Part 2: What We Can Learn From Contest Judging

By: Steve Outing

On Wednesday I excerpted some of the comments from the panel of 14 judges who evaluated entries to the 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition, a contest sponsored by Editor & Publisher and The Kelsey Group. Results will be announced in this column and at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco next week. Because there is so much valuable advice contained in the judges' evaluations, I'll spend some more time today reviewing their impressions of the newspaper online services entered in the contest.

* Advertising. Our judges didn't have much good to say about the treatment of display advertising by most online newspaper services. With a few exceptions, most of the entries simply give advertisers an icon or image space, without taking advantage of the online medium and its unique characteristics compared to traditional media. One good advertising technique spotted by one of the judges was a site that offered a discount coupon for airline tickets. That's a good way to get people to click on an ad, he suggested.

* Advertising vs. editorial. Warranting the disdain of several of our judges were sites where the advertising matter is not clearly defined as being different from editorial content. "I'm disquieted by links ... that appear to be editorial matter but in fact link to ads," said one judge. Sometimes, it's the design of online ads that cause the problem, because they look little different from editorial links on the site.

* Server down. Our judges were busy and had a lot of sites to look at. Nearly every one of them reported that at least one of the sites they went to judge was not available when they tried to access it. Web surfers who encounter a "busy signal" are similarly likely to be lost forever to your site, which should point to the need in the online environment to have a robust server set-up. If running a server in-house, make sure you have staff available to keep it operating 24 hours a day. Choose carefully if you are using an outside provider, and get references from their other customers. No matter who runs the server your service resides on, make sure that it's on an Internet connection with a big enough pipe to accommodate peaks in traffic. And be ready to add another server or upgrade bandwidth quickly if demand catches you by surprise. The last thing you want when operating an online service is for potential customers to be turned away by a busy signal.

* Help section. Several papers were singled out for praise in having useful "help" sections, to aid novice users.

* Keep design fresh. Some sites that are fairly old (which in this business means 1-1/2 to 3 years) haven't kept pace with newer sites, having retained some elements of their older designs. They look stale in comparison to the new-comers, one of the judges said, so it's important to constantly tinker with and improve an online site. Don't rest on your laurels, he suggested.

* Keep design consistent throughout. One newspaper service got marked down in the design category because although its home page was excellent, the inside pages bore little resemblance to the cover. Your core design should ideally hold up throughout the site.

* Keep identity present throughout site. Inside pages of a site should clearly identify whose site the Web visitor is at, the judges said. You can't assume that the viewer of an inside page has necessarily come through your home page, so it's vital that you identify who is responsible for each page and provide a link back to your site's home page.

* Leverage good print design. For newspapers with distinctive print designs, their online services got high marks for carrying that look and feel into cyberspace.

* Superfluous use of icons. Said one judge about a particular entry, "I deduct points for use of stylized icons when text alone would suffice."

* Variable story lengths. One site got high marks for its presentation of news stories, which can be read in short or long versions.

* News presentation. Sites that appeared to merely shovel content from the newsroom got lower marks, unless it was packaged in a useful way. Said one judge about a large paper's Web site news section, "I got the feeling it was designed to work in the way the newsroom saw it, as opposed to how people accessing the site might want to find things."

* News updates. Sites that publish regular updates throughout the day got high ratings. The judges thought that some sites didn't go far enough with updating, and that their efforts seemed superficial.

* Local vs. national/international focus. Several judges noted that many newspaper sites seem designed only with the local reader in mind. This included sites of some large newspapers, who can be expected to draw a sizable number of visitors from outside their region. These sites presume of their readers a knowledge of the local area, which is not necessarily going to be the case in a medium that invites users to visit a site from distant places.

* Reader interaction. Sites that received high marks were those that invited readers to do more than just read a story and look at photos. Some judges suggested that inviting reader feedback and linking a response mechanism to special online coverage is a nice feature. Email links to writers are a nice feature, some judges suggested, offering readers a feeling that their voice matters to the newspaper staff.

* Don't be too "newspaper-centric." One online service operated by 2 large dailies has 2 "editions" of its online service. That prompted this comment from a judge: "It is absolutely absurd to have a day and a night 'edition' in a non-print world. This ... earns a big DART in my view for being too newspaper-centric."

* Readability. A handful of sites got criticized for being difficult to read. Here's a judge's comment about one offender: "I won't read purple type. Some of us still have design standards."

I will be announcing the winners of the contest in San Francisco on Saturday, February 24, at the Interactive Newspapers conference. I hope to see many of you there.

Implications of digital Web delivery

Allegra Young of USA Today Online wrote in about my recent columns on digital delivery of Web sites:

"I was intrigued by the economic implications of Milktruck, the mechanism for reading Web pages off-line. While the feature is a wonderful tool for many customers, it could turn the Web advertising model on its end. Specifically, unless the user also chooses to take the hyperlinked pages of the ads, the advertiser's information will no longer be available. This reduces the value of the advertisement. Granted, plain vanilla exposure is important to any advertiser. However, the Web promises direct response to advertising and Milktruck potentially derails the 'click here for more information' model. Solutions for advertisers could include creating ads that actually do something, like the Duracell advertisement by Site Specific which flips the page when clicked upon. Ostensibly, the software would still work off-line and would survive the downloading process. That way, if the hyperlink pages aren't transferred, the message still may be."

Milktruck does allow the user to configure how deep the software "crawls" a publisher's site, retrieving pages down to a certain depth as specified by a user. If the user instructed the software to retrieve 4 levels, most ad content would be included in the automatic download and would thus be available to the user for off-line reading. Of course, you can't count on a reader configuring the software such that all the interior ad content will be downloaded.

Another solution is for Web publishers to include a configuration page on the site that allows Milktruck users (and users of other software that operates similarly) to easily specify what they want to have downloaded. This gives the publisher some control over what is presented to visitors, rather than leaving it up to them. Publishers will want to work with companies like Milktruck in setting up these configuration pages, which is not only a convenience to your users (making configuration easier) but also a way to gain some control you otherwise might lose due to the emergence of Milktruck Delivery-type digital Web delivery software.

No Monday column

There will be no Stop The Presses! column on Monday, February 19, due to observance of the Presidents' Day holiday in the U.S. I'll see you again on Tuesday the 20th.

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