How news events impact web traffic

This short post shows how news events impact website traffic on radionz.co.nz, and how we handle it technically.

On 18 August Guyon Espiner interviewed the Prime Minister about the claims in the book Dirty Politics. Within 10 minutes of the interview airing and being posted on the site traffic jumped to nearly twice normal levels, and stayed up for 12 hours. The interview was the most listened to audio on our site with around 18,000 listens.

On 26 August we saw a huge peak as our story about Manchester United signing Di Maria was linked from a UK news aggregator. This sometimes happens with our international coverage because our news cycle is 12 hours different from the UK.

Judith Collins resigned on 30 August and while there was a slight increase in traffic on the day, the interviews the following week were a big driver of visits.

On 15 September Morning Report interview the PM about the GCSB, which was followed by Glen Greenwald. He was interviewed again by Kathryn Ryan. These three interviews were the most listened to that day, and the next.

Against these peak events we’ve seen an overall increase in baseline visits to the site. This is partly to our excellent election section where the news team has put a lot of work into the coverage, and also to our election interview collection. The biggest stories have been our running Fact Or Fiction feature and the Poll of Polls where Colin James analyses the most recent Polls. The leader video profiles have also been popular.

There was a big peak on Tuesday 16 September as people came to view the live stream of examination of the Colossal Squid at Te Papa.

And then there are the regular visits to audio and other news coverage right across the whole site.

The Technical Side

Some of these fast-moving events can cause sudden and large increases in traffic, and that presents some technical challenges.

Firstly, the news team have to be able to update the story quickly and often while the site is under high load. We have a publishing system that allows our newsroom editing system to update our CMS directly with the press of one key. No messing about with HTML and image placement and a single story can be updated in under 5 seconds. The news subs can also update up to 100 stories (if they needed to) in under 30 seconds.

As an aside, we can typically publish audio interviews within 5 minutes of broadcast.

The traffic peaks are handled using a front-end cache, although this is setup to still allow frequent updates. We use Varnish which is reputed to be able to easily handle 10,000 requests a second, although we’ve never gotten to that number.

The content management system – our own bespoke design, built with the Ruby on Rails framework – has been optimised to have quick page load times, even over dial up and slow mobile connections.

All of these makes it a breeze (IMHO) to deliver news and audio content quickly to an increasingly demanding audience.

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