RealTime IT News

Watching Katrina's Wrath and Aftermath

The world watched Katrina's devastation with horror and awe -- and it found a 24-hour view online.

The video clips and digital images available from the various search engines pointed out differences in how the search engines handle multimedia -- and in how well they do.

Katrina sparked a huge rush to online news sites, and put one on the map. Internet audience measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings said that ABCNews Digital and MSNBC both saw triple-digit jumps in audience, while Advance.net became the fastest-growing site between Aug. 22 and Aug. 29, thanks to Nola.com, the Web site of New Orleans' Times Picayune newspaper. Advance.net creates and manages the online presence for magazines and newspapers owned by Advance Publications.

Words couldn't describe the wreckage, not like the wealth of photos and videos documenting Katrina's passage.

While content sites AOL and Yahoo created special boxes on their front pages linking to news stories, photos and video, that content wasn't searchable through their image search functions. Instead, site visitors were led to consume packaged features and stories. AOL said it had no information about response to its site.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said that Yahoo News had experienced record-breaking traffic for the week, with Monday, the day Katrina hit, the most-trafficked day in its history. On both Monday and Tuesday, Yahoo News served more than 110 million photo views.

Image search services, which are for the most part created by regular Web crawling, lagged.

As of 1:10 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Google Image Search returned "about 36" results for the keywords "hurricane" and "Katrina." Yahoo Image Search returned 606 results. (AOL Picture Search is powered by Google.)

Ask Jeeves delivered 151 images of the hurricane and its effects, as well as a few of a prize cow named Katuna Hurricane whose owner is Katrina Copping. The results mirrored those of Picsearch, an image search engine that provides Ask's image search results.

Katrina showed the increasing importance of user-generated media. By far the most searchable images were available on Flickr, Yahoo's personal photo posting and sharing service. Both those who upload photos and those who view them can add tags, or keywords, enabling others to find them via search.

A quick Flickr search on Monday showed only a few photos, many of which had likely, in a sort of Flickr-spam, been tagged with the newsworthy phrase in an attempt to get attention. By Thursday morning, inappropriate photos had been replaced by a total of 874 photos of the hurricane uploaded by users.

Flickr recently implemented a couple of new techniques to increase relevance of its image search. First, it added clustered results, so that someone searching for turkey would get groups relating to the country and the food.

Second, it began ranking results by "interestingness," a ranking algorithm based on user behavior that takes into account, among other things, how many users add the photo to their favorites and whether strangers have commented.

It was in video search that differences between the search services showed most clearly. Video search engines have very different ways of indexing, as Suranga Chandratillake, co-founder of Blinkx, pointed out. Blinkx.tv search uses speech recognition to index the entire contents of video clips, which it garners from news partners and Web crawls.

On a Blinkx search, he said, the most popular files have been traditional media content. "All our big news sources, such as the BBC, Reuters and Fox News, have had the biggest number of click-throughs," he said. "People want to see the official footage."

The service returned 50 results for the hurricane Katrina search.

Google Video Search, which is still in beta, uses a mix of partner-provided news clips and user-uploaded files, with metadata provided by the content owner. It returned "about 15" results for a search on hurricane and Katrina, most of them video that had been uploaded by users. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

AOL video search returned 262 results, most of them from professional news organizations like CNN, the BBC and Reuters.

Yahoo Video Search returned 246 results, weighted heavily toward U.S. television news stations, with a hefty proportion coming from a January partnership with TVEyes.com.