The Telegraph steps up its quest for online domination

It has been in the works for six months but, to the team behind the new look introduced to parts of the Telegraph’s website, is not so much a final relaunch as ‘day zero’of an ongoing evolution.

The redesign was run in-house, as one of the first major projects for Telegraph Labs, the internal research and development unit set up earlier this year.

‘It’s quite a long, iterative process,’says Aashish Chandarana, who moved from BBC Sport earlier this year to run the unit under chief information officer Paul Cheesbrough. ‘And it will continue. We’re not going to say ‘that’s it, the job on the redesign is done now and we’ll go on to something else’ – this has got to carry on moving. That’s the key thing in product development: don’t stop and don’t stand still.’

Chandarana adds: ‘What you don’t do is finish the process, get on with some other work and then look up two years later and say ‘right, is it about time we do it all again now?’ That’s not the way to do it. User behaviour is constantly changing, the market is constantly changing – we need to be proactive, not reactive, in that situation.”

Observing user behaviour was at the heart of the various processes channelled through the Labs’ new glass-enclosed corner office on the floor above the Telegraph hub-and-spoke newsroom.

‘We’ve had the development team come through here, the design process come through here, the usability process came through here. Pretty much everything that’s been going on has become part of the lab,’says Chandarana.

A panel of users – both current Telegraph readers and others who might become readers – followed the process throughout. The focus group began with the existing Telegraph.co.uk to identify its strengths and weaknesses. Designs were drafted and then subjected to the same process.

The Labs’ approach of bringing together staff from disparate departments also played an important role in the redesign process.

‘This isn’t just a group of guys who say ‘that looks pretty, that’s what we’re going to deliver,’says Chandarana.

‘It’s about finding the right balance between what all the stakeholders want from within the company – be that the different areas within editorial, the commercial elements based on the different types of deal we have with advertisers – and how we can turn that into the best user experience, because ultimately we’re doing this for our users rather than ourselves.”

The move comes as the race for web supremacy between three of the national newspaper websites has become ever tighter.

With 18.5 million unique users, Telegraph.co.uk was the second-largest UK national newspaper website in May, just behind Mail Online with 18.7 million users and ahead of Guardian.co.uk on 18.3 million unique users. All three sites have had redesigns in recent months.

While the Mail ran its old and new sites in parallel in a public beta-testing period, the Telegraph is adopting a gradual roll-out more like the The Guardian’s. One model it was not going to attempt was a one-off ‘big bang’relaunch. When Times Online ran into teething difficulties with its new site in February 2007, it took six months for its traffic to recover.

‘We weren’t really looking for a seismic change because what we have found with web design projects is that it’s a fine balance between improving the experience but not losing your users who have got used to the previous design,’said Telegraph digital editor Ed Roussel.

The main aim of the redesign, Roussel says, was to increase users’ depth of engagement with the site.

Telegraph.co.uk currently publishes around 300,000 news stories online each year, but UK users currently access an average of 16 pages a month. The aim is to increase that figure within the next year.

‘About half of our traffic comes through aggregators like Google and what we have done is create a design that not only lets you read the article that you have come to see but also a slew of articles directly related to your search,’says Roussel.

Telegraph.co.uk’s redesigned article pages will include links to related stories automatically retrieved from the site’s archive using software from enterprise search firm Autonomy.

The automatic cross-referencing is backed by a new tagging system which allows journalists to manually add additional keywords to link together related editorial content and help target advertising.

Together, these tools will also allow the Telegraph to automatically generate search-engine-friendly ‘hub pages’and RSS feeds that pool content around particular granular topics – a feature that The Guardian and the BBC have also added recently.

For the journalists running the new site, learning to classify stories consistently and think about them from the perspective of search engine users is an important new skill.

‘We’re training subs to be more consumer-focused because that’s really critical,’says Roussel.

‘It’s about understanding that if you’re subbing a technology story about a Dell laptop, using ‘Dell’ as a keyword is as important – if not more so – as using ‘technology’, because when people are looking for a story about that Dell laptop, they will type in ‘Dell laptop’ and not ‘technology’.”

Telegraph publishers have been stressing the importance of having fresh stories available at the two times of the day when most readers log on – between 8am and 10am and again between noon and 2pm.

The Telegraph has introduced new early-morning shifts for news, business and sport beginning at 6am, to ensure the site features every story that has appeared in the other national newspapers.

‘That’s the sort of market you’re in,’Roussel says. ‘It’s not enough to be afflicted by the ‘not invented here’ syndrome which still infects a lot of news organisations.”

June ABCe figures will be online from noon on Thursday www.pressgazette.co.uk/abce

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