Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, whose third series has just finished its run on the BBC (second series now showing again on BBC2 and the iPlayer), isn’t just enormously entertaining – it’s also enormously important. Like Lenny Bruce reading from Flat Earth News, Brooker and an impressive supporting cast – notably Adam Curtis, Tim Key and Doug Stanhope – skewer both the content and the presentation of television news, and seldom fail to explain just why things have come to this.
One of Newswipe’s key themes has been the broadcasters’ need for a news narrative, and how this narrative leads to the exclusion of stories that, while of great public interest, just don’t fit – with such exclusion leading in turn to distortion of reality.
Of course, it’s not just mainstream broadcast news that suffers from the need for a narrative.
A couple of weeks back, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on midnight chimes sounding at the Googleplex. According to the report, web measurement firm Compete had published data showing that Facebook had overtaken Google to become the top source for traffic to major portals such as Yahoo and MSN, and was fast catching up as a referrer to other types of sites.
This trend has been evident for some time, but the Compete data prompted a number of high-profile bloggers to proclaim a coming “Facebook decade”, in which search engines would give way to social networks as the main route for people to discover content.
Maybe this is true. But what really strikes me is the way in which this trend is reported without noting the continued disparity in the volumes of search and social referrals. In August last year, for example, ad network Chitika published data that showed that search was still way ahead of social sites in the total volumes of referrals. Really, not-even-close ahead – by not one, but several orders of magnitude.
Yes, Chitika’s report appeared six months ago. Granted, the network’s 60,000 or so sites might contain some inherent bias. And of course, it’s not all Google – internal site search plays a significant role in these statistics.
But it’s notable that a Google search for “Chitika” + “referral traffic” returns just a couple of hundred results – many from Chitika itself and none from the big name bloggers trumpeting the latest Facebook data.
Search isn’t diminishing in importance; overall volumes of search continue to grow steeply, even in the most mature digital markets. What’s more, Google has never been a dominant referrer of traffic to the kind of portals and video sites described in the Chronicle report – perhaps best evidenced by the fact that advertising only appeared on Google News this time last year.
Search is all about fulfilling users’ specific intent, not supplementing their browsing habits. But you wouldn’t know this from the bloggers’ coverage of the social referral statistics – because, I suspect, it doesn’t fit their narrative.