Why do news sites depend on annoying customers for money?
May 14, 2012 | 4:15 pm
Why is it that so many methods of driving traffic and, hence, ad views to news web sites have the side effect of annoying readers?
On SF Weekly, Dan Mitchell talks about a recent statement by the president of the Washington Post that awards don’t matter, and he wants more slide shows. Slide shows are a cheap way of driving up the number of page views on your website, as they basically make the reader click through ten, twenty, however many slides there are, pages at a time, with a new ad displayed on each page.
As Alexis Madrigal points out in The Atlantic, smarter publishers have learned that counting unique visitors is a much better metric of success than is the lunkheaded, simpleminded counting of pageviews. But the president of the Washington Post, Steve Hills, apparently loves pageviews anyway. So do many others. Madrigal includes a hilarious graphic showing how reader annoyance (measured in "milliblodgets") increases with every slide. Milliblodgets is a reference to Henry Blodget, the disgraced Wall Street analyst whose irredeemably shallow, reliably stupid website, Business Insider, is perhaps the most awful professionally produced publication ever to appear on the web. It is loaded with slideshows.
Mitchell also mentions the practice of forced-sharing apps on Facebook, in which news sites such as the Washington Post or Yahoo have an app that automatically shares any story you read on your newsfeed—and makes your Facebook friends have to install the app themselves if they want to read one of those shared articles.
And then there’s the practice of not offering full-text RSS feeds, to force people who read your RSS to come to your site if they want to read the whole article. It really annoys me when sites do that. (Yes, I know we did that. It wasn’t my decision.) It’s not so much that I don’t want to click through—I often do, though since I use Reeder with its Readability function, the site doesn’t get an ad view out of me anyway. The really annoying thing about it is that I’m frequently reading pre-downloaded RSS feeds when I’m not able to go online, so I can’t click through to read the whole thing at that point. This doesn’t exactly give me kind feelings toward the site in question.
And, of course, at root ads themselves are one of the most annoying things on the web. Fortunately, I mostly don’t have to put up with them since I run an ad-blocker on my computers—and thousands of other people feel the same way, judging from how popular ad-blockers or Readability-style reformatters or downloaders are.
So why do websites depend on annoying their readers to earn their revenue? In the end, it’s probably because they can’t think of any better way. But as the dead-tree versions of newspapers and magazines continue to dwindle, and Internet distribution makes up a proportionately larger and larger slice of their revenue, sooner or later they’re going to have to figure out some better way if they want to stay afloat. There are plenty of apps, like Readability or ad-blockers, that exist to cut out those sites’ annoyance factor—and hence their revenue. Publishers of those sites can complain about it all they want, but as long as they annoy their readers, their readers will find ways around it.