Strata Ignite: "Reality TV, Politicians & Death"

Research for the BBC: How do People Search for News & Politics?

Please note that there's further information regarding the talk and discussing the research at BBC Research: Analysing 2.5 Million News and Politics Search Queries.

  • 1. The BBC wished to know about how people search for News and Politics online. So, I gathered together 2.5 million searches that took UK internet users to over 100 websites over one year and mined it.
  • 2. As anyone who has worked with significant data in a spreadsheet will know, trying to work out what is really going on can make you feel like this (see image). So to try to make sense of this number of search queries I used software I've written (used for previous clients) to group search queries together into clusters based upon meaning and pattern, i.e. into search clusters (or "demand clusters" as I sometimes refer to them).
  • 3. So we have groups of search queries to do with the Budget, with the Queens Speech etc. And this allows us to get some sense of priority and order, which things people are searching for most.
  • 4. But really we want & need to know more than this. We can look within these clusters to see how people are searching for that "thing". For example, here we can see how people are searching for the Budget, we can see groups of searches for a "Budget Calculator", "the Budget and Car Tax", "the Budget and Tax Credits", and so on. This is a snapshot of just one week, so we can also see how this shifts and changes over on-going weeks.
  • 5. We can do this for many other "things" that people search for, for example with "Child Benefit". Here we can see how people searched for "Child Benefit", e.g. "child benefit trap", "child benefit and the self employed", etc.
  • 6. Having converted one long list of search queries into a collection of things that people search for, we can also see how searches for different things evolved over time. For example, here we can see how searches relating to "Child Benefit" were influenced by the actual Budget. Before the Budget there was significant interest in Child Benefit, there were lots of rumours that Child Benefit was to be cut, changed, altered. After the Budget there were far less searches, quite possibly because George Osbourne had quashed the rumours regarding changes.
  • 7. What is particularly interesting is if we look at the nature of the searches themselves. For example, before the Budget searches for Child Benefit were full of anxiety regarding the cuts, changes, loss of benefit etc. After the Budget the nature was exactly the same, there were just far less searches.
  • 8. And we can do the same examination of the nature of search queries, this time for the Riots in August 2011:
    • The first weeks searches were dominated by queries regarding where the riots were happening, what was the latest news.
    • By the second week, searches move onto discussions of cleaning up; and cctv images, videos, faces - people fascinated by who did the rioting, did they know someone who rioted, had their faces been captured?
  • 9. By the third and the fourth week, the story behind the search queries moves on again to:
    • During the third week there's a rise in queries relating to arrests, and searches become very emotive: "ferrel rates", David Starkey gets involved "the whites have become black".
    • And in the fourth week, sentencing and the courts become a hot topic.
  • 10. So what does all this mean for large-scale news organisations such as the BBC? At its simplest, this illustrates that behind the news is a clear arc of a story, one being written by the general public - and that to provide what people are looking for (i.e. to be relevant to all those searches), one needs to write content and create content that isn't just about facts, but that follows the story. There's much more to this, but not enough time in five minutes!
  • 11. There were clearly many, many other things searched during this year in question (June '11 to June '12). Our dear leader David Cameron being one of them. In fact, one of the most searched for things relating to David Cameron was when he failed to tip an Italian waitress whilst on holiday (in Italy).
  • 12. These were several "things" searched for to a similar degree to David Cameron. Eurovisio 2012, TOWIE ("The Only Way is Essex"), Victoria Beckham, the Highway Code and the beloved NHS.
  • 13. The question is, which one of these is in fact searched for more than David Cameron?
  • 14. And the answer is ... TOWIE ("The Only Way is Essex") is searched for more than the Prime Minister of the UK. (Incidentally, Google Insight search for TOWIE v David Cameron backs this up).
  • 15. We can of course do the same thing for Nick Clegg. So which of these were searched for more than Nick Clegg?
  • 16. Trick question. All of them!
  • 17. One of the main topics that appeared in all these search queries was the death of a number of famous people, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Gary Speed, and the near-death experience of Fabrice Muamba.
  • 18. This isn't surprising in itself, but the sheer scale of the number of searches for the tragic death of Gary Speed was extraordinary. The searches spanned a very short space of time, but there were so many, that across the whole year searches for Gary Speed were in the top five things searched for. Far more than the Budget, the Queen's Speech, the Riots - and many more.
  • 19. Finally, I've been doing this kind of search query analysis for many years, and I never cease to be amazed by the daft things people search for. Here's a selection I spotted recently.
  • 20. My own favourite amongst them was "is neil armstrong muslim". It turns out that this is an actual Internet hoax - that whilst on the moon he heard the Islamic call to prayer, and upon returning to Earth converted to Islam. I thought it was some right-wing wingnut search. Anyway, you can find me at @roland_dunn or at /. Thanks!