An extraordinary day of breaking news on Thursday led to record-breaking traffic spikes as people searched online for information about the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and, especially, Michael Jackson. And just like their counterparts in traditional media, the news divisions of Google, Yahoo, and Bing responded with sometimes extraordinary measures to ensure they were giving searchers the most accurate and current news available.
Below, a look not only at the extreme traffic spikes that took place, but also an insider’s look at what happened as each search engine — and Wikipedia — grappled with the demands of a nearly unprecedented surge of interest in the day’s breaking news.
Google: “An all-hands-on-deck moment”
“Thursday was a pretty out-of-the-ordinary day.” That’s how spokesperson Gabriel Stricker describes the scene at Google’s headquarters while millions of people were online trying to find out what happened to Michael Jackson. Google has written about what it calls an “outpouring of searches” about Jackson. Stricker says Google saw a wide range of queries — like “michael jackson died” and “michael jackson hoax” — that peaked at about 3:00 pm PST.
The rush of traffic was so severe that Google initially thought it was under attack.
“That was an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Stricker says, “until we were able to determine that the original assessment was wrong, that it wasn’t an attack.” The massive spike in searches “tricked” Google News into showing an interstitial error page for about 25 minutes.
Google says the mistaken attack was its only hiccup yesterday, and that they saw no need to manually adjust results so that searchers got the right information. “The spike in traffic is an indication that we accomplished what we set out to do,” Stricker says. “People came to Google looking for an answer to a specific — and in this case, rather sad — question, and they got it quickly.”
Google hasn’t said yet how Thursday’s traffic compares to other important news events. Their blog post does say that Google “saw one of the largest mobile search spikes we’ve ever seen.” And Google Trends labeled Thursday’s searches for “michael jackson died” as “volcanic.”
Yahoo: “This demanded that we take our coverage to the next level”
Thursday was a record-breaking day for Yahoo. Their story, “Michael Jackson rushed to hospital,” received 800,000 clicks in 10 minutes, making it their highest-clicking story ever.
Yahoo also revealed that Yahoo News set an all-time record with 16.4 million visitors, beating the old record of 15.1 million set last election day. The four million visitors between 3-4 pm PDT set an hourly record.
Things were no less busy inside Yahoo headquarters. Richard Vega, Editor of Yahoo News, also described it as an all-hands-on-deck situation, going so far as to bring in staff on their days off. “After we saw initial reports that Michael Jackson had died, we immediately devoted all resources to the story and called staffers at home to help,” Vega says.
As a content destination and a news organization with writers and editorial staff, Yahoo took a more hands-on approach to packaging information for its users — even sending staff out to report live from Los Angeles. Says Vega: “We made sure to include the main stories and sidebars from AP and Time magazine. We had video clips from ABC News. We created slideshows. Since Michael Jackson had died in L.A., we sent out two editors to the UCLA Medical Center to interview and take photos of the fans who were gathering outside the hospital. In addition, one editor sent Twitter updates from the scene. This was a unique moment in history, which demanded that we take our coverage to the next level.”
Yahoo News recorded 175 million page views on Thursday, its fourth-highest total (after Inauguration Day, the day after the Inauguration, and Hurricane Ike). A blog post in Yahoo Music has received more than 21,500 comments as I write this. And Yahoo says Flickr has seen more than 4,000 Michael Jackson-related photo uploads in the past day. One poignant Flickr photo shows Times Square at a standstill as the offline world reacted the same way we did online.
Bing: “We rolled out a ‘news go big’ experience”
Like its competitors, the Bing search team was paying close attention to Thursday’s news as it unfolded, and doing its best to make sure searchers got the information they wanted. Jamil Valliani, a senior program manager for Bing, and Todd Schwartz, group product manager for Bing, said their effort included “the extended search team, including engineering, product management and marketing.”
They say Bing “definitely saw a spike” in traffic on Thursday, but they don’t have any data to share at the moment. “We get more feedback and see more engagement from consumers for bigger news stories, so we do have to spend more time than average reviewing this feedback and taking it into consideration.”
Some of the feedback for Bing’s Jackson-related search results wasn’t good. On Search Engine Journal, for example, Loren Baker pointed out that Bing’s search results led off with Michael Jackson photos, while news links were at the bottom of the search results page:
Valliani and Schwartz describe what happened: “In general, our rule is not to interfere with the normal algorithmic operation and to note any interesting or unexpected behaviors to be addressed in future upgrades of the product. The only exception to this is for major news events where we see unusual volume, and the results are clearly not being ranked in a relevant way. In these cases we can respond more quickly to how we perform the ranking. This was the case yesterday with Michael Jackson in particular, where we quickly rolled out what we call a ‘news go big’ experience to make sure we were providing appropriate coverage for this significant and sad event.”
Search experiences on other sites
The extraordinary online search for information about Thursday’s news wasn’t limited just to the major search engines. The Wikipedia page about Michael Jackson saw an enormous jump in pageviews on Thursday, and even more on Friday according to Grok.se, an unofficial Wikipedia traffic stats site.
Since Wikipedia pages are open to community editing, Wikipedia took unusual steps to deal with the situation as rumors spread Thursday afternoon.
“The Jackson page was temporarily ‘protected’ to prevent any editing as soon as the rumors started,’ according to Wikipedia administrator Jonathan Hochman. “There was a community discussion about how to handle that. The idea was to prevent the article from going back and forth, or being the subject of a hoax, until the story was verified.”
Twitter was a hotbed of Jackson-related searching and conversation. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told the Los Angeles Times that there were nearly 5,000 Jackson-related tweets per minute on Thursday afternoon. “We saw an instant doubling of tweets per second the moment the story broke. This particular news about the passing of such a global icon is the biggest jump in tweets per second since the U.S. presidential election.”
Likewise, Facebook reported a tripling of the number of status updates in the aftermath of Jackson’s death.
The final word about this extraordinary day belongs to AOL, whose AIM messaging service was knocked offline for 40 minutes Thursday. Their statement begins like this: “Today was a seminal moment in Internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth.”
Postscript: See Google Thinks Michael Jackson Died At Age 65 In 2007 for how Google’s currently listing the “wrong” Michael Jackson in response to searches for “michael jackson died.”
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