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The Sorry State of Online Publishing

ss-publishingDynamic tension can be a good thing. There are plenty of examples of when this is so. Online publishing isn’t one of them. The plunging transaction costs of publishing and the increasingly desperate attempts to shore up some sort of sustainable revenue model is creating a tug-of-war that’s threatening to tear apart the one person that this whole sorry mess is revolving around – the reader. Somebody better get their act together soon, because I’m one reader that’s getting sick of it.

Trying to read an article on most online is like trying to tiptoe through a cognitive minefield. The publishers have squeezed every possible advertising opportunity onto the page and in doing so, has sacrificed credibility, cohesiveness and clarity. The job of publishing is communication, but these publishers seem to think its actually sacrificing communication for revenue. Methinks if you have to attack your own business model to make a profit, you should be taking a long hard look at said model.

Either Fish or Cut Click Bait

The problem has grown so pervasive that academia is even piling on. In the past few months, a number of studies have looked at the dismal state of online publishing.

clickbaitIn the quest for page views, publishers have mastered the trick of pushing our subconscious BSO (Bright Shiny Object) buttons with clickbait. Clickbait is essentially brain porn – headlines, often misleading – that you can’t resist clicking on. The theory is more page views – more advertising opportunities. The problem is that clickbait essential derails the mind from its predetermined focus. And worse, clickbait often distracts the brain with a misleading headline the subsequent article fails to deliver on. As Jon Stewart recently told New York Magazine, “It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, “Come on in here and see a three-legged man!” So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

A recent study from The Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that misleading headlines and something called “false balance” – where publishers give equal airtime to sources with very different levels of credibility – can negatively impact the reader’s ability to remember the story, create a cohesive understanding of the story and cognitively process the information. In other words, the publisher’s desperate desire to grab eyeballs gets in the way of their ability to communicate effectively.

Buzzfeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith has publicly gone on the record about why he doesn’t use click-bait headlines: “Here is a trade secret I’d decided a few years ago we’d be better off not revealing — clickbait stopped working around 2009.” He references Facebook engineer Khalid El-Arini in the post, saying “readers don’t want to be tricked by headlines; instead, they want to be informed by them.”

Now You Read Me, Now You Don’t

If you ever wanted to test your resolve, try getting to the end of an online article. What content there is is shoehorned into a format littered with ads and clickbait of every description. Many publishers even try to squeeze revenue from the content itself by using Text Enhance, an ad serving platform that hyperlinks keywords in the copy and shows ads if your cursor strays anywhere near these links. Users like me often use their cursor both as a place marker and a quick way to vet sources of embedded links. Text Enhance makes reading in this way an incredibly frustrating experience as it continually pops up poorly targeted ads while you try to tiptoe through the advertising landmines to piece together what the writer was originally trying to say. It turns reading content into a virtual game of “Whac-a-Mole.”

Of course, this is assuming you’ve made it past the page take-over and auto-play video ads that litter the “mind-field” between you and the content you want to access on a site like Forbes or The Atlantic. These interruptions in our intent create a negative mental framework that is compounded by having to weave through increasingly garish ad formats in order to piece together the content we’re trying to access.

A new study from Microsoft and Northwestern University shows that aggressive and annoying advertising may prop up short-term revenues, but at a long-term price that publishers should be thinking twice about paying, ““The practice of running annoying ads can cost more money than it earns, as people are more likely to abandon sites on which they are present. In addition, in the presence of annoying ads, people were less accurate in remembering what they had read. None of these effects on users is desirable from the publisher’s perspective.”

Again, we have this recurring theme about revenue getting in the way of user experience. This is a conflict from which there can be no long-term benefit. When you frustrate users, you slowly kill your revenue source. You engage in a vicious cycle from which there is no escape.

I understand that online publishers are desperate. I get that. They should be. I suspect the ad-supported business platform they’re trying to prop up is hopelessly damaged. Another will emerge to take its place. But the more they frustrate us, the faster that will happen.