The homepage, and other undead creatures

One of the interesting sidelines to come out of the remarkably interesting leaked NYT innovation report in the last few days has been the fact that traffic to the NYT homepage has halved in two years. It’s an intriguing statistic, and more than one media outlet has taken it and run with it to create a beguiling narrative about how the homepage is dead, or at the very least dying, why, and what this means for news organisations.

But what’s true for the NYT is certainly not true for the whole of the rest of the industry. Other pages – articles and tag pages – are certainly becoming more important for news organisations, but that doesn’t mean the homepage no longer matters – or that losing traffic to it is a normal and accepted shift in this new digital age. Losing traffic proportionately makes sense, but real-terms traffic loss looks rather unusual.

Audience stats like this are usually closely guarded secrets, because of their commercial sensitivity, but it’s fair to suggest that homepage traffic (at least, to traditionally organised news homepages) is a reasonable indicator of brand loyalty, of interest in what that organisation has to say, and of trust that organisation can provide an interesting take on the day. Bookmarking the homepage or setting it as a start point for an internet journey is an even bigger mark of faith, a suggestion that one site will tell you what’s most important at any given moment when you log in – but it’s very hard even for sites themselves to measure bookmark stats, never mind to get some sort of broad competitor data that would shed light on whether that behaviour is declining.

It’s plausible, therefore, that brand search would be a rough indicator of brand loyalty and therefore of homepage interest; the New York Times is declining there, while the Daily Mail, for example, has been rocketing to new highs recently. I would be incredibly surprised if the Mail shares this pessimism about the health of the homepage, based on its own numbers. (That’s harder to measure for The Atlantic, whose marine namesake muddies the search comparison somewhat.)

The death of the homepage, much like the practice of SEO and pageviews as a metric, has been greatly exaggerated. What’s happening here, as Martin Belam points out, is more complicated than that. As the internet is ageing, the older, standard ways of doing business and distributing content are changing, and are being joined by newer models and methods. Joined, not supplanted, unless of course you’ve created your new shiny thing purely to focus on the new stuff rather than the old stuff, the way Buzzfeed focuses on social and Quartz doesn’t have any real homepage at all.

You need to be thinking about SEO and social, pageviews and engagement metrics, the homepage and the article page. Older techniques don’t die just because we’ve all spotted something newer and sexier, unless the older thing stopped serving a genuine need; the resurgence of email is proof enough of that. Diversify your approach. Beware of zombies.

Social, search, serendipity and sharing

social_searchSearch vs social discovery is a debate that’s been going on since Twitter’s ascendancy as a link discovery machine. TheMediaBriefing has an interesting piece that suggests hybrid discovery is the eventual goal – a blended approach that ignores neither option. It’s a sensible conclusion, though I don’t share the belief that search traffic is necessarily disloyal – or that social media traffic is necessarily loyal. Both are used too broadly by too many readers to be so easily characterised.

Search is private, while social is public (at least to some degree, depending on your privacy settings). People will search very honestly for what they want to see, and will express ignorance, voyeurism or an interest in the salacious in the secure knowledge – or at least the reasonable belief – that no one but Google will ever see that information about them. Google autocomplete suggestions are full of quiet questions asked by millions in private.

But through social media, people will share what they think makes them look more like the idealised version of themselves. We use social media to construct our identities for other people to consume, and in so doing we share what other people will think we look good for sharing. For the most part we’ll ask stupid questions, or difficult ones, for the purposes of illuminating a facet of ourselves or to call for interaction with others – not necessarily to gain information. We’ll share what outrages us in order to comment on it, but read what interests us without sharing if we can’t fit it in to our constructed identity.

This is one reason why frictionless sharing is a problem: what we read and what we want to tell others we read are two vastly different things. It’s also one reason why social and search end up positioned as adversaries, when in fact they are complementary allies. Search discovery for publishers is not serendipitous; it relies on information-seeking queries, on individuals being interested enough in something specific to type words into a page and select from what appears there. It isn’t about teasing headlines or making someone wonder about what comes next; it’s about being as relevant as possible right there and then. Often, that includes personalisation, or simply being a reader’s preferred source for a story; loyal readers come through search as well.

Social discovery, by contrast, is about stumbling upon something potentially interesting because it’s been passed on by friends or by individuals you trust. It’s about not knowing you wanted to read something until it’s in front of your face. And a successful social piece works because you enjoy reading it, and you want to pass it on, and so do dozens of others. But social discovery happens as an interruption to the flow of doing something else; you move seamlessly from browsing Twitter/Facebook/Reddit/wherever to a different site for a link, then hit the back button and return to your browsing. It’s a diversion, not a journey in its own right.

Because of the commercial sensitivity around reach and discovery for publishers, an awful lot of inaccuracies get cheerfully spread online. For some time, there’s been a popular conception that search and social are fundamentally at odds, when in fact they’re often fundamentally intertwined. Plenty of news organisations reach the same people with both, at different times, with different articles. And plenty of pieces work perfectly for both, because they both illuminate a relevant issue for those directly interested, and make for interesting reading for those who didn’t yet know they cared. As Jackson says, what matters most is making content people want to consume. Making sure they can find it is the second step.

Stop blaming the internet for rubbish news content

Newspapers and newsrooms generally have always striven to publish stories that are important, interesting, informative and entertaining.  Not every one puts those in the same order or gives them the same importance. But the internet hasn’t changed that much.

The unbundling effects of the net mean that instead of relying on the front page to sell the whole bundle, each piece has to sell itself. That can be hard; suddenly the relative market sizes for different sorts of content are much starker, and for people who care more about important/interesting/informative than entertaining, that’s been a depressing flood of data. But the internet  didn’t create that demand – it just made it more obvious. Whether we should feed it or not is an editorial question. Personally, I think it’s fine to give people a little of what they want – as long as a newsroom is putting out informative and important stories, a few interesting and entertaining ones are good too, so long as they’re not lies, unethically acquired or vicious.

If you spend a lot of time online you will see a filter bubble effect, where stories from certain news organisations are not often shared by your friends and don’t often turn up in your sphere unless you actively go looking for them. That means the ones that break through will be those that outrage, titillate or carry such explosive revelations that they cannot be ignored. That does not mean those stories are the sum total output of a newsroom – any more than the 3AM Girls are the sum total of the Mirror in print – but those pieces attract a new audience and serve to put that wider smorgasbord of content in front of them (assuming the article pages are well designed).

Of course, some news organisations publish poor stories – false, misleading, purposefully aggravating or just badly written – in the name of chasing the trend. That’s also far from an internet-only phenomenon. The Express puts pictures of Diana on the front, and routinely lies for impact in its headlines. The Star splashes on Big Brother 10 weeks running. The editorial judgement about the biggest story for the front is about sales as much as it is newsworthiness. Sometimes those goals align. Sometimes they don’t, and editors make a choice.

It is ridiculous to blame the internet for the publishing of crap stories to chase search traffic or trend-based clicks – just as it’s ridiculous to blame the printing press for the existence of phone hacking. In both cases it’s the values and choices of the newsroom that should be questioned.