Monday, May 9, 2011

Pew Study Delves into Where and How People Get Their News

The folks over at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism continue to put out interesting research that ought to influence how media companies on the web shape their web and social media strategies.

Their most recent study, “Navigating News Online” (full link here, or see below for a PDF of the study, which Pew, for some reason*, has spread over several web pages), comes up with some surprising – and not so surprising – conclusions, based on nine months’ worth of mining data from Nielsen research conducted in 2010. Pew focuses on the following areas, critical to anyone hoping to build monetizable traffic on the web:
  • How users get to the top news sites
  • How long they stay during each visit
  • How deep they go into a site
  • Where they go when they leave
Their findings ought to hearten media companies who have worked hard to build a Facebook presence, cause chagrin to those who have poured any amount of effort into Twitter and make them think again about who might be the bad boy – I did say bad boy, not bad girl – in the business of news aggregation.

Most telling, however, are these points, delivered in the study’s overview:
[T]he findings suggest that there is not one group of news consumers online but several, each of which behaves differently. These differences call for news organizations to develop separate strategies to serve and make money from each audience.
The findings also reveal that while search aggregators remain the most popular way users find news, the universe of referring sites is diverse. Social media is rapidly becoming a competing driver of traffic. And far from obsolete, home pages are usually the most popular page for most of the top news sites.
The home page thing, to me, is the most startling, and yet almost the most obvious thing to think of. Back when Web 1.0 was king, much was made of making the home page visible, dominant, and navigable. In the Google age, however, thought has poured into the philosophy that since traffic is coming to sites in droves through search engines that the home page is not necessarily as important as it was in the past. Not so, according to Pew, at least for the 25 major news sites they looked at:
For 21 of the 25 sites studied, the home page is the most viewed part of the site. This suggests a couple of likely behaviors. One is that some of the traffic coming from search is people typing in the name of the Website, not searching for specific topics. Second, it suggests that, for certain sites especially, going online to check the latest headlines is still an important dimension of news consumption.

This finding reinforces my belief that at Uncharted (you knew this was going to devolve into a discussion about Uncharted, right?) we need to do more to offer enticement and different places to go on the home page, including having links to our blog, our Facebook page, and perhaps a list of ten to fifteen of our most recently-updated stuff, in addition to the slide and banner updates we already do. Giving our readers a plethora of at-home places to go, tied in with Facebook, also matches nicely with what Pew concludes in its study.

First, Facebook. Here’s what Pew says:
With roughly 500 million users worldwide, Facebook’s audience is vastly larger than any single news organization. Its role has evolved from a network for friends to share personal information to a way for people to share, recommend and link together all kinds of information, including news. If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.
Google ought to be a little concerned here – which is why they tried to get Google Buzz going. Sharing news, I think, is going to become increasingly significant in the future. We’re doing that already, thank heaven, with our Facebook page, and with the AddThis widget we have on the tail end of every story we’ve got. Speaking of which:

If a large portion of users are going to Facebook after leaving a site, that may indicate the site’s content is easy to share and viewed as worth distributing to friends. On the other hand, if most users are leaving for Google or some other search engine, that could indicate that users either did not find what they were looking for on the site or got what they needed but were not drawn to any other content.
The addition of social networking “share” tools to the margins of nearly every news story seems to have paid off. Facebook shows up among the top destinations for every site studied. So do sharing tool widgets like, which allow users to share a story across a wide range of social network pages. And the share tools rank higher among the content producers on the list than aggregators, suggesting that people share actual news stories more than search results. While these are technically clicks away from the site, they are positive clicks away, likely multiplying additional traffic to that story. The extent of their use may even be under counted here as this figure measures when people click on a link or tool to share the story. It does not record instances when users copy and paste URL’s onto a share page.
So we’re at least doing the share thing right. I’d love to search Facebook to see whether or not the stuff on our site is being shared, however, as our users tend to be an inscrutable bunch.

There’s lots more from the study, of course. I’ve only scratched the surface here. Read it. It’s a good ‘un. It's getting a lot of press. Here's what TIME Magazine's Techland blog has to say about it.

*Which they explain in their own study, obtusely yet thusly: The largest sites that operate many subdomain properties also tend to succeed at keeping much of the “departing” traffic within the family.  On, for instance, the top seven destination sites are pages within Chicago Tribune itself, such as the sports page or breaking news section. On, 13 of top fifteen destination sites are within the CNN family, including CNN subdomains like and as, well as other Time Warner properties promoted on the site like Google and Facebook are the only external sites to make it in that mix.

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