Splitting up articles to increase page views

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Jason Kottke notes the now-near universal practice of splitting newspaper & magazine articles online into multiple pages:

“…it’s some sort of “best practice” that we readers let them get away with so they can boost pageviews and advertising revenue at the expense of user experience, but The New Yorker was the last bastion of good behavior on this issue and I loved them for it. This is a perfect example of an architecture of control in design and uninnovation.”

It does ring true: I almost routinely now click on ‘print-friendly version’ when reading articles online, regardless of whether I’m going to be printing them, just so that I get an uninterrupted page without having to wait for a new set of ads and peripheral clutter to load at multiple interruption points while reading the article. It also makes it a lot easier to save a copy (single file) rather than having to save multiple pages. Surely the advantage of reading online is that the page layout need not follow print media’s restrictions; so long as the article is mostly text it will be quick to download a long page.

Nevertheless, I can see that psychologically, an article which looks shorter may be glanced at by a casual reader – who may then become interested enough to continue – whereas one which looks longer may be ignored completely. This may be an additional explanation to the ‘increase page views therefore advertising revenue’ intention. I don’t know.

23 Comments

  1. Readers aren’t all enlightened. It could be that in order to appeal to large audiences one necessarily has to comfort them with their familiar magazine experience.

    If there’s one thing worse than ‘design by committee’, it’s ‘design by user’.

    This is ‘worse’ in the perspective of the proficient and enlightened user seeking ergonomics above familiarity – and damn the learning curve, or ‘shock of the new’.

    How to change things?

    Obtain 100% of your funding from the most interested section of your audience. That consequently biases focus on tailoring the user experience toward that preferred by the proficient user.

    Advertising revenue obtains funding from a fraction of a mass audience. That biases tailoring things to maximising the audience size. Not quite the same thing…

  2. Dan

    That’s an interesting point on the funding bias.

    I suppose the ‘Web 2.0’ argument might be that ‘design by user’ is now much easier and need not affect the expeiences of other readers: if I can choose to view the content of an article through many different syndication methods, I can see it how I’d like, and other readers can see it how they’d like. That also allows the advertising to be targeted more specifically to the demographic using each method.

  3. Yup. We’ve already got a long way in exploiting CSS to enable people to present/view a site any which way they fancy, though there’s pretty much zero style/layout standardisation, e.g. I can’t go to any Blog and select ‘Usenet/fixed pitch format’ or ‘Broadsheet newspaper’ or ‘Magazine format’ styles.

    Every site still seems to want to become a portal.

    Perhaps we’ll start to see a bit more polarisation into producers and selectors? Alternatively, people will separate out those aspects on their site?
    A) Here’s what I’m interested in and have selected as notable.
    B) Here’s what I’ve produced and am producing.
    C) Here’s more on me as a microcelebrity among my own tiny audience.

  4. I wonder why we don’t see more abstracts for articles like we see in academia. I’d love to see the longer feature articles start with decent summaries, say 2-300 words. This would let me answer my question “Read now, bookmark, or move on?”. And then, give me a little page-break and just dump the full text down below.

  5. Crosbie Fitch: “If there’s one thing worse than ‘design by committee’, it’s ‘design by user’.”

    Surprising myself, I fully agree with this statement. In my new explorations of the blogosphere, I align naturally with the voices calling to focus on the user. My own business experience, though, is that asking your target market what they want, whether via focus groups or any other such means, can range from useless to totally misleading. The thing is that people *do* know what they want (witnessed by the fact that if you give it to them they’ll vote by acting). The caveat to that is that they can’t tell you …they’ll know it when they see it… and even if they could conceive it consciously in advance, most wouldn’t have the vocab/lingo to convey it.

    Studying actual behavior is far more useful. If one wants to elicit real user information directly, then the best questions are one that seek to define negatives. If they’re too vague, as in ‘What annoys you?’ their value will be equally vague. A more specific focus is ‘What stops you?’. These thoughts are leading me towards a theory of development based on taking down barriers.

    I love this blog because it makes me think, Dan.

    Vera

  6. I recently came across a terrible forum. A search dropped me in to a comment in the middle of the discussion. The only apparent way to navigate was backward or forward one comment at a time. No, wait, I was occasionally able to reach a partial index of comments. No dates. I had no idea when this discussion had taken place. It was difficlut to find the start of the whole thing. Blah.

    I don’t mind split pages when there is a single or printer-friendly link near at hand. I like Mark’s idea above — I’m afraid my attention span has shrunk over time with reading so much on the Net and I want a little more information about if I should invest the time now, later, or never to read the rest. (My “to-read” tag in del.icio.us keeps growing, and growing…)

    Then there is the question of full or partial feeds. Partial feeds seem kind of petty and force me in to a visitation decision before I’m ready. People seem to be quite paranoid about scraper sites and “theft” of content. I know I’d find it annoying if that happened regularly, but can’t see it mattering all that much. Who reads splogs and sites that just regurgitate other sites content anyway?

    (So am I guilty of this kind of gimmick on my blog when the front page usually has the first 500-1000 words and then a “more” link? I’m trying for a consistent presentation for people who may scroll down to browse what’s available. Widely variable posts might hinder casual scanning. But maybe it’s just another annoyance.)

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  8. epc

    I find the practice extremely annoying and frequently look for the print version (makes it easier to blow up the type size as well). But how is splitting up articles into multiple pages different from typical newspapers or magazines (which may run a given article across multiple pages across whatever ads have been sold that issue, with little consistency)?

  9. I may not understand your question, EPC, but I think the annoyance is that on the web we shouldn’t be bound by limitations of the physical world, as Dan mentioned in the post. Newspapers and magazines split things up because they have to. (Well, that and they probably want to distribute some pieces among more advertising, but the size of the page is a big limiting factor.)

    This idea of replicating unnecessary “meat-space” conventions is a big problem with a lot of DRM schemes. I like this quote from Clay Shirky about it:

    You can see this attempt to make digital music behave like objects in digital rights management schemes like SDMI. The recording industry is desperate to bring all the inconvenience of the physical world into cyberspace, and then ask music lovers to pay the same for music on- and offline, because it’s costing them so much to make things so inconvenient.

    (Maybe said elsewhere also, but I found it in this slashdot interview: http://interviews.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=01/03/13/1420210&mode=thread)

  10. epc

    I guess my point was that, while it’s true that there are physical reasons and limitations for splitting stories up in newspapers and magazines, frequently it’s done so to create additional revenue generating pages.

    Online, the physical limitations are removed, but the need to have N ad impressions remains.

    I wonder how much, if at all, this pagination trend is driven by limitations imposed by the various ad networks (Google, for example, will only display three ads per page and will prohibit displaying ads from competitive keyword-based ad networks).

  11. M

    So, I build content management systems. Recently built one for a *very* large American newspaper. Top 5 in terms of traffic. And the deal is pretty simple:

    Newspapers are going out of business. It’s a slow death. Craigslist, eBay, Match and Monster ate their classifieds. Google’s search advertising + AdSense bidding system is eating local advertising. Newspapers are stuck with rapidly dwindling revenue, *and* the high cost of actually collecting and reporting on the news.

    So, why the split pages? Because while banner ads on static content isn’t a great business, it is really the only online revenue stream that newspapers have made work. Problem is, they can’t put enough ads on the page. A typical print daily is 75% advertising by volume, every day. A typical web page is around 20% advertising, tops. Only way to boost the number of ads show for a particular story to an acceptable number is to split the story over more pages. Thus, stories split over multiple pages. And yes, it works. We also install sophisticated traffic reporting software for our customers. And it’s pretty easy to see that while most people don’t click on the second or third page of a story, enough do to make it more profitable than displaying all that content on one page.

    For those of you who say you hate advertising, please stop reading newspapers. It’s how newspaper people feed their children, pay their rent, take cuties on dates and buy cat litter. If you’re outright hostile to ads, you are outright hostile to journalism. It’s that simple. Please mail a large check to your local public radio station, and make it your sole source of news. Oh, and when the anchor reports a story that begins “The NYTimes / WaPost / LATimes / Chicago Tribune/ [your local paper] is reporting today…” turn your radio off immedately. You owe us that.

  12. Dan

    Thanks Crosbie, Mark, Vera, Scott, Mindy, Ed and M – some extremely interesting points and it’s good to have so many sides.

    I have to say that the splitting up of stories irritates me a bit – clearly not quite as much as it annoys Jason Kottke – but I do understand the reasons and don’t begrudge it as much as I would if I were paying to read the story. That doesn’t mean I won’t instinctively click on ‘Print Version’ if it’s available.

    However, I don’t think the advertising that most online newspapers use is at all optimally executed. In a print newspaper, or a magazine, an advert may break up the flow of a story, but it does not require an further interaction effort. Either I read it – absorb the message, programming me for some future purchase – or my eyes glaze over and I move on to something else.

    On the web, however, the vast majority of adverts require further interaction. I have to click on them to find out what they’re about. And often the ads don’t support a right-click ‘Open in new tab’ action, meaning I don’t know what I’m going to get if I click on them. Is it just going to be a pop-up, or is it going to take me away entirely from the story I’m trying to read? That inbuilt hang-up about clicking on ads is a significant sway of my behaviour. And while the pageviews may stay the same, the clickthrough rates must be very low.

  13. M: Not that I hate advertising (I hope to make a few bucks off of it myself), but that I don’t like the page splitting when it becomes intrusive, as in my example of the forum with one comment per page. I think it’s important for newspapers to balance things, otherwise more people will go to the length of using ad blockers, and I can also imagine a market in programs or web pages that remove the ads and automatically splice all the pages together for more convenient reading/printing.

  14. Well, that would be another agenda, to not allow us to save articles. We should have to go back to view it and experience new ads. 🙂

  15. Dan

    Gadgetopia had an interesting post (+ comments) about the ethics of hotlinking to images, and linking to printer-friendly pages in order to bypass adverts and registration procedures.

    My own take is that the information itself is non-rivalrous, i.e. me viewing an image not surrounded by your ads does not mean that you have ‘lost’ my eyeball-time for your ads, since you never ‘had’ the eyeball-time in the first place. But bandwidth is rivalrous, and I can see that hotlinking images out of context may not be the best etiquette. However, if full credit is given (perhaps with a link to the originating page), and the use is not one where a vast spike in bandwidth will occur, then is there anything wrong with this? If more people used code which served a different image based on REFERER [sic.] – for example a low-res downsampled version of the image, with the originator’s website address on it – when the image was hotlinked from somewhere else, this again might be a way of ‘enforcing’ the etiquette.

  16. I think if full credit and a link is given with the picture, then no, that’s not a bad thing. I also commented about this at the Gadgetopia thread, but hot-linking is preventable so I don’t see it as a big issue. (Thanks for the pointer — it looks like an interesting blog and I added it to my reader.)

  17. The Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University studied scrolling vs paging a few years ago. Their subjects reported no preference nor showed any performance based differences between the methods.
    Those facts notwithstanding, I personally hate paging on the web – mostly for the loadtime. So if someone could develop an ajaxy function that grabs a second page (plus obligatory ads), I’d be a happy camper.

  18. Budfester

    I strongly recommend the great app ‘Privoxy’, free and open source, for Mac/Win/Unix which filters ads and greatly reduces clutter. I can’t function without it. Whenever I use someone else’s computer, I’m shocked at what icky noisy place the internet really is.

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  21. I lunge for the Print button too, so end up seeing less ads than I would have on a single page article.

  22. Thank you for this article; having to constantly wait for a page to load simply to read three ‘paragraphs’ at a time isn’t simply time-consuming (especially here in China) but insulting. At least you provide a reason.

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