Why Topic Pages Haven’t Worked For News Websites Yet

Yesterday we outlined why topic pages are becoming increasingly popular on the Web, as a way to organize social or news content. As daily consumers of such content, we’re used to the chronological (and often real-time) ordering of updates from Facebook, Twitter, blogs and more. But the latest wave of Web publishing services, like Pinterest and Medium, are exploring ways to present content topically or thematically. This isn’t a new concept; in fact news organizations have experimented with topic pages too. However, the results from news sites so far have been mixed.

The New York Times has a topic pages hub called Times Topics. Each topic page in the hub “collects all the news, reference and archival information, photos, graphics, audio and video files” dating back to 1981 on a particular topic, into a single page. Not only do readers of a topic page have access to all present and past news about a topic, they can subscribe to future news about it via RSS.

Topics range from subjects (like “Net Neutrality”), to people (the current lead topic page is about foot-in-mouth congressman Todd Akin), to places (such as Iraq).

Looking at the Todd Akin page shows us some of the benefits of topic pages:

1. Context: The main article not only explains why Akin is in the news currently (a stunningly stupid comment about rape), but outlines his personal history as a congressman and the things he has done and advocated for.

2. History: Each page has a list of links to previous NYT stories about the topic; in this case any past story that mentioned Todd Akin.

3. Curated: The New York Times has a reputation for quality journalism, so many readers will trust the Times to curate an ongoing topic page on Todd Akin. Even if, as appears to be the case for NYT, the topic pages are largely automated.

4. Multimedia: This isn’t evident on Akin’s page, but some topic pages – such as the one for President Barack Obama – have video, interactive charts and other multimedia content. This is great content that may not be appropriate for news articles, but finds a suitable home on a topic page.

So Why Aren’t Topic Pages Getting Traction For News Sites?

Times Topic is an admirable effort from The New York Times. The problem for them – and any other news organization – is that topic pages aren’t showing up in search engines. A search for “Todd Akin” in Google does not surface the NYT topic page about him. A NYT news article was the fourth link on page one, but we scrolled through the next nine pages of Google search results and didn’t see the NYT topic page. Even the colorful NYT topic page for President Obama is nowhere to be seen in Google – and heck, the President’s MySpace page is in the first few pages of results!

Why isn’t Google picking up NYT’s topic pages? Most probably because blogs and other news sites simply don’t link to them. You can’t blame them, because NYT itself don’t appear to link to its topic pages: the top NYT news article about Akin fails to include a link to the relevant topic page.

Another clue that topic pages for news organizations aren’t quite ready for prime time is that the BBC has ceased doing them. Four years ago, the BBC announced a Topic Pages Beta. The idea was the same as NYT, to aggregate content about a single topic onto one page. But sadly, this was one Web 2.0 beta that didn’t make it to a full launch.

Not getting high placement in search results is probably one reason why topic pages haven’t quite worked for NYT and BBC. But it’s also due to the real-time reading habits of people in this era of the Web. In an age dominated by chronological flows of information – such as from Facebook, Twitter and blogs – topical organization of news and social content has taken a back seat to the real-time firehose.

That’s where the latest publishing platforms, like Medium and Pinterest, could make an impact. What both Pinterest and Medium are are trying to do is layer topic pages on top of user-generated, social content. We don’t know yet whether this will work, but if it does then consumers may start to get used to topic pages. That in turn will prompt NYT, BBC, news blogs and other professional media to take another look at topic pages. We’ll also begin to see Facebook, Twitter and other social networks experiment with topical organization of content too. Watch this space!

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