Michael Jackson’s Death: An Inside Look At How Google, Yahoo, & Bing Handled An Extraordinary Day In Search

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.

Michael Jackson queries - Google

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.

Michael Jackson - flase "attack" alarm Google

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.”

Google Trends - "michael jackson died"

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 News - Michael Jackson

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:

Bing - Michael Jackson

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.

Wikipedia traffic - Michael Jackson

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.

Facebook - Michael Jackson status updates

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.”

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Facebook | Features: Analysis | Google: Web Search | Microsoft: Bing | Search Engines: News Search Engines | Search Engines: Wikipedia | Stats: Search Behavior | Top News | Twitter | Yahoo: News | Yahoo: Search

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • http://seoexpert seoexpert

    Matt, I think you deserve the Best Blog Post of the Year Award – GREAT JOB! Please update the post once you have the Bing data, we’re all stoked about the graphs from Google and Yahoo! Keep up the great work!

    Next, you’ll have to do stat counts on YouTube videos maybe dig into what percentage of reports were strictly SEO’s trying to get traffic and what percent were unique stories.

  • http://www.realtrack.com.au realtrack5

    Hi,

    You had mention all the search engine details with their traffice graphs which is relly helpful to know for all of us that seach traffice can even increae like this.

    Its really cool

    Regards,

    Realtrack

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    Hi Matt – I think it there is no surprise that Bing/MSN/Live.com did not have anything news related as fast…that is typical for them…

  • http://www.seomoz.org/team/danny dannydover

    Matt,

    Great stuff, we (the readers) are very lucky that you had the opportunity to get all of these inside perspectives. I always like the mental image of war-room like meetings at major tech companies. I picture a lot of red flashing lights and smoke :-) MJ’s impact on the world was stunning and he will be missed.

    I wrote up a timeline of the events on SEOmoz that is a good supplement to this post. Not going to link to it as I wrote it and I think that is in bad taste but I was very interesting to see you write about the same story from a different perspective.

    Cheers!
    Danny

  • http://www.smx.ph alfredopalconit

    ah, i now see why there is a captcha warning on my first google search of the day.

  • http://www.clicktrue.biz ginocarpio

    until now, many are still uploading about tributes of Michael. Many are interested to know Michael’s life. even in iTunes Michael got back in the charts.

  • http://www.tag44.com tag44

    Thanks for the post Matt, its lovely really.

  • ralphm

    Nice article and graphs. I’d just like to mention the number of YouTube searches and additional hits to his already 25 million view videos must have soared. My wife spent all day watching his videos.

  • http://www.planetc1.com/ chiropractic

    Nice job putting this all together Matt, it’s a rare event and there’s been so many things learned from it. I wonder if media and search engine co’s think they could be better prepared and then I wonder will we have an event of this magnitude occurring again anytime soon?

  • http://www.devakantieboer.nl roelb88

    I just read the post and it’s a very nice post, shows how the most popular search engines handle these events, pretty interesting. Thanks!

  • http://afewtips.com afewtips.com

    I think it’s interesting that Yahoo became both a distributor and a reporter.

    Might Yahoo have an interest in providing the news data and not just posting news provided to yahoo?

    I’m wondering why they thought to go to the hospital and actually report on the crowds.

    Yahoo has 2 letters at the end just like CNN so why not?

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