Killing the golden goose

One of the site engagement metrics that I monitor is pages per visitor.

It's a number that's under a lot of downward pressure as social media, especially Facebook, becomes more dominant in the user experience.

If the user clicks on a story link at all -- and most do not, preferring to post an opinion without bothering to be informed -- the tendancy is to look quickly at the story, then return to the social site rather than spending any significant time on the site that's doing actual journalism.

To promote circulation through the site, most of us have adopted a convention of placing related-item links at the bottom of stories, making the story page function as "the new home page."

This convention works so well that it's been adopted by "content marketing networks" that abuse it. And that abuse undermines the whole idea.


We've seen this before. Email, once a reliable tool, was invaded first by commercial spammers, then by outright scammers, and then by criminals spreading viruses to hijack your computer for use in a botnet. We can't trust it any more. 

Online display advertising? Same thing. We have to constantly monitor our ad networks for autoplay videos, popunders, popovers and other user-hostile trash. Every one that slips through teaches the user to distrust and avoid display ads. Adblock isn't being installed because people don't want to see coupons from the local pizzaria.

When "content marketing networks" like Taboola and Outbrain clutter sites with links to trash, they train the user to distrust this type of display. Another golden goose goes to the abattoir.

I don't have a problem with "native advertising", also known as sponsored posts, when it's clearly and properly labeled and provides useful and valuable information. But we have to recognize that all advertising is a type of content, and if we allow content on our sites that is deceptive, that misinforms or that annoys users, we are destroying the very thing we're trying to create: a bond of trust with our users in a world that is full of the untrustworthy.