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How Mail Online took over the world

Daily Mail front page
Fleet Street values or showbiz? Whatever the case, the website is a world-beater

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

The Daily Mail's website has became the world's most popular online newspaper. Industry insiders look at how it's been achieved.

It has been a turbulent time for the UK's newspaper industry.

After years of declining circulation figures and falling advertising revenues came the bombshell of phone hacking and the subsequent inquiry into press ethics.

But amid the recriminations and the soul searching there has been a gathering success story for the industry which has received less mainstream coverage.

Earlier this year, the Daily Mail's website became the world's most popular online newspaper , according to the web analytics firm comScore.

The latest data suggests Mail Online has beaten the New York Times for the third month running.

In February, it had 47.4 million unique visitors to its site, nearly three million more than the American broadsheet (albeit being beaten to first place for the month by USA Today which had a seasonal spike in traffic from users getting live Superbowl updates).

Bikini girls

The Daily Mail's website launched in its current form three years ago bringing readers a diet of hard news and politics, human interest and celebrity, bizarre animal snaps and girls in bikinis on beaches.

So how has it stormed to worldwide domination in that time?

"The Mail took a decision early on that it was going to be drawn in the direction the audience wanted to go," says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York.

Stuart Miles
Pocket-lint's Stuart Miles points to the Mail's 'clickability'

The website's success is in part down to a decision to break with the editorial priorities of its print counterpart, she claims.

"The Mail really changed online from being a relatively socially conservative paper of the middle market in the UK... to essentially a showbiz-driven US site," she says.

Those at the paper argue they are simply doing what makes commercial sense, in what is described as a "synthesis of good old Fleet Street values".

They point to the scale and range of content - from hard news to celebrity - which creates an "addictive" offering reflective of what tabloid papers have been doing for years.

Clickable stories

An average Mail Online front page can contain around 260 stories. It uses large pictures (often 636 pixels or more in width), and story headlines are long - often 20 words.

It's about making stories more "clickable" so that readers hang around and continue to surf through content, according to Stuart Miles who runs the technology website Pocket-lint .

But such a content heavy approach also has more technical advantages, he explains.

"The way that Google works is that it has a spider, a robot, that comes to your site and tries to find out useful information and then indexes that," he says.

Times paywall
The Times and Sunday Times sites are now behind a paywall

"There's lots of stories here... So if you're a robot and you've come to this page you think 'wow, I've got loads to read' and that helps index faster."

But so-called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is nothing new, and all news websites play the same game.

The real reason for Mail Online's success, say those behind it, is that it has taken lessons from the ultra-competitive world of the UK newspaper business and applied them to the online world.

They talk of a growing appetite for British journalism abroad thanks to the heritage of Fleet Street where "you didn't last very long by being boring".

The web traffic figures suggest its bold and busy coverage has given Mail Online global popular appeal; combining the news credibility of its print counterpart with plenty of quirky content and celebrity - the stuff that works so well in the fast-turnaround, content-sharing world of online.

As such, it's been able to own a big space in the market between more highbrow competitors in the form of broadsheet newspaper sites and the more gossipy rivals like TMZ or Perez Hilton.

In fact, the site says 60% of all visitors come directly to the homepage, as opposed to arriving via search engines or shared stories.

'Ruthlessly' big

The Mail's growth comes at a critical moment of decision for newspapers about how to make money online.

Some competitors have already begun to put up "paywalls" - with Rupert Murdoch-owned The Times now leading the way in creating paid-for content.

But Mail Online's strategy is "ruthlessly" to become the biggest while remaining free to use, according to Emily Bell.

"They decided - and this was a very smart move on their part - that you don't know how much growth there is yet in the internet market so keep going after it, and then the dollars or pounds will follow," she says.

The move has yet to pay off - the site won't be profitable until at least next year, according to its parent company.

But its online advertising revenues are up sharply and the site has been recruiting more reporters.

Mail Online has a daily staff of around 70 journalists, including 20 in New York working on news stories and 10 in LA working to the showbiz agenda.

The Mail might be sweeping aside its traditional UK newspaper competitors, but by being big and remaining free to use it has its focus on what those at the paper see as the "lethal" competition - the big American web news providers like AOL, MSN, and Google.


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