to the victim.

"It was the same story but there was an opportunity for [Fox News] to adapt it be much closer to what the audience was actually interested in," Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat told Journalism.co.uk.

"They saw a massive bump [in traffic] as a result. The story was much more engaging for their users as it was more closely resonating with what they were interested in."

He explained that social has become as important as search as a traffic driver, but is far less predictable and therefore benefits from careful monitoring.

Speaking from Chartbeat's base in New York, Haile gave other examples of how Chartbeat is used by editorial teams in 37 countries, from New York Times to Fox News to Al Jazeera to Le Monde, to monitor its web analytics in real-time.

I remember when we went into some of the more august news organisations there was a concern that looking at analytics was the tyranny of the popular, we were going to write nothing but Lindsay Lohan stories and it was going to be the end of journalism as we knew itTony Haile, CEO, Chartbeat
During sports games search queries can help digital journalists assess which team members are of most interest to their audience and respond accordingly.

"We had the NFL Draft over here in America and it helps to understand which player profiles that are getting most of the attention. It's not usually the people that you think in the first place after the top two or top three."

And during live events such as an election, digital publishers can often note a connection in what is happening in their analytics and TV and radio coverage.

"People like Glenn Beck, a very popular radio host over here, will be using real-time data to understand what his radio audience is interested in. He'll start talking about a particular subject and it will turn out as he's talking about health care he is not getting the perceived response on the web and so he'll change and start talking about taxation instead."

Haile has been tasked with convincing those who argue that a journalist's job should be to focus on writing stories that need telling rather than checking analytics and web hits.

"I remember when we went into some of the more august news organisations there was a concern that looking at analytics was the tyranny of the popular, we were going to write nothing but Lindsay Lohan stories and it was going to be the end of journalism as we knew it. That didn't turn out to be the case."

"As the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal said to me, 'we are never going to stop writing about Afghanistan.'"

Haile also argues that it is important that stores are easily found. "If that story on Afghanistan is hidden behind the wrong headline, or you've buried the lead in paragraph three, it's really important to know that."

He likens the process of learning from analytics to parenting.

"The best way that I have heard to describe it, is like being a good parent. If you purely listen to your children and just do what ever they say, you are not going to be a good parent. If you ignore your children and just go with your gut reaction, you are probably not going to be a good parent either. It's a question of balancing your principles and your gut reaction about what you think is right while listening to what your audience is telling you."
  • You can hear more from Chartbeat's Tony Haile and from Laura Amico and about the custom software she uses for Homicide Watch in this Journalism.co.uk podcast.

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