The Pros and Cons of an Era of Measurement
Online media has become so quantified that what used to be an art form is now data-backed science.
It’s hard to remember you’re in the content business when you’re busy creating a process around the very content you are trying to produce. Is the title compelling, does it have the right keywords, is the image high enough on the page—but not too large that you can’t see the words underneath it? Will my first paragraph keep the reader on the site long enough to read the rest of the piece? Do I have enough ads above the fold?
I miss the old days where you could write something you think readers will find interesting, and that was all you really had to worry about short of any sort of negative feedback. Online media has become so quantified that what used to be an art form is now data-backed science. This isn’t necessary a bad thing, it just means that you have to be a little more strategic than you use to.
There are really three main groups we focus our energy on as a publisher: Our readers, Google, and ad technologies. Each group gives us interesting data that we can use to make our content more compelling and our site better performing. Our readers will of course tell us whether they find our content good enough, through social shares, comments on our articles, or direct feedback. Google gives us a great set of tools through which we can monitor both reader interest and website performance. With Google’s toolkit, we can quantify everything from how long readers stay (time on site), whether they stick around to read another article (bounce rate), and how many different pages they checked out (pages per visit). Today articles are tailored not for what’s likely to be interesting but what’s stickiest, or more likely to boost pageviews or decrease bounce rates. And that’s both good and bad.
It irks me that the industry lets a search engine algorithm and bot determine the quality of your publication. If you produce duplicate content, you get dinged. If your articles are too short—ding. If your readers leave your site right after visiting—ding. If your site loads too slowly—ding. And the list goes on and on. Fortunately, this can be a good thing too, as Google will tell you how your readers are behaving and what you need to do to increase site performance and page design; it’s up to you to create compelling content to keep them on the site and keep them returning.
On the ad-tech side, there are technologies that both publishers and agencies use to keep sites honest and clean. We recently announced a partnership with Moat, a great company that measures and tracks a number of key variables on a site to help increase both advertiser and publisher performance. Ad viewability is a hot topic these days, and companies like Moat help ensure that advertisers are getting the most for their buck by pushing publishers to ensure ads are always in view.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this. It cuts down the number of ads you can place on each page, and advertisers don’t really pay more for increased visibility, at least not enough to make up the difference in the revenue lost by removing ads below the fold. One integral ad science presentation even recommends that publishers redesign their pages so there isn’t any scrolling at all—all ads are above the fold. What an idiotic idea to suggest that we should change centuries of reading habits just to get better ad viewability. Besides, shouldn’t publishers determine layout, not just data?
Nevertheless, we’ve learned to use these tools to track conversions and engagement rates for our partners, and it helps us learn more about our readers so that ads perform better for our partners.
Maybe in the perfect world, online media wouldn’t be so quantified, and we could pretend that every reader behaved the same. We could charge astronomical rates and write whatever we wanted, too—but the reality is that we operate on the Internet. There are computers and algorithms and technologies watching and measuring our every move, constantly giving us feedback. And it’s these very tools that limit us as publishers that also help us, telling us what we should pay for a piece of content, how long we will get traffic to it, and hopefully how much profit that article will produce. Maybe the old days weren’t so great: Wouldn’t it suck to write a story and not know whether your readers even liked it?
In the end, you should still have the same goals in mind that you’ve always had: Create compelling content that readers will enjoy. It’s still our job as publishers to introduce new ideas and viewpoints. Sure, there are shortcuts to increasing your publication’s performance, but at the end of the day, if you aren’t creating content readers want, there is no easy way to fake it. And that’s the beauty of quantification—you know exactly what your readers want and how your site performs.