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The delicate balance between pageviews and user experience

Throughout a career either in an industry supported by advertising (journalism) or actually in advertising (specifically, online), I have seen firsthand the daily struggle website publishers have in trying to find that balance between maximizing revenue and optimizing user experience.

Web users consume vast amounts of content for free each day. Someone has to pay for it — operations costs and (heaven forbid) even for professionals to create that content, at the very least.

Awesome content and ad revenue are two sides of the same sword. Monetization through advertising is quite simply a necessary part of the ecosystem at this point.

It starts with ad placements — too many and you’ll annoy your visitors, too few and you’re throwing away money. It seems like — at least with the basic banner ads — web publishers have found a pretty good middle ground for this one.

But then there are the pageviews — the ever-important metric that, if increased, will come with it an increase in ad impressions. If you’ve reached the highest you could for your CPMs and have no more space to squeeze in another banner, then the easiest way then to increase revenue is to increase pageviews.

Because of this, publishers have been chasing the pageview since Day 1. It started with SEO and shortly after social sharing came of age, tactics like clickbait were born. It’s so widespread that, recently, squashing clickbait has been the mission of the largest sources of social traffic the web has ever seen.

So it’s fair to say, publishers are pretty good at getting you to click. And so starts the user experience. Now that they have you, what do they do with you?

Seeing as how the web user has already opted in to consuming the content, and at least being there while the ads load, really the only thing publishers have to do is not screw it up.

“The fewer defects, the less likely you’ll lose someone to something that was preventable,” programmer Colin Foster said via Quora when asked if he’d revisit a website after having a poor user experience.

And there’s nothing more preventable than purposefully creating the “defect” yourself.

One of the biggest plagues I’ve seen recently is when post format doesn’t match the content.

Don’t get me wrong: I love slideshows, and I love videos. They’re both great tools for the web publisher, and they’re both highly monetizable. The key to slideshows and videos is that you need to use them when the content dictates.

If you have X number of photographs of the craziest costumes in the Bay to Breakers race, by all means I want to see those photos. I’ll probably click through all of them, because they’re highly visual and they tell the story.

Likewise, if you have footage of moving live performance (or anything really where you’ve captured the action taking place), this is when to post a video. How-to videos are also awesome; there’s nothing like trying to learn something and getting to watch someone else do it right in front of you in real-time.

It’s when websites misuse these tactics that they ruin the user experience. I recently came across a link that promised 8 Ways to Make Working From Home More Efficient (It was a link from FastCompany, a website that I, until now, subscribed to its RSS feed via my Feedly app). Hey, I work from home often and I was curious if there was some nugget in there that could increase my at-home productivity.

So I clicked.

I know what you’re thinking — slideshow, right? Wrong.

It was a video. OK, I thought, I’m sure this information could easily be textified into an article, but I’m still curious so I’ll continue on. As I scrambled to get my earbuds (I was on the ferry, and didn’t want my speaker to bother those near me), I quickly realized that this wasn’t even the video I was expecting. It had absolutely no voiceover, and the audio was what could best be described as elevator music. The visuals consisted of stock photos and text graphics.

Screenshot of that video.

Screenshot of that video.

So I ended up plucking out my earbuds and reading the video when I should have been reading an article. That’s bad, so bad in fact that I’ll probably make a mental note not to click on anymore FastCompany links. Why bother, when there are so many other content choices out there.

But this isn’t even the worst.

There are still a few publishers who actually post lists. I love lists. They appeal to the Type A portion of my personality. However, when I see a link that promises “List of X Things To Blah Blah Blah,” I almost never click anymore.

Websites are too filled with slideshows that feature little more than stock photography (or even just headshots of their subjects) and are accompanied with the smallest blurb of consumable information. What’s even worse is when the webpage must do a full reload (make sure all those ads get re-served) for each slide. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to sit there while an entire page reloads 20 times.

It should be noted that there are some pretty good and exceptionally fast slideshow technologies out there that are quick to load and enable users to effortlessly scroll through the photos. But that still doesn’t excuse those sites from posting slideshows when they should be posting text lists.

Whether you’re choosing text, images or video, it all really comes down to choosing the format that makes your content easiest to consume.

So as publishers are trying to strike the balance between pageviews and user experience, there are a surprising amount of them that seem more than willing to chase those few extra dollars (or cents) at the expense of their users. It’s a defective strategy, and certainly one that’s preventable.

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