Topix.com has rolled out a suite of new enhancements, including a Twitter feature that sends local news to users based on their location, the integration of Facebook’s social plugins on topic pages, and a doubling of the amount of news content for most of the 38,000 towns and cities the local news aggregator covers. Topix CEO Chris Tolle said the new features were designed to take advantage of the social engagement that Twitter and Facebook allow, as well as being the culmination of infrastructure changes the site has been working on for some time.
The Twitter localization is one of the more interesting improvements: instead of having to manually check or subscribe to topics or specific locations at the Topix site, users who want to be notified about news in their area can simply follow a special Twitter account called @Topix_local. If they’ve enabled location features on the social network, they will get messages whenever there’s a news item related to that spot. The Topix CEO said he got the idea from the International Space Station, which set up a similar feature to send tweets to Twitter users in specific areas when the ISS was flying overhead.
Topix has also added Facebook social plugins to its topic and location pages, but not for story or article pages, and the site doesn’t currently allow readers to log in with their Facebook profile information. Tolle said users who comment at the site seem to prefer to have “semi-anonymous” profiles that allow them to interact without having to use their real-world identities, and Topix didn’t want to disrupt that. Tolles also said he expects users will be more likely to want to “like” or broadcast their interest in a specific location as opposed to a specific story.
Topix gets about 125 million page views and 14 million unique visitors a month, Tolles said, but was looking for a way to connect better with readers. “The question is always: How do we get people to return and spend more time with us and our content? And we think social optimization is a big part of that,” he said. So what if Facebook decides to use geo-tagging and its new community pages feature to aggregate local news? “That’s certainly a possibility,” said Tolles. “But my feeling is they are more likely to want to integrate our content rather than compete with us. And if they want to use it and monetize it, and I get a cut of that, if the cut is big enough then maybe I don’t care.”
The site — which is backed by Knight Ridder, Tribune Co. and Gannett, three of the largest media chains in the U.S. — has also improved the way it tags and filters news by location, and as a result has doubled the number of news items available in the service to more than 50,000 a day. As a result, Tolles said, “If you go to a page that has news on a map, there will be a lot more articles there than before — we’ve looked at other sites that do local news, and we have more news than others who put them on a map like that.” Asked whether this was a reference to Outside.in, which also provides local aggregated news, Tolles said he didn’t want to single out any one competitor.
Local and “hyper-local” news has been drawing increased interest since AOL announced that it was going to invest $50 million in its Patch.com local news efforts. Unlike Outside.in and Topix, however, AOL plans to generate its local news content itself.