The Pernicious Myth That Slideshows Drive 'Traffic'

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Readers aren't stupid. They know when your product is cheap.

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For a time, people measured site 'traffic' by the number of page views on that site. So, any time someone opened a page on that publication, it counted as one. Shortly thereafter, people started juicing the pageview stats by throwing up a bunch of pictures and asking people to click through them. It was a lot easier to generate 20 pageviews with 20 photos than it was to bring 20 people to the site by other means.

Of course, the fact that these pageviews are not all worth the same is obvious to everyone: readers, writers, editors, advertisers, advertising agencies, etc. So, many forward-looking media companies like Gawker went away from pageview metrics back in early 2010. The company's head Nick Denton wanted to focus on unique visitors to his site. Many of us have followed suit.

And yet still, today, nearly halfway through 2012, we find this story on The Atlantic Wire. The president of the Washington Post, Steve Hills, told his team that "awards 'don't matter' [and] urged more traffic-driving slideshows."

Now, I've got nothing against slideshows. At their best, I see them as a kind of horizontal storytelling. They are a tool you can deploy to tell certain stories. In fact, as storytelling widgets, I think they're actually underexploited. You can embed them as a sidebar to convey some complicated set of ideas without interrupting the main flow of a narrative. And I've got nothing against a well-curated set of images a la our own In Focus or BuzzFeed's random weirdness.

But that's not what the WaPo's slideshows are all about. Instead, they are seen as a cheap and fast way to produce "traffic." The problem is that they are not producing "traffic" -- which in any other context would mean the number of people in a space -- they are producing page views. This is not a simply academic distinction. The company's president is calling on his workers to juke the stats, effectively. These companies want you to think that more pageviews equal a larger, more engaged audience, but that's a quantitatively and qualitatively shaky proposition.

Quantitatively, sites vary widely in their page views to visitor ratios, and I can tell you from experience that it is much, much easier to drive up the former than the latter. So, when companies are in trouble, what do you think they try to do?

If you're trying to juice page views, your staff will ineluctably be forced to make galleries. Where else can they get a 10x or 20x multiplier on their work? I can guarantee you that will not help you break the kinds of stories or do the kinds of analysis that will keep people coming back. Not only that, but it's demoralizing to your best people, the ones who want to be out there producing their best work.

Worse, readers may click through your slideshow, but they'll hate you a liiitttle bit more than they did when they got to the site. And I bet they'll feel the same way about whatever advertiser was unlucky enough to get stuck on the page with some stupid thing that a reporter did with a little bit of hate in his heart and fingertips.

That won't be visible to you in your analytics, but what reader of the Internet has not felt that pang: "This site doesn't really value me or my time." You can get a page view spike that's actually a negative for your brand. And the more the slideshow spreads because of a clever headline or just because the topic is hot, the farther that brand damage spreads. Congratulations! You juiced the stats with an invisible poison!

I'm sympathetic to the business concerns of the media industry. I really am. But this myth that slideshows are the path to salvation has got to be put into a rocket and sent hurtling into the sun. People know when your product is cheap; there is no "trick" of the web. The sad truth is that to win on the Internet you have to do good reporting and analysis, write great headlines, empower individual staffers to embed themselves in communities that can serve up scoops and distribute finished stories, and understand the social ecosystems that bring visitors to your site.

P.S. I've had some good friends point out that publications need ad inventory and that page views are the ad inventory. I get that. But I don't think this is a sustainable long-term strategy. It's just clear that a slideshow page view is a different thing from other page views. And besides: there are other ways to drive real traffic! Focus on that and the page views will come.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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