Guardian News & Media has built its own version of Google Analytics in a bid to provide journalists and other employees with a more intuitive data analytics experience.

The media organisation, which owns The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, said its Ophan platform has been developed to ensure that its employees can get useful insights into how well their stories are doing.

The Guardian's website has recently had a redesign ©Guardian
The Guardian's website has recently had a redesign ©Guardian

Google Analytics is the data analytics platform of choice for many media organisations looking to monitor traffic to their digital publications. However, the platform has been criticised by some, particularly journalists, for being too complex.

Graham Tackley, director of architecture at Guardian News & Media, told Techworld that he built the first origins of Ophan at a Guardian hack day three years ago.

Most of the hacks developed on the day were turned off after the hackathon, but the Guardian’s digital audience editor, Chris Moran, requested that Ophan remained live.

“Suddenly I went from being blind to really being able to see,” said Moran. “We could launch an article and immediately see referral traffic pouring in, or not. It started to teach us about the internet, particularly in response to journalism.”

An insight into how readers were landing on stories during a day in January ©Guardian

Moran's team of four, who are tasked with supporting and promoting approximately 500 pieces of content that get published on the Guardian website each day, rely heavily on the platform's insights. However, it's also used by journalists who want to monitor the traffic on their own stories.

“We’re really targeting people who are not used to using data," said Moran. "I’m an ignoramus when it comes to it. I look at Omniture and it kills me. Right from the start we wanted to make it speak to people.”

Jemima Kiss, head of technology at The Guardian, said Ophan is the first place she turns to in the morning to see what readers have been interested in.

"Previous analytics tools have been notoriously complex, the true impact of a story buried in too much data," she told Techworld via email, adding that the platform's accessible format makes it a "joy to use".

"At the same time, it's important to emphasise that data informs only half of the judgements by which we respond to news or commission stories - the balance we have to strike every day is between popular and important subjects, which aren't always the same thing.

"We've found that building bespoke tools in house is complex but brings immeasurable benefits of insight and efficiency."

Meanwhile, the Guardian's head of sport, Ian Prior, said: "Ophan is a constant desktop presence in all our desk editors' routines; the dashboard format places a premium on ease of use and requires little or no effort on an editor's part to take frequent snapshots of performance either across the site or on individual articles.

"Tracking traffic on individual pieces of content impacts greatly on curation in that it allows us to target a popular article as a gateway to other content. It's also invaluable in telling us where our users are and on what devices our content is being accessed. To use an up-to-date example, a very high volume of mobile traffic from the sub-continent to cricket World Cup content has probably led directly to an increase in the volume of our coverage from the tournament."

Prior to Ophan, Moran said editors would stand up in the morning conference and make “massively weird” assumptions as to why certain stories got traffic and why others didn't.

In addition to page views, Ophan also tells Guardian journalists things like where in the world their readers are coming from, how long readers are spending on the page, whether readers are clicking through onto other Guardian stories and what time of day the story was being read the most.

The platform, which is coded in Scala and now hosted on Amazon Web Services (after being moved from Tackley's desktop), is proving popular among Guardian staff, with 850 active users in the last month alone (just over half of the organisation's employees). 

Tackley admitted there’s not a lot that Ophan can tell journalists that Google Analytics can’t but the fact it’s been designed to look like the Guardian website makes it a more natural platform for employees to use.

“The way we’re presenting it and the way we’re talking about it makes sense to our newsroom,” said Tackley.

Moran said he believes the Financial Times is the only other national newspaper in the UK with its own custom-built data analytics platform. Techworld has contacted journalists at other UK broadsheets but they are yet to respond.

Guardian Media Group said it has no plans to make Ophan available to other media organisations.

“There’s a lot of reality going on in this space,” said Tackley. “The newer players like Chartbeat would be very hard to compete against. It’s so plugged into our API as well.”