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BBC Topics In Beta

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Matthew McDonnell | 14:02 UK time, Wednesday, 4 June 2008

I am delighted to announce the launch of BBC Topic Pages.

topics_header.pngTopics are automatically updated web pages, each one covering a different person, country or subject.

This is a beta release so forgive us a few rough edges. They will be smoothed out over the course of the trial.

We wanted to make it as easy as possible to create and maintain pages for large countries as it is for small ones, whether they are currently the location of big news stories or not. Or to build pages for a politicians, famous people and historical figures that alert users to relevant programmes and news stories they might otherwise miss. Or to showcase the best and latest things the BBC has produced about topical issues, historical events, big organisations and popular hobbies. And we wanted to produce a page all aboutdogs.

So /topics uses a variety of search techniques to create feeds of the latest BBC content from news articles, programmes available to watch on iPlayer, weather forecasts, news videos, country profiles and information from the TV and radio schedules. BBC editors then add in hand-picked articles and features from around the BBC and other websites.

Stephen Betts of our technical team will post in the next few days giving more detail on how the feeds are generated and the pages assembled as well as giving an insight into the engineering approaches.

I will of course reply to your comments on a later post, but there are a couple of questions that I can answer up-front.

Why are we doing this?

While it is quite easy to find all the news about, say, anti-social behaviour or all on-demand programmes about India, it has always been more of a challenge to find everything the BBC has recently produced about a topic. Now we can make pages that organise the full range of BBC content around selected subjects like this and this.

And because the overhead involved in maintaining these pages is so low, we can cover many more subjects than we could using traditionally edited pages which had to be manually updated by a human being. As the feeds used in /topics are automatic, we can be confident that all the pages are bang up-to-date.

Finally, these pages will exist forever regardless of whether there is new content being produced about the subject (even if the odd page may look a little bare now and again). So, for the first time, it's possible to link to one permanent page for the topics that we cover on the BBC. At the moment we have a selection, and the beta trial will help us determine the scope of what we might do in the future.

How do we choose which topics to cover?

We take three things into account. Firstly, what people are looking for (we do this by analysing the BBC search logs). Then, what we have content about (we aren't aiming to create an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge; rather to better organise and showcase our content) and lastly, the BBC's editorial priorities.

For the moment a few countries, people and subjects have been chosen to get things off the ground and to test the technology. The list will grow over the coming months.

If it's all automatic, what about editorial priorities and tone?

No new content is produced for our topic pages, so we know that everything we link to meets editorial guidelines. Topic page editors can also add and remove content if necessary.

BBC journalists and content producers use their judgement to assess their importance of their stories and content every time they write a story or publish some content. We're working on systems that will capture that wisdom, infer the relative editorial importance of a piece of content (for instance by checking whether it appeared on the News or iPlayer homepages) and then use this information to influence the ordering of content on the pages.

Is it just going to be News and iPlayer content on these pages?

Far from it. We are developing a BBC blogs feed and planning Sport and other feeds. In addition, we are working on sourcing widgets of content from other areas of the BBC including things like the recipe database.

We are trying out some of these ideas on the topics page for China. Pete Clifton has blogged in more detail about China on the BBC News Editors Blog.

What about related content from other websites?

We want to include high quality content from outside the BBC to enhance our pages. We'll be working on providing feeds of news and blogs from sources other than the BBC.

Can I get the feeds and build them into my own website or personal feeds?

Yes, feeds will be available soon.

This is just the first stage of the project and new features are planned over the course of the next couple of months. We will keep you posted as the service evolves.

Finally for enduring the long days and short tempers that are an inevitable part of product development, I would like to thank all of the talented engineers, editors, designers and project staff who have worked so hard to get us to this stage.

Have a play around with /topics and leave me a comment.

Matthew McDonnell is Portfolio Executive, Search and Navigation, Internet Group, BBC Future Media and Technology.


  • Comment number 1.

    The new pages look fairly nice in terms of layout and groupings. It's good to see the topics include a section of links to other sites.

    I guess in some respects it expands on the existing 'in depth' type news sections where some pages where more information than news articles.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think this looks excellent. I'm hoping that you will start using the links to these sections automatically from the BBC News pages.

  • Comment number 3.

    Might be nice to open up the pages to Wikipedia-style editing, so that knowledgeable bbc.co.uk users can provide content and links off-site.

    For example, you could require that each statement provided also has a BBC or non-BBC link to support the statement. As long as this information was clearly marked with a "UGC" marking, it would allow bbc.co.uk users to directly contribute.

  • Comment number 4.

    It seems fun and useful but I can imagine it becoming redundant with people simply searching in Google. What sort of marketing would be given to this?


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