“Mile-deep” Olympics gives websites a lift

MIKE BUTCHER, in the Guardian, analyses website traffic trends in August, when coverage of the Beijing Olympics saw a different sort of record broken

Big events create opportunities for big headlines – and that’s been reflected in August’s ABCe figures, which received a welcome boost from the Beijing Olympics. Certainly, the Games seemed tailor-made for the interactive and live nature of the web. Team GB’s amazing performance – and almost certainly the dire UK weather – managed to lift the normally quiet summer month online as people stayed indoors, obsessively refreshing pages to see who’d won the next race.

That obsession most obviously helped the Guardian, which took advantage of the Beijing effect. That meant that remained the UK’s biggest online newspaper for August, attracting 23.11 million global unique users last month, a 46% increase from August 2007 and up 12% on July this year. The Guardian added 2.5 million unique users last month and still has the largest number of UK-based online readers: 8.77 million or 38% of its total audience. also had a good month, with 22.05 million global unique users – a 125% year-on-year increase – of which 6.29 million were UK-based. The site put its lift down to the Olympics and the war in Georgia, but the start of the football season also probably helped, increasing interest in its popular online Fantasy Football game.

In fact, all the quality newspaper sites did well out of their strength in sport, with Times Online moving from fourth to third place with 19.6 million unique users in August – an increase of 3.2 million on July, and a rise of 92.3% year on year.

We got a taste of the sporty trend with July’s ABCe figures, which showed that, Times Online and Sun Online all had a month of record-breaking traffic thanks to the sports-heavy summer schedule of Wimbledon, the Tour de France and England Test cricket.

So do we infer that a damp but sports-filled summer will translate into record figures going forward? Or was the summer Olympics a blip?

Perhaps the Olympic spike can be seen as demonstrating growing acceptance that online is now the place to read breaking news, especially on subjects that are highly focused, such as the Olympics. In the internet industry this is known as the “inch wide, mile deep” effect, where the sheer mass of online content about a single subject beats anything broadcast or print media can deliver. Events such as the Olympics demonstrate the strengths of websites, which can gradually convert users to visiting them more.

In addition to the Olympic spike, however, online audiences are also just getting bigger. In August the Office for National Statistics reported that 65% of UK households now have internet access, up from 61% in 2007. Some 1.26m homes have signed up for internet service in the past year, taking the total to 16.46m.

Broadband penetration was up slightly over the last year to 56% of households, from 51% in 2007, while 86% of all homes with internet used broadband. Almost 57% of broadband connections had a speed greater than 2 Mbps – an increase from 52.3% since March this year. Historically, increasing broadband speeds has led to greater consumption of the web.

Windsor Holden, principal analyst with Juniper Research, thinks the Olympics represents a “definite, temporal spike in news site usage”. Much the same thing has happened during other major sporting or news events such as the World Cup or 7/7 London bombings.

“But it’s also true that online usage per se is increasing,” he says, “so that while daily usage levels will fall back somewhat, the next major news event will see those spike levels exceeded. It will only be a matter of time before those levels experienced during the Olympics become the norm.”

* Mike Butcher is editor of and is a former editor of New Media Age

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