Pay-per-click journalism

Last year, I wrote a column for .net about the increasing importance of clicks – that is, judging the success of something not by how good or bad it is, but by how much traffic it generates.

A few weeks ago, the music reviewer from The Herald newspaper went to see My Chemical Romance and, quite rightly, concluded that they were rubbish. Within minutes of the review appearing online, fans of the band took a break from stabbing themselves with scissors and taking squinty pictures for their MySpace profiles and rushed to defend their idols. “No!” they howled. “They’re brilliant! YOU’RE RUBBISH!”

Just think. If the online editor hadn’t enabled comments, the human race would have been denied a crucial bit of information. My Chemical Romance aren’t, as you might believe, rubbish. They are, in fact, brilliant. Thank you, internet!

The commenters didn’t just set the record straight, though. Every time they hit F5 to see one of their fellow fans’ comments, a little “ker-ching!” appeared in the newspaper’s server logs. If they clicked on an ad for Clearasil or razor blades, another “ker-ching!” sounded. And it’s not just teenagers causing ker-chings. It’s the pro- and anti-Israel camps on Comment Is Free, the religious types getting into flame wars with atheists whenever Richard Dawkins writes something, it’s the quacks and the PS3 fanboys and the oh-so-interesting people whose choice of operating system is superior to your choice of operating system.

Every single one of them is shaping the media of the future. I fear the worst.

Which ties in quite nicely with this fascinating post by Chris Green of IT Pro.

Every few months I perform what I call a contributor/traffic analysis. This involves generating a report from the main IT PRO site stats tool that shows the page impressions (PIs) and unique user visits (UUs) generated by author, rather than by article type or section.

I then merge this data with the main contributor expenditure spreadsheet, where we record and track all our freelance spending.

The end result is that we have the traffic generated by an author alongside how much we’ve spent with them over the given period. You divide the amount spent by either the PIs or the UUs and you end up with a cost per PI and a cost per UU, based on a specific author.

I honestly believe that in the not too distant future, online publications in all sectors, not just technology, will have to adopt a results-driven approach to freelance commissions in order to maximise revenue and to achieve maximum return from their freelance budgets.

The most likely outcome will be that publications begin paying writers purely on how much traffic an article pulls in. Also likely is that commissioning editors will need to take a more frequent and brutal approach to deciding which freelancers to commission regularly and which to drop from their rotation, based on the kind of metrics I am currently looking at.

I’m sure he’s right. Back to that column.

In print, the blatantly populist stuff finances the more worthy, niche stuff (next month’s cover feature is “Paris Hilton does PHP in her Pants” to draw in the FHM crowd, but we hope they’ll stay to learn a bit of ActionScript). As long as the overall package sells, everybody’s happy. Once you move online, though, things get more interesting – and for magazine junkies like me who spend daft sums on my monthly print fix, more worrying. Metrics mean you can see the readership not just of an entire title, but of each individual component of that title. And if the webmaster can see it, the advertisers will want to see it.

To see where all this is heading, look at the way online advertising has changed over the years. At first, advertisers paid per thousand banner views. Then, they paid per click. Now, they pay per action – per sign-up, say, or per sale. In the past, advertisers knew that 50% of their budgets were wasted, but they didn’t know which 50%. Now, they do.

Advertisers are in the numbers business, not the content business, and the more hits you get the more clicks, sales and sign-ups you’re likely to get. That means Colleen McLoughlin is a better writer than Kurt Vonnegut, and a tutorial that makes your life easier and your clients happier is less important than blatant Digg-bait such as “732 reasons why Ubuntu users should be kicked in the nuts harder than anybody has ever been kicked in the nuts before.”

As the entire internet moves to an ad-funded business model, the democratisation of media means that ker-ching, not content, is king. Some people say it’s brilliant. It isn’t. It’s rubbish.

Of course, I’m deliberately taking an “O NOES” position in the column – that’s my job – but I can’t shake the mental image of online writing becoming a high-tech version of the “SEX! Now that we’ve got your attention, we’re having a kitchen sale!” adverts that used to infest local newspapers.  As Paul Stallard notes in his wonderfully titled “Journalism in sex, 911 conspiracy theory, Britney Spears naked and online poker shocker” post:

According to the latest issue of Private Eye, journalists writing articles for the Telegraph website are being actively encouraged to include oft-searched-for-phrases in their copy.  So an article about shoe sales among young women would open: “Young women – such as Britney Spears – are buying more shoes than ever”.

Apparently Private Eye was misinformed about that one, but it’s not hard to imagine publishers (or writers, worrying about future commissions) keeping an eye on Google Zeitgeist and crafting stories to suit what’s popular,  over-egging stories to maximise hits or pandering to base instincts to attract those eyeballs. Then again, publishing is a business, not a charity. If something isn’t being read, why spend money on it?

On Chris’s blog, Guy Kewney makes a good point:

In publishing terms, perhaps a web site isn’t quite the same “unit” as a magazine title. People really do read just the one story that interests them. But regular visitors will only come if they know that it’s worth browsing your other pages. And some of the less “popular, exciting” sections (maybe, developer stories?) may provide some of your most loyal visitors. How will you judge the value of a low-traffic page – purely on the local hits? or on its contribution to brand image?

Maybe we need a journalistic version of Google’s PageRank.