SES NY: The Approach To Web News

    February 28, 2006

I met briefly with Chris Tolles from this afternoon. We had talked a bit back in December at the Chicago SES. At that point, Topix was on the verge of a couple of fairly substantial changes so I figured I’d swing by their booth and see how things were working out.

The first and most obvious change at Topix was a substantial redesign. I hesitate to say that their original design was ugly, but… now having hesitated appropriately, I’ll say it; their old site was ugly. The new design is a marked improvement to put it mildly. As Chris put it, “we felt like we had a top quality news site, we just needed to look like one”. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all, but I doubt he’s getting too many emails from folks complaining that they miss the old design.

Beyond look and feel, they have made a couple other changes worth mentioning. Formerly Topix displayed the news as the news came up; big news, little news – didn’t matter. Whatever was newest hit the top of the list as it came out. Of course that gets the job done, but it’s not the most elegant arrangement. Ideally, you would want to qualify the news to some extent so you wouldn’t have huge stories driven off the page by just whatever happened to follow.

Now Topix keeps ‘more relevant’ stories on the top of the page longer. I asked Chris if this was controlled by human editors or an algo and he indicated that it was algo based. They are able to adjust the dial and control the chronology/relevance mix and different sections of the site are set to have more or less of an emphasis on displaying headlines by their algo’s relevance score.

Of course, some people, (myself included) sometimes prefer to see things in chronological order or at least have the option to do so. After all you can only read so many articles about the Danish cartoon debacle, for example, before you’ve kinda been there and done that. Topix still allows you to sort chronologically in subsections, just not the main page. I guess if I had a critique that would be it. I’d like to have the option for the main page as well.

The last major Topix development since our last meeting was easily the coolest as far as I’m concerned. They launched a really slick forum system. It’s not a forum as you may be used to per se insofar as it covers a huge number of subjects. The trick is; you can see, view and comment on posts by geographic region. they have a little graphical representation of the US in the top right corner of their page with little dots all over it. The dots are color/size coded and based on activity. You can click the dots and see what kind of news people are buzzing about in that given region.

You can also search the forum based on zip code and go directly to the forum section for that specific region. It’s pretty slick. We did a search on my hometown zip code (40356) and were able to check out the posts/comments on country music singers.

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Mike is a manager at iEntry. He has been with iEntry since 2000.