Recently I stumbled through an article talking about the qualities that make a story likely to be selected for TechMeme. They cited the usual aspirational qualities: Timeliness, Unique Insight, Quality Composition, Clear Headlines. These were always the attributes I sought out while curating content. But I thought I’d write today about the other half of the equation: what makes a BAD page. This is the stuff that sticks in my gut and would just infuriate me. And let me be clear: there is far more of the bad stuff than the good stuff!
First, let me talk about length. I don’t mind if content is short. And I don’t mind if content is long. If you’ve got something to say in 150 words or 1,500 words, you say it. But there’s a perverse incentive to inflate page views to drive up revenue, and the most common way to do this is to slice your page up into Page 1 and Page 2. And hey, if 2 pages is good, 3 is obviously better! And at that point, why not just break the page up into 25 slices. That means a 25x increase in ads!
The irony is that the sites that do this are typically so bloated with ads that they take 5-10 seconds to download and render a page… and when you finally DO get the page, there are so many blinking ads that the actual block of content requires you to scroll down just to get that first paragraph on the screen. You are punishing your users in your own greed. Clearly your content sucks.
The worst offenders in this category are the hardware review sites, and they exacerbate the problem with a little thing known as charts. A picture is worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t always mean it’s worth a thousand bytes. Frequently you will find a hardware review site which half of the vertical pixels are charts, and only one in 5 is actually useful. Just because you CAN make a chart doesn’t mean you should. Chart, Sentence, Chart, Sentence… Page Break. It makes me want to gouge out my eyes. At least those charts are over compressed JPG files. Or images just lifted from a product press kit! Useful!
Now if writing that one sentence per chart sounds like to much work, you can omit it entirely, but still retain the infuriating 10+ page loads with the slideshow! Chain together 5-10 images mostly stolen from other websites, submit it to as many social news sites as possible! 10 Cats Wearing Bowtimes! 9 Phones That Will Destroy the iPhone! 12 Moderately Attractive Girls Dressed Like Some Fictitious Character! An utter waste of time, and since you have to actually click through each ad-laden page it takes 3-4 minutes
Then there is the infographic. Now, I agree that in theory a nice pie chart or something can clarify a complex subject. But ya know what else can? A sentence. So many times you click through on a link only to discover a chart that could more easily be a sentence (X is twice as big as Y!). You just ate 30 seconds and 2 megs of data transfer to show me this?
Titles? This is a harder problem: do you write the simple, bland title (Todd Gives Speech) or drill down on the flamboyant quote (Todd Makes Statement Against Community Conventional Wisdom) or go for some clever alliteration? (Todd Terrifies Tribe) or back up, and assign the statement of an individual to a corporation (Corporation666 Wants Your Baby’s Blood). The best title is clear, concise, and clever: It encourages the click because the information on the other side of the link is valuable. The worst title is a lie: it encourages a click through deceit… the link on the other side will not give value to the user. The problem is that if you put up a bland headline, nobody will bother read it. So this is an honest place where you have to balance. But the worst sites start with the bad headline and go from there.
But by far the worst offense is to strip your source… this has a few extremes. One is understandable, and one is just evil. It’s totally understandable in this world of social networks that a link might travel through a dozen hands before it lands in your eyeballs. A dude on facebook shared a tweet of a blog entry about a G+ post. It’s simply not practical (or expected) for you to re-broadcast every step of the chain.
But sometimes people write extensive pieces based on a single source, and then casually omit that source. Back in the day there was one web site that submitted stories to Slashdot almost every day (name omitted b/c they don’t deserve the credit). They would regularly poach articles. They would take pictures, and they would rewrite large blocks of text, saving only key quotes from a third party. And then they would publish that, submitting it back out to the social networks. Of course, from my position, it would occasionally happen that both their source and their derivative would arrive at the same time… and you could see the obvious evil of their actions.
When you are in a position to replicate a chunk of content to your friends, you probably don’t care much about the motivations of the source. But when your decision might result in a substantial traffic spike to what essentially is an intellectual thief, you start thinking twice and thrice. You are forced to start valuing the significance of a piece of information against the quality and intent of the source. And as soon as you start thinking you are somehow uniquely qualified to make that sort of judgement, you’ll find that you are just as likely to fail at the internet as they were.