ELLIOTT KEENE

Website Analysis: The Guardian vs The Sun

Posted on: December 28, 2010

The competitiveness of the online news industry depends on capturing the reader’s interests with the immediacy of reporting and the accessibility to multi-media elements that extend a story beyond the confines of text. Rapid technological advancements, in particular the impact of web 2.0, have allowed the internet to foreground breaking news and become the primary source of interactive debate. The need for online news to contend with national print newspapers means that institutions such as The Guardian and The Sun are required to present online content using ‘user-friendly’ navigation to meet the demands of the audience.

Flanders (2002) states ‘a usable website is one that gives the visitor exactly what they’re looking for as soon as possible’ – which outlines the importance of testing technical stability and the various features that are required from a successful news website in present times – such as User Generated Content, Multi-Media integration and effective Search Engine Optimisation – all of which will be assessed in this analysis of both guardian.co.uk and thesun.co.uk.

Providing free access to an archive of over three million stories, The Guardian’s website became the most popular UK newspaper site in January 2010, with 37 million unique users each month. Known for its liberal values, The Guardian takes an open stance in delivering news and in widening content to external applications – using ‘Open Platform’ to allow access for developers working outside the site. By demonstrating awareness in new media, through the release of podcast series and their own dating website ‘Soulmates’, the paper experiments with innovative technologies and extends its online presence to a large variety of audiences on multiple platforms.

The basic usability of guardian.co.uk can be examined as soon as the reader accesses the home page, with a simplistic white background to emphasise the central images and bold headlines. A colour coded menu heads the page to indicate the range of categories that are regarded as the most popular parts to read – such as Sport, Environment, Business and Culture. Alongside, a comprehensive search facility is available, which also allows for searches within specific categories. This orientation assistance provides easy navigation – which is an essential part of a news website as Neilson (2009) points out, consistency works as the ‘more the user’s expectations are proved right, the more they will feel in control of the system.’ The Guardian does this well, and the colour themed headings create a unique and recognisable website design. These elements generate a coherence that is not only aesthetically pleasing but accessibly consistent to avoid confusion amongst users – something that is vital in a large website that contains a rich amount of material through many available passages.

The Sun website is largely composed of images, with the main focal point being a scrolling picture box with the top headlines laid over each image. In comparison to The Guardian, a left side navigation panel displays a list of key categories in a less simplistic design, which involves an excessive amount of options instead of using sectioned themes. This draws the user’s attention down the home page, which leaves little white space and produces a chaotic feel due to lots of images, highly saturated colours and large attention-grabbing headlines. Jakob Neilson (2000) critiques such designs by stating that websites ‘must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design’ in ways of ‘terminology’ and ‘informational architecture’ to focus on functionality not visual interest.

However, thesun.co.uk represents the expectations of tabloid news and its readership, packed with colloquialism and sensationalised content, which is predominantly shown through the images – reproducing the same tabloid conventions found in the print paper. Despite the eye-catching and perhaps disorderly layout, the navigation works well – using the head-mast logo as an active link to redirect users back to the home page at any time. Usability is simplified through the use of search features that scan the site, similarly to The Guardian, and displayed results can be refined by publication date and various categories. The option to view the ‘Most read, Most discussed and Just Published’ content is a useful way of involving the reader and encouraging them to connect with the behaviours and interests of others – creating a sense of unity within the site.

The Sun website does not visibly feature a help section, unlike the Guardian site where users are able to receive assistance for features such as audio and video, as well as help on text resizing, subscriptions and an FAQ. Furthermore, the Guardian’s A-Z function supplies ease of navigation through the site map, providing an organized alphabetical index of the website content. Neilson’s (1997) report supports these resourceful and efficient usability features, claiming that ‘simple and inexpensive usability methods are crucial if we are to avoid a usability meltdown on the web.’

Related story links are vitally important in keeping users active on a news website by encouraging the reader to access another article on the same site. Both thesun.co.uk and guardian.co.uk suggest associated stories to the user, giving multiple options to further explore a particular subject if they wanted to engage in similar content. Both also provide discussion boards to promote reader involvement in User Generated Content (USG). Each news story is followed by a comment section for readers to remark on the debate, which further generates discussion in and between anonymous users, enhancing the power of the reader through interactivity and allowing them to ‘have their say’ (as The Sun says on the ‘My Sun’ section) as a way of personalising the user experience.

The Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ section combines opinion pieces taken from the newspaper with talk-boards of over 600 writer’s contributions. This idea of UGC challenges professional media sites whose business models have relied on being a one-way, authoritative gatekeeper of information and content – by instead permitting readers to share opinions in one place as active rather than passive consumers. However, one issue that I identified in this area was the requirement on both websites for users to sign in or register in order to leave a comment. This may significantly limit the comments posted to solely regular users, so perhaps this demonstrates an ‘unfriendly’ user interface by denying complete accessibility to all, whilst the streams of responses on both sites only reflect the views of a specific group.

In other areas of interactivity, both websites have visible links to their RSS feeds throughout, increasing message distribution power. The importance of social networking in news reporting is evidently understood by both websites, yet the Guardian provides much more graphic and noticeable ‘share’ and ‘tweet’ buttons for Facebook.com and Twitter.com, which are clearly placed at the top of each page. The Sun, on the other hand, fails to integrate networking platforms to such a high level, as a less recognisable symbol without explanatory text sits below each title, which once selected does not include a Twitter button. Not allowing users to share content with others via Twitter – the micro-blogging service with an estimated 190 million members – is a huge disadvantage to many online readers and their usability as well as for The Sun’s chances for online viral circulation.

Both thesun.co.uk and guardian.co.uk enhance content using multimedia such as video clips and image galleries, to attract users and provide visual aid in a way that print media would be unable to. Not only does the multimedia contrast with the written text and divide it with complimentary image or video, it grants another way for the sites to drive web traffic directly to their content, using tagging to attract outside users who may be searching for related material. The Sun website predominantly features many image slideshows as a means of providing a multimedia narrative to engage users. However, the Guardian site involves a vast amount of rich interactive content – such as timelines that require users to click through various processes, and graphs that compile charts with related images to allow for greater depth and visual satisfaction.

Other impressive uses of visual media and technology on the Guardian website include a colour co-ordinated ‘Zeitgeist’ table to display current ‘hot topics’ – available from the home page, and continuous hyperlinks to corresponding Twitter, Facebook and Youtube pages. For example, when reading an article under the music section of the site, users would be encouraged to join a Twitter list of music journalists to follow, or relevant external sites linking to a band’s YouTube account. One crucial problem that was encountered during testing research on guardian.co.uk was the response time limit. As Neilson (1993) states: ‘Even if a faster model computer is substituted, the user interface should stay usable.’

The slow load usability faults highlight what may be the fundamental disadvantage to such wide availability and wealth of content. Neilson (1993) continues to point out that ‘In cases where the computer cannot provide fairly immediate response, continuous feedback should be provided to the user in form of a percent-done indicator [Myers 1985]’ to reassure users that the system has not crashed, for example – which the Guardian site does not do, thus users could struggle to benefit from the multimedia content supplied.

Utilizing internet marketing through Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is something that both websites successfully achieve, although results of attraction and visibility (demonstrated in figures from seoguardian.com) rank thesun.co.uk 49th in Great Britain and 6th in the news category, whilst guardian.co.uk is ranked 3rd in Great Britain and 1st amongst news. The Guardian’s superior position as a more visible contender in SEO may be a result of the large archive of news that is metatagged and appropriately signposted with keywords under categories and links, perhaps more effectively than that of the Sun – so consequently creating greater accessibility in this field.

As multi-award winning websites, the Sun and the Guardian represent successful online news corporations that demonstrate user-friendly navigation and how multimedia can be efficiently used by engaging users on numerous levels. Overall, the customer empowering environment of the internet is embraced in different ways – yet fundamentally the Guardian’s substantial amount of interactive content, targeted use of social media and simplistic navigation allows for stronger usability. Regarded as one of the world’s leading online newspapers, the Guardian exemplifies innovative methods in viral marketing, by reflecting today’s understanding of the web through the importance of networking on sites such as Twitter and showing unmatched SEO results. It must be noted that the two websites replicate publications aimed at opposing demographic social groups, and therefore approaches on how to reach those desired audiences differ. Nonetheless, both websites have demonstrated faults that suggest usability could be improved for higher consumer satisfaction and reliability.

References

Flanders, V. (2002) Son Of Web Pages That Suck. USA: Sybex.

Neilson, J. (1993) Usability Engineering. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann.

Pearrow, M. (2000) Website Usability Handbook. USA: Charles River Media Inc.

Seo Guardian – Search Engine Positioning. Available at: www.uk.seoguardian.com

The Guardian. Available at: www.theguardian.co.uk

The Sun. Available at: www.thesun.co.uk

Useit – Jakob Neilson’s Website. Available at: www.useit.com

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