Air Crash Tests News Sites

Following the nation’s latest airline disaster, Web surfers again turned to the Internet in droves, with top news sites struggling to keep pace.

As during the Sept. 11 attacks, major Web sites like MSNBC.com and CNN.com that were covering Monday’s air crash in Queens, New York, were flooded with page requests. As before, that explosion in traffic caused the sites to load slowly or, occasionally, not at all — prompting 503 “Server too busy” errors.

“This morning … volume to [CNN.com] quadrupled,” said a spokesperson for webHancer, a company that monitors and tracks sites’ traffic. “It was close to five times [above the norm]. After about an hour, they got their stuff together.”

At press time, CNN.com had resumed operations using a stripped-down page, focusing on the crash in New York. The only large graphical elements on the page were the CNN.com logo and an Associated Press photo of the crash.

A spokesman for MSNBC said on Monday that the site was faring better than it had during Sept. 11., when it received about 12 million to 13 million users — roughly 400 percent higher traffic than usual.

He added that the site had seen a surge of traffic on Monday morning, but had experienced no major serving failures, although he said MSNBC.com again had stripped some of the graphics out to handle the increased demand.

Indeed, after rejecting some page requests with 503 errors around 10 a.m. Eastern time, MSNBC.com appeared to be loading nearly as quickly as usual by noon, though the site also appeared to be running no third-party advertising.

In any event, the situation appears to be a marked improvement from the morning of Sept. 11, when news sites were overwhelmed by the surge in traffic they had experienced for many hours. It took until afternoon, in some cases, for sites to function reliably, after publishers had stripped out ads and large graphics, and allocated new bandwidth capacity to the news pages by hosting them on affiliated sites.

For instance, MSNBC.com — which is jointly run by Microsoft and NBC — hosted content on sister sites like MSN and sports site ESPN.MSN.Go.com.

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