Yes, but what about the parking?

Last year was a recording-braking year in web traffic for many magazines. What can we learn from it? What should we provide more or less of? Where are our resources best used? Dickon Ross casts an eye over what subjects proved popular on the E&T site last year.

By Dickon Ross

Yes, but what about the parking?

The few headlines below are all high hitting stories of last year from our website – but not in any order. They all did well to make the top 30. But which do you think did best? The answer is at the foot of this article but I’ll provide some clues before you get there. First useful fact: our E&T site is aimed at professional, degree-educated engineers but doesn’t limit access in any way so the audience is wider than that in practice. Here are the candidates:

a) Hands on review: Ooni Karu pizza oven [review, 2020]

b) Electric vehicles: batteries and the multi-million pound scrapheap [original feature, 2020]

c) Gaming’s golden age: top 10 retro vintage arcade classics [feature, 2018]

d) Debate for and against: Is space exploration a waste of time? [comment, 2011]

e) Handheld ultraviolet Covid-19-killing devices are on the horizon [news, 2020]

f) Exclusive: Scandal could see millions of solar panels fail or degrade prematurely [news investigation and analysis feature, 2020]

g) Government defeated in the Lords over ultra-fast broadband bill [news, 2020]

Story (a) is just one of our reviews that did surprisingly well last year. E&T has always had a monthly spread of gadgets in its reviews section of the print magazine but in-depth reviews of the more off-beat gadgets that aren’t necessarily covered widely elsewhere can do well through organic search. Conventional editorial wisdom says you can forget reviews in the face of competition that does nothing else, but our experience would say not. The right review in the right depth can come high in organic search and become the go-to read. With a little luck. Not a core story for E&T but it all helps.

Story (b) is core material for E&T, an original feature with a definite angle, from our 2020 special issue on electric vehicles. It’s reassuring that quality, original journalism is worth the effort and did better than our less original story (g).

Story (c) is a classic example of the ‘long-tail’ though ‘perennial’ might be a better term. This story and others like it such as ‘ten mysteries solved’ from the same year or ‘ten apocalypse scenarios’ from 2019, answer curiosity-driven searches online. They’re also list articles. Journalists have always recognised their popularity and we don’t need PRs to tell us that nor Buzzfeed to prove it (although we may kick ourselves for not starting that list-based site first). This particular list is rarely out of our monthly top ten stories. Many of the visitors will be fly-bys but pages like this are great places for promotions.

(d) is even further down that long tail but some E&T articles have been chosen as English exercise pieces in American schools so most of the hits for this are from kids doing their homework. We don’t usually count these articles in our leaderboard. Not all clicks are equal, clearly.

(e) wasn’t an exclusive but clearly something people were searching for, along with our other best-performing stories on N95 face mask design and reusability. They’re potentially useful, highly topical and not widely covered so not much of a surprise we did well from organic search. Yet it’s also an innovation and discovery story and most of those come to us from university R&D projects and their PRs. Most aren’t exclusive but they are still essential for E&T. It’s not surprising it did better than both old perennials.

Story (f) was an exclusive investigation – one of many E&T published last year including an award winner. I’m very proud of them. Yet this was one of only two of them to get more hits than the pizza oven review!

(g) was just one of our many stories based upon news wire copy. We often hear at publishing events that the only content that counts is unique, exclusive or totally original. As a journalist, I’d like to believe that but our experience says not. We subscribe to Reuters and Press Association services. That means we have the same copy to work from on breaking news as other agency subscribers, so our reporters don’t waste time re-researching what the newspapers and broadcasters already have from the wires. And it means we can act quickly – not as fast as the major media but fast enough for our lunchtime email newsletter and therefore to have a chance of hitting our readers’ inboxes with a big story before they see it on the evening news.

Those that were the most work and effort, the best original journalism, don’t always perform the best.

Potholes and parking

We did thousands of stories last year – many we’re more proud of than some of these top hitters. Those that were the most work and effort, the best original journalism, don’t always perform the best. I’m reminded of the Radio 4 satirical programme ‘Down the line’, a spoof phone-in programme always trying to focus on important issues like global warming or freedom of speech but the callers just want to talk about parking.

We often hear that publishers shouldn’t bother with the stories that everyone else has. But editors should always ask themselves ‘what do people want to read today?’. Often, that’s the big story that’s everywhere else but if you have email newsletters or strong social media, you might still reach your readers first. And sometimes it can just look odd if you omit the biggest story of the year.

It’s all horribly, disappointingly predictable. People love lists, everyday useful stuff, today’s big story and those that press certain buttons. There are subjects that do well for us including space and robots but also potholes and, indeed, parking.

But clicks aren’t the only or even the best measure of a story’s worth. We value our own mix of wire news, research results, exclusive investigations, data journalism, opinion, top ten lists, original features, technical features, reviews and much more – even humour. Right now, we’d just like to do it all better.

Answer: e,c,d,b,f,a,g

Clicks aren’t the only or even the best measure of a story’s worth.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.