There was an interesting Bitchmeme this weekend between Henry Blodget of Business Insider and Felix Salmon of Reuters. It’s interesting because it’s the same back-and-forth argument that’s been going on for years. And it’s likely to continue going on for years. Actually, it’s not even really an argument. It’s just bitching. Bitching about pageviews. And bitching about the ways one obtains pageviews. And bitching about people bitching about the ways one obtains pageviews.
Basically, as I’m reading it, Salmon thinks Business Insider is too focused on generating pageviews by less-than-savory means (pictures of hot girls kissing, etc). He also thinks that pageviews are a bad main metric for the measurement of editorial success. Blodget, meanwhile, believes pageviews simply reflect the content his readership wants to read. Nick Denton also weighed in. As did Elizabeth Spiers. It all gets a bit too insidery, so if you’re interested, Mathew Ingram has a good recap.
But what interests me about all this is the underlying war going on between those playing the pageview game, and those that hate the pageview game. To put it another (simplified) way: the war between quality versus quantity.
I’d like to think I have some perspective on this because I both get good pageview numbers, while at the same time restrain myself from certain things that would get even better pageview numbers.
Getting pageviews, when you work for a big enough site (as I do, at TechCrunch), is relatively easy. Like everything in life, there’s a game you can play. You could, for example, look at the hottest Google search terms and write stories based on those. At a popular site, since your Google PageRank is likely high enough, you’re going to rank very highly for some of those key search terms. There are no shortage of sites out there that play this game. And some play it well.
Something about that game rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I put more value in what I write. Or maybe it’s because I only like to write about things I’m actually interested in, not hot keywords. Sometimes I get annoyed when I see people writing about a topic that clearly only exists to latch on to a hot topic currently trending on Google or Twitter. I have to remind myself, that’s the game they’ve chosen to play, and it has downsides too (such as, quite often, shitty content that will never last beyond that hype cycle).
Of course, I’m also accused almost every day of writing things just to get pageviews. To some extent, that’s true. Everyone wants what they write on the web to be read, otherwise they’d just write it in their diary. My angle is usually to put time into a clever or funny or eye-grabbing headline. This annoys some people. But for plenty others, it gets them reading.
I also, occasionally, will write very short, (hopefully) humorous posts. I do this just as much to break up the cycle of longer posts and/or straightforward posts about startups, as I do for the pageviews. Again, if I wanted to get more pageviews, I could do that. For example, I could look at Google Trends right now and write something like “NCAA Final Four Turns Out The Lights On Earth Hour In Online Buzz Matchup”.
It’s easy. It’s also bullshit. I’d feel dirty writing that. And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t want my name attached to it.
That said, there is plenty of pageview-generating content I’m more than happy to post, like videos about the iPad. Or humorous videos about Google Wave. There’s never a shortage of things to write about, and quite often, I find that there is some overlap between things that get a lot of pageviews and interesting topics. That’s really my only rule for a post, I have to be interested in it.
All that being said, I do completely understand the importance of pageviews as it relates to business. It’s sad but true that currently there is no better metric to give advertisers to show them they should be paying you to put ads on your site. Ingram has some other ideas, but all are currently too hard to measure beyond comment numbers, which is also a flawed metric (and maybe even more easily gamed than pageviews).
If sites don’t hit pageview numbers, they start losing advertisers. If advertisers are lost, money stops flowing it. If money stops flowing in, people need to be let go. It’s that simple. So pageviews remain crucial.
The problem with that model is that it means pageviews have to keep going up. That means that new pageviews must come from somewhere. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people working in tech in Silicon Valley already read TechCrunch. So to get more pageviews, we have to branch out. That’s not the easiest thing in the world to do when you’re writing about largely Silicon Valley-based startups and companies.
You could play the aforementioned Google keyword game, but that would likely bring in readers you probably don’t want if you’re trying to sell yourself as a high-end product catering to a certain demographic. So it’s a tricky situation. You almost have to hope that what you’re writing about appeals to a broader audience over time, rather than reaching for angles to rope in that broad audience and in the process, over-extending yourself.
As I said, the debate, or rather, the bitching about the debate, will continue indefinitely. Pageviews remain the metric by which we’re all graded at the end of the day because, right or wrong, that’s all advertisers currently care about in the online world.
We all walk a line between pageview pumping and our own editorial guidelines. Some go too far one way, some go too far the other. A perfect Bitchmeme.
[photo: flickr/Looking Glass]