inessential by Brent Simmons

The Pummeling Pages

I made the mistake of going to a website today. It’s understandable, of course — everybody does it, from time to time — and I’m sure I’ll forgive myself, eventually.

I don’t mean just any website, of course, I mean a publication. A place where a business publishes interesting things that I like to read.

I couldn’t hit the Reader button in Safari fast enough. In fact, I couldn’t hit it at all, so stunned was I by the flickering colorful circus the page presented. It was like angry fruit salad on meth.

I was there because I just wanted to read something. Words. Black text on a white background, more-or-less. And what I saw — at a professional publication, a site with the purpose of giving people something good to read — was just about the farthest thing from readable.

The site has good writing. But the pages do everything possible to convince people not to try. “Don’t bother,” the pages say. “It’s hopeless. Oh — and good luck not having a seizure!”

They’re filled with ads and social-media sharing buttons — and more ads. And Google plus-onesies and Facebook likeys. And also more ads. Plus tweet-this-es. Plus ads. (And, under-the-hood, a whole cruise-ship-full of analytics. The page required well-more than 100 http calls.)

I know. You’re shocked, right? Shocked that advertising is happening on these premises.

Obviously I’m not the first person to notice this. I’ve been reading RSS feeds since the late ’90s in part because I can use RSS to avoid the junk. And wonderful things like Instapaper, Readability, and Safari’s Reader button exist to deal with this problem.

Is this going to get worse?

I think it was in the Space Merchants (or maybe in The Merchants’ War) where this future was predicted: lower-class people would be subjected to a ton of advertising — accompanying every moment awake and asleep — while upper-class people would be insulated.

It seems obvious now, but in the ’50s I don’t think it was. And now we’d add that it’s not a class thing entirely — technical proficiency is part of the equation. If you’re technical enough to figure out how to install AdBlock (the most popular Safari extension, it appears), you’ll cut way down on ads. If you go even further and edit your hosts file and make your browser use an ad-blocking CSS file, you’ll cut down even further (and you’ll opt-out of a bunch of tracking too).

If enough people do this, publications will have to show more ads, just to make up for the ad revenue they’re missing from me and you.

I worry that this is already be happening.

Lesson from TapLynx

I worked on TapLynx for about two years, and this meant working closely with a variety of publishers. And most had these things in common:

  1. No money.

  2. No idea where the money’s going to come from.

  3. An unswerving faith in the supreme value of analytics.

  4. A willingness to try anything as long as it’s cheap or free and has analytics. Unless they’re paranoid and afraid for their jobs, which they almost always are, given #1 and #2.

Now, my entire career has been based on the simple problem that I personally can’t get enough good things to read. It almost broke my heart to learn what mad rapids the publications are plying — because I need good things to read, and I’m selfish. (I read a ton of bloggers. But some good writing comes from publications, too. And of course there is overlap between the categories.)

Lesson from The Loop

I don’t know how long I’ve been reading the RSS feed for The Loop. It always used to bug me, because the feed included ads and it lacked full-text and The Loop was so full of junk, even pop-up junk, that I didn’t like to go there, even though it had good and interesting articles.

Then Jim and Peter redesigned it, and now they have a very clean, easy-to-read website. I don’t mind at all that the RSS feed still lacks full text, because now I’m happy when I go to the actual website. (Note: you can get a full-text feed via an inexpensive membership.)

And now The Loop is number three on Technorati’s list of Top Rising Blogs of 2011. And it’s one of my personal favorites, and I recommend it to you. (But I bet you’re reading it already.)

Are they making more money? I hope so, because they’ve earned it, but also because I suggest it as a model for other publications. (It should be said that Daring Fireball has always been easy-to-read and presumably makes money too.)

Could this work for larger publications?

If slightly-larger publications adopted the same model, could it work? If actually going to the website went from painful to pleasant, would they get more traffic? Would that increase in traffic justify the humane presentation?

I’d like to think so. If you’re appealing to readers, remember that you’re appealing to people who like reading black-and-white words on a page, more-or-less.

Because for now it’s insane. Presenting good articles in the hope of attracting readers, and then making the site do everything it can to shoo away those readers, is plumb nuts.