Friday, 25 July 2008

Online popularity culture is killing good journalism

Sites with 'most popular' box

Times Online
New York Times
The Sun
Sites without 'most popular' box


Don't quote me on the above information but it was correct when i looked
Pretty much every news site has a 'most read articles' and a 'most emailed articles' box somewhere on every page - indeed i wrote a post about a plugin that did just that a few months ago.

Journalists writing online are increasingly paid or incentivised based on how many hits they get. I was at a conference held by one of the UK's top online publishers just two weeks ago where i was told that all the journalists are incentivised on clicks to their articles as well as general site traffic.

Now this isn't surprising. Most online publishers make money from advertising. The more hits you get the more of an attractive proposition you are for advertisers. And if you are charging on a cost per impression basis then hits are your mainstay - or Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in buzzword business-speak.

The problem with this, as stated in a Lee Siegel interview i was reading in New Scientist this morning (subscription only), is that:
"Popular culture is becoming popularity culture, where quality no longer matters. News, for example, is becoming a popularity contest as never before."
By trying to ensure all your contributors are aiming for popularity through high hits and high email referral there is a real danger that news may start concentrating on quick wins. The subjects that get the most people's attention, that can be read quickly, and that provoke an instant reaction start to take over from often longer articles, that are well researched and present a deeper opinion but may take longer to digest.

The problem with this from a purely SEO point of view is that it is no coincidence that these high hit 'popular' articles are known as quick wins. Yes they get the traffic on the day of publication and may result in higher unique users as more non-regular visitors come to your site attracted by the bait, but that doesn't necessarily mean they attract many links that last - and this is how you get long term sustainable traffic.

Good articles that last are often just as relevant two years after publication as they were when they were written. These can continue picking up links from external sites long after the popular story about a high profile celebrity is forgotten about.

I DO think that journalists need to be incentivised on different metrics as writing for the web is a different matter to writing for offline publications BUT part of this strategy needs to take into account your long term link building strategy and the importance of building up a number of resource articles in your web archive.

One way out of this fall into popularity contests is the 'top rated article' box that some sites (such as the register) have started to employ but i still don't think this is the perfect solution as some of the best articles and those that get the most links are the ones that polarise opinion. It's clear that publishing still hasn't quite grasped the potential of the internet.

Related posts
BBC increase most read stories to top 10
Manipulate the BBC's most emailed stories

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