Thursday, 11 September 2008

The importance of dating: stories, articles, posts

It's been a big bugbear of mine for ages that too many articles, news stories or blog posts that you see online, e.g. found through search results on Google or other search engines, don't bear a date.

Therefore, you can't tell from the article or news story itself whether it's current or not.

Which is very unhelpful, and annoying for the reader: in many cases it's actually quite important for the reader or surfer to know how up to date an item is, especially if they reached that article direct from a search engine rather than through the site's archive-by-date pages or the like.

It's really not that hard for news or media sites to date an item before posting it, whether by including the date in the body of the item e.g. at the start or end of the item, or through a date stamp or date field (as long as it's permanently associated with the item in question and can't be detached or removed e.g. when the item is moved to an archive). Dating can even be automated, as in blog posts.

So, why on earth don't more publishers add the date of original publication on their articles and posts as standard?

The importance of clearly dating all items posted to the Web was highlighted very starkly by the recent incident (see e.g. the FT report) where United Airlines' share price fell by over 75% on Monday 8 September 2008. All because an old Chicago Tribune story from 2002 archived on its associated corporation South Florida Sun-Sentinel's website, about the 2002 bankruptcy of UAL Corp, was crawled by the Google News bot after some page views had caused a link to it to appear in the site's "Popular Stories: Business" section, then found on Google News in a search and reported as a brand new event by Income Securities Advisors Inc. in a newsletter, whose story appeared as news on the Bloomberg terminals used by most stock market traders and other financial professionals - as a result of which the price of United Airlines stock fell like a stone (see Google's account of what happened, with screenshots).

The stock price did later recover, and the original 2002 story no longer seems to be on the Sun-Sentinel website.

But, the bankruptcy story had been undated. So, people really shouldn't simply blame Google, search engines, bots or software. The moral of the story, in my view, is that the original website should have included a proper date in the body of the news story in the first place, inseparable from the story itself.

In my view the issue is exactly same with date references in articles, stories and posts, e.g. when they say that "last week" or "yesterday" something happened, a future reader can't easily pin down the date of the occurrence reported unless the article itself bears a reliable date, or even if the article has a date they still have to work it out, so it's inconvenient and irritating for the reader. A reference to "yesterday" really isn't at all helpful to someone who's reading the article or post some months or even years down the line.

That's why in this blog you'll often see me write "last week, X August 2008" (or whatever), or include other information that enables people to figure out dates or at least the timing or version referred to (e.g. my previous post on Microsoft, IE8 and Google talks about Internet Explorer 8 beta 2 so that anyone reading it in future will know I wasn't referring to beta 1 or the final version of IE8).

Hopefully the United Airlines incident has at least got more people and corporations to realise that as writers, authors or publishers they should always, always, always as best practice include the date of original publication and state other date references clearly in every article or post they publish electronically, whether online for general public consumption or electronically for use by a limited number of subscribers only (even in the latter case, a story can get out and be taken as having the wrong date).

Stating the dates of updates or edits would be helpful too, although that's probably less important and is certainly more time consuming or troublesome to implement. But including inseparable original publication dates has got to be a no-brainer - especially after the United Airlines debacle.

1 comment:

Richard X. Thripp said...

I thought this was going to be about real dating! Ha ha.

Anyway, I do agree how important dates are. For any news site or blog, the URL for each entry should have the date in it.

On the other hand, if the site contains timeless content rather than passing news, I recommend against putting the date in the URL or displaying it prominently. It dates the article. Some people recommend hiding the date for an impression of recentness, but that's unnecessary. Just put it at the top or bottom in gray.