21 Product Guidelines Forged While Growing Metro.Co.Uk 400%

In this post, WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting client Metro.co.uk‘s Head of Development Dave Jensen shares further insights on how their popular site achieved an incredible growth since its migration and launch on WordPress.com VIP. Originally posted on his blog, he’s agreed to share it here on VIP News as well. 

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For the last two years I have been focused on the design, build and growth of Metro.co.uk utilising the WordPress.com VIP platform. Our approach consists of constant experimentation with both product and content which has returned a large set of data mixed with editorial feedback. This has been refined into a list of product guidelines to help us remain focused on growth. These are based on my experiences and our audience so yours may differ.

Good editorial content will deliver more growth than any product based approach

With a single well written/planned/timed story able to deliver millions of page views and course through the veins of social networks for weeks this should be the number one focus.

Good UX turns the dial more than any product hacks

The better the experience of product and content the more likely people are to visit your site, share your content and form habits around its consumption.

The closer to the main content area of the page the more related the content should be

Our data has shown that the closer to the article body or top of channel pages the better contextually related content perfoms. Once you are below these areas users are more open to a wider set of content to continue their journey.

Where content is placed on the page is almost as important as the content that is placed there

Our testing revealed content placement is almost as important as content selection (as long as it is relevant and recent). This is one of the reasons we have moved to an algorithmic approach for large areas of the site.

  • Nothing beats the value of an editorially selected contextual link within the article body
  • The area just after article delivers a lot of value as users have finished reading and can be easily tempted into something else
  • Sidebars aren’t shown on mobile and banner blindness often turns them off for desktop users so they are not an area we focus on

Fill dead space with content, people like to scroll it’s the natural behaviour of the web

Our newsfeed delivers over 10% of the page views of our site, this is pretty impressive considering it used to be blank space at the bottom of every article and channel page.

Don’t mess with the natural way that the web works

We tried and failed with this during our swipe phase. 5-7% of users delivered 20% of our page views but that didn’t increase their overall time on site. However it complicated everything we built hampering our ability to learn fast. It also didn’t quite fit into commercial or editorial strategies. This frustration/learning was what inspired the algorithm and scroll based newsfeed you now see.

Algorithms are great but need help from humans to perform at their best

Simple algorithms are a great way to optimise editorial workflows especially around content positioning. However these are only as good as the data behind them. Often you have to wait for this to be gathered before acting on it. Using editorial intuition is a great way to shortcut this process. Especially if you can make it run off existing priorities then process change isn’t required to participate.

Whatever Google/Facebook ask you to do, just do it

They deliver so much of your traffic don’t question, just do what they recommend.

Feed the beast

Google and Facebook are always hungry for quality content. Gaining momentum requires constant feeding. They both have overall scores for domain as well as article urls so focusing on keeping this high means a better chance to gain and then maintain momentum.

Think of every page as a funnel, you lose users as they scroll but the lower they get the more open to their next engagement they become

The higher up the page something is placed the more people will see it. However the lower down the page someone is the more open they are to being tempted by some more content, advertising or interactions (e.g. poll vote, comments)

A mobile first approach is a great way to approach product prioritisation

Most of our traffic comes from mobile rather than desktop so it is logical to prioritise. This has formed a major part of our growth strategy.

Goals need to be concise, measurable and focus on why

The more people understand the goal and are able to affect it the more powerful it is. A goal that contains a why will always beat a goal that just contains a what.

Product specific performance should be broken down to actions per daily active users for comparison

This gives a much better overview of actual performance. Allows you to take out traffic fluctuations, just make sure you have enough data.

A week seems to be the minimum amount of data required to see if a feature has worked

Due to fluctuations in traffic and browsing habits. Also good to look at monthly and quarterly trends over longer periods as quite often they exhibit patterns that aren’t found at lower levels. It was asking questions around unexpected trends/data that helped teach me most around product growth.

Distribute weekly reports to show trends and give your stakeholders an overview of how the product is performing

Have these scheduled to your team and stakeholders via email. Also very useful if you break something when fixing something else. Great safety net to minimise impact and spot any unexpected growth.

Any new feature needs to be taken in context of how it fits in the editorial work flow. The closer it is to the existing process the more likely it will be adopted.

The best way to change a habit is build off an existing trigger. New features that leverage existing habits will get much higher adoption than building new habits/process.

Consider the users current journey and their emotional state in all features

Segmenting users based on mindset is a great way to understand data. e.g. Social browsers are likely on a multi site journey in a chromed browser on a mobile device. So they are only looking for a single story from your site so optimise for that. No point in worrying about pages/visit focus on getting more return visits via a social follow.

When coming from social users are often looking to enhance their social status

Our top share buttons get clicked on 4 times more than our bottom share buttons. Social proof around number of others already shared also promotes more sharing.

When coming from search users are usually in a topic based mindset

More likely to click on related, in article links and masthead channel links. Continue to deliver great content around a niche to form habits. Particularly useful around passion centres e.g. Premier League clubs.

It’s better to have 100 amazing tag pages that look and feel like a destination than 10,000 that feel like they were made for Google

Quality trumps quantity every time, Google knows if you users are clicking through.

People click on headlines 4x more than they click images

This is why A/B testing headlines is a great idea. It is the single piece of the editorial process that can have the biggest impact on growth. We also have SEO and socially optimised headlines to ensure we cater to both needs.

These are the principles that I have applied to the product development of metro.co.uk over the past two years. The key takeaway is that constant experimentation is a great way to unlock growth if your environment supports it. The hard part is achieving that without adding too much complexity. Complexity inhibits your ability to learn and learning is central to any successful product growth strategy. Building a set of guidelines has enabled us to move faster and helped foster our continued growth.

One for the future.

Micro interactions help drive habitual use

We don’t have a lot of data on this yet but there seems to be a correlation between micro interactions such as poll votes and habitual use. My theory is that by engaging different parts of the brain you become more memorable. These simple actions form the basis of new habits around content consumption. I think this is a major opportunity for future growth.

Thank you to Dave and the Metro.co.uk team for sharing their tips with VIP News.

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New! WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting Statistics

At WordPress.com VIP, we love statistics.

We’d like to share some of the statistics associated with our WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting service, where we support thousands of publishers and serve billions of page views every month to their visitors through the WordPress.com infrastructure.

Take a look at our new VIP Stats page to see more about our how we provide world-class service and support to some of the world’s biggest WordPress sites and the numbers behind what we do:

WordPress.com VIP Statistics page

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Alberta Motor Association launches on WordPress.com VIP

Welcome to Alberta Motor Association (AMA), who recently launched on WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting! The AMA is a non-profit membership organization serving Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and is affiliated with the Canadian Automobile Association and AAA.

The Alberta Motor Association provides its members with roadside assistance service, a range of auto touring and leisure travel services, insurance services, and member discounts with partners.

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The AMA site is packed full of features, including the ability for potential members to get a quote for their life, home, or auto insurance needs directly online.

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The AMA also offers extensive travel planning as a benefit, and members can plan their next cruise, vacation, or even business trip using their customized travel planning tool.

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Visit the Alberta Motor Association site.

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Buyers Rejoice! Roadloans.com launches on WordPress.com VIP

Congrats and welcome to RoadLoans.com, who just launched on WordPress.com VIP Hosting. It’s a great example of a corporate site packed with information & tools for their customers!
Car Loans l Car Refinance l Roadloans.com

RoadLoans’ guides to buying, getting loans, and other helpful information when it comes to test driving, buying, and financing a car are also supplemented with their shopping tools which help consumers make decisions on-the-go about which car is right for them.
Shopping Tools

The RoadLoans team also regularly blogs to keep their users informed about the latest happenings around the automotive world, and some tips & tricks, too.
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Visit RoadLoans.com.

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Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Launches on WordPress.com VIP

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight, which launched today! FiveThirtyEight is devoted to rigorous analysis of politics, polling, public affairs, sports, science and culture, largely through statistical means.

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The site, which is led by Nate Silver, was formerly part of The New York Times and is now operated by ESPN, and joins ESPN’s Grantland on our WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting platform.

Nate announced the change back in July and his team has since been working hard on launching the new site and its verticals on the VIP platform.

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The team has expanded to address all the site’s verticals and Nate explains the aim of the site in his launch post, What the Fox Knows.

The breadth of our coverage will be much clearer at this new version of FiveThirtyEight, which is launching Monday under the auspices of ESPN. We’ve expanded our staff from two full-time journalists to 20 and counting. Few of them will focus on politics exclusively; instead, our coverage will span five major subject areas — politics, economics, science, life and sports.

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Here’s the FiveThirtyEight team counting down the launch of the new site:

In true FiveThirtyEight style, they even predict the probability of you reaching the new site during the launch (WordPress.com VIP’s note: only during DNS propagation…after which we predict 99.9999% uptime!)

On the development side, WordPress.com VIP Featured Partner 10up assisted in creating the new site:

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10 Growth Hacks That Helped Metro.Co.Uk Achieve 27 Million Monthly Visitors

In this post, WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting client Metro.co.uk‘s Head of Development Dave Jensen shares some insights on how their popular site achieved an incredible growth since its migration and launch on WordPress.com VIP. Originally posted on his blog, he’s agreed to share it here on VIP News as well. 

Metro-Monthly-Uniques

Metro Monthly Unique Visitors (Jan’12 – Feb’14)

Over the past 12 months Metro has been on an amazing growth curve. Some of it is being in the right place at the right time for algorithm changes but a lot of it was planning and then execution of a growth (hacking) strategy.

Hack 1: Responsive Design

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Monthly Unique Visitors from Mobile (Jan’12 – Feb’14)

We decided a responsive design would be the best way to capitalise on the explosive growth in mobile. A nine month redesign process culminated in Metro going responsive on 7th Dec ’12. We immediately saw growth from social referrals with Twitter’s almost doubling over night. The other benefit of responsive sites is that there is only one URL. As this is the key used to store ranking information in search and social algorithms you don’t want this split between multiple domains like m dot.

The key takeaway is that if you give people a great experience on all devices then they are much more likely to read, share and return to your content.

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Weekly Visits from Twitter (Oct’12 – Feb’13)

Hack 2: Focus all development efforts on growth

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WordPress.com Stats for Metro (Dec’12 – Feb’14)

We also migrated to the hosted platform as a service provided by Automattic on vip.wordpress.com. This enabled all of our costs and resources to be focused on growth as they didn’t have to worry about caching, servers or anything that didn’t improve experience for our readers or editorial users. The amazing thing about the platform is that it is a flat fee. This means that although our traffic has grown 350% year on year our costs have not changed. The depth of their out of the box features plus ecosystem of plugins ensured that we did’t have to worry about commodity features such as SEO, site maps and editorial workflows as someone else had built and open sourced an approach.

Hack 3: Open up content creation to anyone

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Metro Blogs Monthly Unique Users (Dec’12 – Feb’14)

The other great thing about the WordPress platform is that it enabled us to allow bloggers to contribute content directly into our core CMS. This started out as a feature for Metro employees but grew to encompass a much wider set of sources. Club Metro is now the most prominent and now contributes over 1M unique visitors a month. Having blogs content on the same domain placed amongst the rest of Metro’s content ensured we leveraged our existing algorithmic rankings. A single editorial workflow also helped keep the overheads low. The added bonus that most bloggers were already using WordPress and can write from anywhere helped us secure some top talent.

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Club Metro Article

Hack 4: Facebook page as a major marketing channel

173,000 Facebook Page likes Feb ’13 to 562,000 Facebook Page Likes Feb ’14

Social referrals were another large contributor to growth. We focused on growing our Facebook page “Likes” as a content marketing strategy and this was very successful. We had always been careful to only send a small amount of our best posts out a day on our Facebook page. This had a solid base of users and growing this was a key goal for the last year. We employed many strategies including competitions with like gates and boosting posts. Competitions were effective in bringing in users but there were a lot of repeat entries. Varying the prize helped to minimise this and our email based CRM platform really helped to drive entries. The most cost effective way we found was boosting posts as friends of people who already liked Metro were shown a great piece of our content. They were then much more likely to then go on to like the page. As they were similar to people who already liked Metro they were very receptive and continued to engage with our content.

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Metro Facebook Page

Hack 5: Made to share content

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Weekly Social Visits to Metro (Jan’13 – Feb’14)

Ensuring that not just the content put out on the Facebook page was made to share also really helped grow our social referrals. When the content is written they set a success measure of 100 shares on an article and then set performance targets on achieving that on 25% of our content. This has allowed some interesting conversations around the areas of the site where that was less prevalent. More than anything it is a very easy test for all of the content creators to know what they should focus on. If it won’t hit that bar then find something else. A key growth hack we developed was the ability to show different headlines for social and search so we didn’t impact our search traffic.

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SEO and Social Headlines on Made to Share Content

Hack 6: Made to share UX

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Share and follow functionality on Metro.co.uk after the Made to Share focus.

The other side of social was increasing the number of people sharing from the site. The development team had a made to share focus where we introduced much larger, clearer social buttons and reduced the number of clicks it took to share. This with the addition of a sticky sharing bar that floats on desktop has seen a large increase in the number of direct shares from our site. This seems to have also affected the amount of people copying and pasting links from the site from the subtle reinforcement due constantly present share cues. It would also seem that Facebook take direct site shares as a strong signal in their algorithm as we have continued to see growth from social.

Hack 7: If something feels wrong don’t give up on it

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Referral from Natural Search (Google Fixed, July ’12)

After the redesign only 20% of our stories indexed in Google News had our pictures next to them. We spent months experimenting on different options before we finally managed to ask Google the right question in July ’13 so they could fix it for us. It turned out that they were still using the Webmaster Tools account we had been using before the migration which pointed to our old domain that included www. Not only did this change help our referrals from Google News but it gave us a major kick in all search referrals. It would have been much easier to give up on this earlier but relentlessly focusing on this until we solved it really paid dividends.

Hack 8: Let technology automate repetition

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Metro Development Releases to Production (Nov’12 – Feb’14)

Automation of all of our development and test processes allowed us to release 4.5 times on average every day (apart from Fridays) for the past 12 months. This enabled short feedback cycles and decision making to happen at a much faster pace. We have five different environments that are used for testing before we push code live. This kept errors to a minimum and kept the feedback flowing. This environment of automated front end tests and frameworks was a major investment but has continued to pay dividends.

Hack 9: Ensure proximity of key people who are focusing on a goal

Single Goal: 700,000 Average Daily Mobile Visitors in September 2013

A single goal of growth allowed us to work together cross functionally and a focus on data and numbers ensured that feedback was alway digestible. Content, social and tech sitting together and working together enabled the good ideas to come to the top quicker and equally the bad ones get ignored. Equally focusing on data helped take emotion out of decision making which enabled data to win arguments. This sped up innovation and focus. In most cases we have done less but done what we have done better to achieve growth.

Hack 10: Get out of the way

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Voticle: Are you a true Brit?

Once people are working cross functionally together towards a goal then get out of the way and let them get on with it. In the past two months we have relaxed our process and now the content creators are working directly with the developers on new article formats to continue our growth. Out of this we have developed five new ways of displaying content from quizzes to lists and beyond.

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Quizicle: How much of a Londoner are you.

Conclusion

None of the above would have been possible without the adoption of a lean mindset and the approach of build, measure, learn, iterate. It has been an amazing 12 months of growth at Metro and an great feeling to be part of a team that came up with and then executed a plan which delivered these results.

It was a pleasure to work with the below as well as many others on this journey.

Thank you to Dave and the Metro.co.uk team for sharing their tips with VIP News.

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TIME.com Launches on WordPress.com VIP

TIME.com just launched a great responsive redesign of their homepage, and the site is now hosted on WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting! The popular homepage joins their numerous other TIME sites already running on the WordPress.com VIP infrastructure.

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Their new design also focuses on their growing mobile audience:

…the new site is designed especially for busy, mobile readers. In fact, our data suggest that nearly half of you are currently reading this on a smartphone or tablet. TIME invented the news brief; the original magazine included 100 stories, none longer than 400 words. Fittingly, the centerpiece of our new home page is The Brief, a fast take on the 12 stories you need to know about right now, as chosen by TIME’s editors. No matter where you enter our site, you’ll get a continuous story feed on every page that allows you to move around TIME.com for a quick take on what’s happening now.

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You can read more about TIME.com’s redesign in their launch post or visit TIME.com.

The WordPress.com VIP team was all on hand during our team meetup to oversee the exciting launch.

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Comprehensive Sitemap Plugin Enhancements

Some exciting development work from Michael Blouin, our VIP Intern Code Wrangler. Here’s what he’s been working on: 

A lot of upgrades have gone into Comprehensive Sitemap plugin recently, and here’s what’s new:

More Filters. We now have four new filters that provide a lot of similar functionality as is available on the regular WP.com sitemaps:

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  • `msm_sitemap_namespace` — Customize the namespace declaration for the sitemap during generation
  • `msm_sitemap_skip_post` — Allows a post to be skipped during sitemap generation
  • `msm_sitemap_entry` — Runs for each entry during generation. Allows you to customize every SimpleXMLElement before it is outputted.
  • `msm_sitemap_query_args` — Allows you to customize the WP_Query that is used to fetch the posts to be inserted in the sitemap.

No Sitemaps for Non-Public Blogs. Sitemaps are no longer generated or available on non-public blogs. The cron job itself is killed so it doesn’t suck up any resources and a nice 404 is given when the sitemap is requested. In the administration panel, the main sitemaps options and stats are no longer available when the sitemap is private (see screenshot):

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msmsitemap_changes2Admin Page Name Changed and Code Restructured. There is only one admin page and it lives in Tools->Sitemap. The code for the admin page has been greatly restructured and is now 314% better*.

The admin page now lives in msm_sitemap.php instead of the cron builder, where it didn’t really fit in with the rest of the functions on the block. In addition to fixing a number of translation problems we’ve also made it so that the action buttons and status text are customizable via actions and filters.

The admin page now has the following new filter and action:

  • `msm_sitemap_actions` — Allows actions to be registered for the admin page. This is how the `Generate Sitemaps` buttons and others are generated.
  • `msm_sitemap_action-$action` — This action (not a filter) is called when a pre-registered action is performed by a user. When you register an action via `msm_sitemap_actions` you provide a `$action` slug, which is used to generate the action name to be performed. If your action needs to print out a status message to the user it can use the new `Metro_Sitemap::show_action_message()` helper function.

Additional Stats Tracking. We now track the number of sitemaps that have been generated and the number of URLs indexed in each sitemap. This info is informative and helpful, and we may be able to present it in a pretty infographic in the future.

If you already have Comprehensive Sitemaps running on your blog you will have to regenerate your sitemaps for these new stats to update.

*approximate improvement, results may vary.

Thanks Michael! 

ESPN’s Grantland launches on WordPress.com VIP

Welcome to ESPN’s Grantland, a popular sports & pop-culture blog started by veteran writer and sports journalist Bill Simmons — it now has a home on WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting!

10up partnered with ESPN to develop the new site and worked with our team to transition its content to WordPress.com. 10up is one of our Featured Partners.

Grantland features stories from a long list of contributors, several podcasts and video content, as well as the Grantland Quarterly, a printed companion to the site.

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Visit Grantland.

USA Today Launches Multiple Sports Sites on WordPress.com VIP

USA Today has launched several sports-focused sites on WordPress.com VIP Cloud Hosting. Welcome to the VIP family! We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.

For the Win is about tracking sports news before it goes viral and the sharing stats for each article are prominent and an important part of the site.

For The Win | What fans are talking about.

The Big Lead covers sports but also touches on everything from politics to pop culture.

The Big Lead | Sports News and Media

MMA Junkie is a site focused on mixed martial arts news, rumors, live blogs, and more.

MMAjunkie | UFC and MMA news, rumors, live blogs and videos

The Q is at the center of its NFL coverage on Sundays, Monday nights and Thursday nights as an optimal second-screen companion for fans following NFL games, filtering out everything but the best real-time analysis through editor-vetted curation and exclusive, original content.

NFL | Q

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