ESPN.com is planning a major site revamp, but first, it wants to get search right and will then build around some of its new functions. On Thursday, the Disney-owned sports news franchise will begin beta testing its ESPN (NYSE: DIS) Sports Search. The platform was about a year in the making. Those with an ESPN Insider account, which includes a magazine subscription and access to special online content, will be invited to begin testing the new search features on Thursday. ESPN wouldn't say how many "insiders" there areonly that they number in the "hundreds of thousands." A wider beta test will launch sometime in August. In a press briefing, Chris Jason, the site's technical producer, outlined the search functions by explaining they are aimed at five different buckets of readers:
-- Those who know what they want, but can't find it.
-- People who know what they want, but don't know where to look.
-- Fanatics, who want everything from ESPN.com's archives, which go back to 1999.
-- The time-killer, someone, probably on a lunch break, just looking for something to do
-- someone into non-major sports or off-beat topics. For example, National Spelling Bee competition, surprisingly or no, actually drives a lot of traffic on ESPN from non-regular readers. And while Jason claims "searches go through the roof, we don't have a particular home on the site for it." That makes it especially hard to find. So when someone does a search for "spelling bee" on the new system, they also get shown pockets to view other sports stories and features that may be off the beaten path.
The look of the search function is modeled on the ones used by e-commerce sites. On the right side of the screen, Jason added that the new features should double search pageviews, which he said is on the order of "hundreds of thousands" per day. As for tying advertising to the searches, John Kosner, ESPN's SVP/GM, said he remains cautious. For now, the company wants to see how users react to the offering. In the meantime, Kosner does believe that text ads on the search and findings do make sense and plans to continue using them.
By David Kaplan