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Results of the BBC News Story Links Trial

Jonathan Austin | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Last August, the BBC trialled a new service called Apture on a hand picked selection of news stories (e.g. this story on the Cassini mission). Apture allows journalists to add links to the text of published stories and displays the link content in popover windows within the story page. This caused a bit of a buzz at the time on the BBC Internet blog. So we thought we'd start our new blog by sharing our findings and set out what we're going to do next in this area.

Image of BBC news website

Throughout the trial, we asked for feedback from the audience using a link at the bottom of each Apture window. This opened a pop-up window where people could state whether they found the service useful and then leave a text comment.

Your Feedback

Over 1200 people used this to give us feedback during the two weeks, which we think is quite a high response for such a limited piece of work. Over 90% of those that responded said that they found Apture useful. This was an unexpected result, even considering that the opt-in nature of the trial favoured early adopters.

Over 854 people left a positive comment. Whilst over half of those gave generic praise such as "I liked it", there were three key themes that dominated the comments:

  • 177 people stated that they appreciated being able to explore background material without leaving the page or searching.
  • 119 people said that they appreciated the editorial content in the links and made a specific reference to the fact the content was added manually.
  • 98 people approved of the design of the system. This included that links were inline and could be turned off and on.

We also received 306 negative comments. There were a diverse range of concerns. The blog discussion focussed on the issues of simple hyperlinks, accessibility and web citizenship and we received 32 comments related to these issues. The top three concerns raised were:

  • 65 people objected to the use of icons in the inline links. In particular, the use of a "W" to indicate a link to Wikipedia caused problems. Apture have now changed this, but there still questions about how to signal the content of links
  • 55 people were unsure whether the BBC should link to Wikipedia, raising issues of accuracy, perhaps echoing the controversy that followed the 2005 evaluation by Nature.
  • 50 people found that security restrictions caused a problem. This was often down to a local firewall that allowed access to the BBC, but blocked third party content. Also for some people Flash was not installed on their machine. This is a timely reminder that there can be problems when people move to rich AV and mashups.

Overall, we thought there was a lot that was interesting about these results. Clearly many people appreciate high quality, crafted background links in news stories. And, for the right kind of background information, some people appreciate being able to see it without having to navigate away from the page. The key challenges for us are two-fold:

  • Can we deliver in-page navigation using baked in hyperlinks, maintain high standards of accessibility and serve those who prefer traditional linking behaviour?
  • Can we provide journalists with the right tools so they can be at their most creative editorially and use their skills to provide the most relevant interesting links?

So what are we doing next?

We've decided to do go back to basics and look again at the fundamentals of linking in news stories. When the BBC News website started in 1997 we placed background links to the side of the article instead of inline, for technical and user experience reasons. We haven't revisited that decision in any significant way until now.

In 2009, we're going to be refreshing how we markup our stories. We will discuss the details of this project in more detail here later. But this will give us a rare opportunity to improve the way we express links. We want to get that right. In the meantime, we're talking to Apture to explore whether it's possible to extend their product to deliver the functionality you liked and to answer your concerns.

There is plenty more about this trial that we could share and we'd really be interested to hear your thoughts and about what interests you the most. So leave a comment and we'll try to answer your questions.

Sample Stories


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