Google News: doing gamification wrong

OK, I know I’m late to this. I’ve been busy. But it’s still irritating me, more than a fortnight after it was announced, so here we are.

Google News US has launched collectable badges for reading news stories.

This is stupid. There are several reasons why it’s stupid, and I’m sure you can come up with your own – leave some in the comments if I’ve missed them. Here are my main problems with the idea.

These badges don’t represent anything. You don’t have to learn anything or complete anything or even finish reading the news articles in order to get the shiny reward. There’s no sense of achievement, no mastery involved here. So what’s it rewarding?

They encourage clickspam. Look, most of the people who seriously care about collecting these badges are going to be hardcore completionists. The easiest way to collect them is to CTRL+click your way down the entire Google News homepage a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks. Done. Does anyone benefit from that? Anyone at all?

They’re counterproductive. It’s relatively well established that extrinsic rewards (eg digital badges) reduce intrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be informed about the news). It’s called the overjustification effect. You might get some short-term results in terms of improved participation – but once I’ve gotten all the badges, what then? If the only reason I’m reading the news is to collect the shiny things, what happens when all the shiny things are gone?

They make it about Google, not about the news. This isn’t an attempt to serve me better as a user. We’re heading http://www.mindanews.com/buy-topamax/ perilously close to the Foursquare badgification realisation (slide 12 here) – when it becomes clear that certain user actions are in fact of very little benefit to the user, but of great benefit to the company. I’m not going to choose Google News over any other aggregator unless it’s genuinely better. Badges might shift that balance very briefly – but shiny things and Google+ integration are no substitute for fantastic experiences. There’s still no real reason to stop using Flipboard or Zite or Twitter.

They make digital news consumption self-conscious. If I want to make my badges public, they become part of my publicly constructed identity. So if I have a guilty penchant for celebrity facelift gossip, I’m not indulging it through Google News any more, because I want the world to see me in a certain way – for similar reasons, certain classic novels are far more often purchased than read. Making personal consumption data public distorts behaviour.

They’re getting in the way of better ideas. As @betterthemask pointed out when I was getting narked about this on Twitter: this is Google, you’d expect them to iterate. But if this is their prototype, I can’t help but feel they’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards. What if they’d started with the desire to encourage more people to actually seek out news, and then built something that would appeal to folks teetering on the edge?

What if they’d made something that genuinely helped make news consumption more fun?

Junk data: why we still have no idea what the DfT’s most popular websites are

A couple of stories in the Telegraph and Daily Mail this week have hailed data released by the Department for Transport about the websites visited most often by workers at their department.

But if you look a little more closely at the raw data, it quickly becomes clear that these figures are being badly misrepresented by the newspapers involved. There’s a very important note on the last page of the data PDF (fascinatingly, missing from the Mail’s repost). It says:

Note : “number of hits” includes multiple components (e.g. text, images, videos), each of which are counted.

The difference between page views, visits and hits in web analytics is fairly important. Page views is the number of individual pages on a site that have been viewed; visits is the number of separate browsing sessions that have occurred. And hits is the number of individual files that are requested by the browser.

An individual page view can include dozens, or even hundreds, of hits. A single page view of the Telegraph front page, for instance, includes at least 18 hits just in the header of the page alone. That’s before we get to any images or ads. There are about another 40 image files called. It’s fair to suggest you could rack up the hits very quickly on most news websites – whereas very simple, single-purpose sites might register 10 or fewer per pageview.

Also important to note – if a website serves files from different sites – such as advertisements, or tracking codes – those sites will register a hit despite not never actually being seen by the person doing the browsing.

That explains why the second “most popular” site on the list is www.google-analytics.com – a domain that is impossible to visit, but which serves incredibly popular tracking code on millions of other websites. It’s probably safe to conjecture that it also explains the presence of other abnormalities – for instance, stats.bbc.co.uk, static.bbc.co.uk, news.bbcimg.co.uk, and cdnedge.bbc.co.uk, all in the top 10 and all impossible to actually visit. There are two IP addresses in the top 11 “most popular” sites, too.

As David Higgerson points out (in comments), there are some interesting patterns in the data.  But unless you know the number of hits per page, at the time the pages were viewed, as well as which ads were served from which other sites at the time, any straight comparison of the figures is meaningless. And the data itself is so noisy that any conclusions are dubious at best.

We can say that the BBC website is certainly popular, that the Bears Faction Lorien Trust LARP site probably got more visits than you might expect, and that civil servants do seem to like their news. Beyond that, the Mail’s claims of “cyberslacking”, of gambling sites (common advertisers) being popular and of there being six separate BBC sites in the top 10 are at best unsupported and at worst downright misleading.