Editorial Off the Charts

On Jan. 28, as the protests in Egypt escalated, Mohamed Nanabhay—who runs Al Jazeera’s English Web site—noticed traffic was exploding using a real-time analytics tool called chartbeat.

By the end of that day, Nanabhay had asked chartbeat to increase the maximum amount of traffic the tool can track three different times. And due, in part, to the tool, he’d also upped coverage of the protests—and decided to send two journalists to Egypt.

Such is the power of chartbeat, a product designed to help Web publishers view, in real time, how many users are visiting their Web sites, where they’re coming from and what they’re doing. Editors, in other words, can now make decisions based on what readers are actually reading.

“Without chartbeat, we would have no idea what was happening on our site,” said Nanabhay. “We wouldn’t have known the world was coming to us for this story.”

Launched in April 2009 by social media innovator John Borthwick (bit.ly, TweetDeck), chartbeat now claims 3,000 publishers paying at least $9.99 a month, including big names such as The New York Times, Fox News, Le Monde and Der Spiegel. (Adweek-Media is also a customer.) Editors at Time.com have chartbeat tables up on their computer screens all day. Gawker posts chartbeat numbers prominently in its offices for all to see.

According to chartbeat gm Tony Haile, the mission is to revolutionize Web publishing. “The purpose of traditional analytics is to understand user behavior over time,” said Haile. But with chartbeat’s real-time data, analytics become a tool for “response, not reporting,” he said. “It’s less about the question, ‘How did we do it?’ but rather ‘What should we do?’”

Recently the company has begun alpha testing newsbeat, a version of chartbeat for news sites that allows them to track the performance of specific sections and even reporters.

That could prove valuable to sites that pay writers based on traffic. “If publishers can integrate these tools in ways that are directly related to how they are compensated, I think it can be revolutionary for some publishers,” said Gawker CTO Thomas Plunkett.

For other sites, chartbeat is more of a directional tool. According to Kevin Delaney, managing editor of WSJ.com, chartbeat helps editors quickly load up popular stories with related links and videos to keep readers around longer.

And Brian Kroski, chief digital officer at the relationship-oriented YourTango, said chartbeat can also recognize site design flaws, such as when pages load too slowly.

Yet many cautioned against going overboard with the tool. “Readers pay us for our editorial judgment,” said Delaney.

“Certain parts of our site live and die by it,” added Jim Frederick, managing editor of Time.com. “But we’re going to cover Egypt and Washington no matter how popular those stories are.”

Currently, chartbeat is purely an editorial product, though Haile didn’t rule out an advertiser-focused tool in the future.

He might be greeted by some data-weary media buyers. David Cohen, evp, U.S. director of digital communications at media agency Universal McCann, said, “The fear is that we add a new measurement source into the mix, and now we have yet another disparate data point.”