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.

13 thoughts on “Pay-per-click journalism

  1. rutty says:

    You know, I’ve been worrying about this too. I’ve been using Newsvine for a while now and you actually get paid real money for contributing to the site. You get a percentage of the advertising revenue from your own articles and seeds (seeds being links with a short description to an external article).

    I’ve earned only about $80 in two years. Not enough to retire on but it’s funded a couple of eBay purchases. However, there are a few users who have come to the conclusion, as your article points out, that flamebait gets more visitors than an interesting article on, say, the finer points of photosynthesis.

    There are some excellent authors on Newsvine creating original news-related commentary, and I’m sure that they’re earning a damn site more than me with my irregular seeds about Leeds United. Somehow Newsvine has managed to attract some great, amateur writers (and a few pros) that raises the standard above what you might expect, but you do still get the odd idiot trying to get clicks by writing inflammatory crap.

    I’m sure that there will still be a call for quality writing in the future but I’m afraid that there are enough purchasers of rags like The Star, The Sun, The Daily Mail and crap like Heat to suggest that the internet may fund itself to death with utter shite.

  2. Sabine K McNeill says:

    Gary

    Your article “I read the news today, oh boy” in the latest .net magazine made me click and click (without being paid) to congratulate you on it!!!

    How many of your colleagues are as deeply aware of and concerned about what’s happening between those who make the law, those who enforce it because “they’re just doing their job” and those who suffer it???

    “When corporations rule the world” is a book by David Korten which I guess you might find interesting. Google for “Single Global Currency Association” and you’ll find how self-anointed Americans go global in their way. So we better wake up!

    Might you click on http://tinyurl.com/666rwd to see how I’m trying to influence the process of law making via Parliament?

    Might your commitment to your baby daughter be a good reason for thinking long term?

    I’d love for you to get even more involved in making .net part of the political agenda!

    Looking forward to clicking along similar hymn sheets,

    Sabine
    Organiser, Forum for Stable Currencies

  3. paul says:

    Brilliant post, Gary. I wish I had time to respond – it’s a subject I’m understandably spending a lot of time thinking about these days. I’ll try to post something soon.

  4. Gary says:

    Paul, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. I ran out of steam towards the end (I’m on deadline atm, and I’m ill, so I’ve got a head of cotton wool) because there’s lots more I wanted to say. Inevitably I don’t have the answers, but I’m fascinated by the questions.

    Rutty, Sabine, I will come back to your comments. Promise :)

  5. Andy McGarry says:

    I think the way that people search for content on the internet is going to change dramatically in the near future and when it does, the nightmare sceanrio you’ve outlined won’t be the danger that it currently presents.

    Google search is still in it’s infancy. Much more sophisticated filters should kill off the kind of crude SEO tactics that currently generate traffic.

    Personally, if Google didn’t have it’s regional search option and advanced filter options, it would be crap. 10 links on a page with the odd shopping/blog/video category relevant 3-link add-on is woeful in it’s design and execution.

    It’s success is down to people using the brand name (I’ll Google it) and the lack of quality competition rather than being an amazing search engine. It’s hard to imagine how Yahoo! & Microsoft dropped the ball on Search but they did and it’s not good for century-defining innovation.

    Pay-per-click journalism is reaching it’s end of days. The sooner that articles and content in general are penalised effectively for trying to manipulate traffic, the better for all of us.

    I don’t think talented journos have much to worry about.

    *wanders off with his naieve, idealistic view of the universe*

  6. Stephen says:

    Boy, is that Forum for Stable Currencies economic flat-earthism or what?

    “The Government should spend cash into the economy and gradually increase its share for the sake of future generations.” That worked SO well for the Soviet Union, now, didn’t it?

  7. Gary says:

    I told you I’d come back to this – although there’s so many different points I want to make that it’ll inevitably end up as mush. Sabine first (she’s talking about a print column I did arguing that tech-related policy isn’t something that’s taken too seriously, but people are making decisions that could have profound effects on our future. That, and calling flashmobbers twats)…

    > How many of your colleagues are as deeply aware of and concerned about what’s happening between those who make the law, those who enforce it because “they’re just doing their job” and those who suffer it???

    All of them, I reckon. They’re a smart bunch :)

    > I’d love for you to get even more involved in making .net part of the political agenda!

    Hmmm, I don’t think that’s .net’s job – it’s a magazine about internet things, so of course laws that relate to the internet are very much part of its scope. Stuff that doesn’t, isn’t.

    > Might your commitment to your baby daughter be a good reason for thinking long term?

    Possibly (definitely in the case of the darker side of tech), but I think it’s more… I’ve been writing about this stuff for ten years, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Ten years ago we were getting very excited about the potential of all this tech, and it was all very idyllic and utopian. More and more, though, I find I’m reporting or covering issues where the tech is making things worse – so it’s being used to invade privacy, or it’s being used to censor dissidents, or whatever. And I know that to an extent that’s been happening since day one, so maybe my increasing grumpiness means I’m just more aware of it. Or maybe things really are getting worse.

  8. Gary says:

    Rutty:

    > You get a percentage of the advertising revenue from your own articles and seeds (seeds being links with a short description to an external article).

    Yeah, that’s quite a common model. And what worries me about it is that it breaks the invisible wall between editorial and advertising, and that wall could become even more broken if advertisers can say to a publisher “I’ll only advertise on stories by X”. Even now, if you’re dependent solely on ads there’s a temptation to twist what you write to make it more ad-friendly. This blog would actually make money if, instead of being nasty about pretty much everything, I paid attention to the ads that were being served and crafted copy to better target it. It’d make the blog even worse, though :)

    I think the more power the advertiser has, the worse the journalism – take Apple for example, with its hand-picked group of hacks that get to play with new kit in advance. Whether they want to be or not, they’re part of Apple’s PR machine. I’m sure they’re all very good, responsible journalists, but I don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to what they say – because if they were to go “hang on, this is a pile of shite!” they’d lose the exclusive access to Apple kit they currently have. I think that’s dangerous. Editorial and advertising are supposed to be combative. The advertisers need your eyeballs so they try to be nice to you, and they get really upset when you go “hang on, this is a pile of shite!”, but they know that’s part of the deal. Which is why I care much more about John Gruber’s take on Apple things than I do about the Apple-favoured hacks’ take on things.

    Something that happens from time to time is that a company mentioned in a magazine is a big advertiser, you write something critical and they throw their toys out of the pram, threatening to stop advertising. And editors – good ones, anyway – tell them to get bent. If your editor is AdSense, or some ad network, will that still happen?

    > I’m sure that there will still be a call for quality writing in the future but I’m afraid that there are enough purchasers of rags like The Star, The Sun, The Daily Mail and crap like Heat to suggest that the internet may fund itself to death with utter shite.

    Yeah, I feel like that too sometimes. It’s the whole public interest thing: what’s in the public interest isn’t necessarily what the public thinks it’s interested in. So for example I buy the Guardian solely for Charlie Brooker and the Tech supplement. Seriously. But I read the whole thing and discover things I didn’t know I was interested in until I read it. In an environment where all that matters is traffic, the Guardian (or at least the version that pops through my front door) would be just Charlie Brooker and the tech section. As a writing junkie, that thought depresses me. Spreadsheets don’t know about serendipity, and Digg – for all its joys – reflects a very narrow worldview.

    There’s a piece on techradar.com today about bras that light up – it’s a nice, funny wee piece, but I’d be willing to bet it gets more diggs and more traffic than more worthwhile content that appeared at the same time on the same site. And that’s fine, provided the site is interested in the bigger picture. But when you look at the publishing industry in general, the bigger picture is something that a lot of publishers don’t give a shit about. If they did, local newspapers (generally speaking, some are still good – just not the ones in my area) wouldn’t be the disaster they are, blog networks wouldn’t be chasing the lowest common denominator and everybody who worked on Now and Reveal would be killed on spikes. More and more the emphasis is on the very short term: cut costs as much as you can and forget about the longer term. And from a business point of view that’s probably the smart thing to do, at least in the very short term.

    God, I’m depressed again now :)

  9. Gary says:

    Andy:

    > Pay-per-click journalism is reaching it’s end of days. The sooner that articles and content in general are penalised effectively for trying to manipulate traffic, the better for all of us.

    Ah, but will that happen before the places that do good writing and that pay for potentially uncommercial but important content are wiped out?

    I think after about a million rambly words, I’ve finally found a way to express what I’m getting at, and it’s in the form of a question:

    *What is the point of journalism?*

    To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the area I know about: tech. To me, the point is to be a friend to the reader, to tell them when the hype is bollocks, to help them get more out of what they’ve got and to give them an idea of what’s coming down the pipe. And, of course, to amuse them.

    Not all of those things are incompatible with a model based entirely on clicks and ad clicks, and I’m not suggesting that all tech journalists do those things all of the time, but I think the most important bit of tech journalism – the one that distinguishes journalism from PR – is the “tell them when the hype is bollocks” one. And that *is* incompatible with having to please advertisers on a per-story basis. That’s why eds are so important: they take the cash from the light-up bra stories and use it to fund things the advertisers might hate, and that won’t get dugg, but that will actually help people.

    Maybe I’m naive. Or drunk. Or both!

  10. Andy McGarry says:

    “tell them when the hype is bollocks”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head imo. There are sites that don’t say anything negative about anyone whether in the music, games, tech or movie industry and they’re boring.

    All the PR spin in the world won’t stop people sharing their opinions so it’s up to editors to take the long-term view. I’d like to think that a site with quality writing will grow an audience.

    There are certain sites that I read every day. For games, I read the blog http://www.ukresistance.co.uk/ because it always makes me laugh while I get all my info from http://www.computerandvideogames.com/

    Sure, I have lots of other games & tech sites bookmarked but I don’t visit them as often due to either (i) site layout (ii) the tone of the copy. They all talk about the same games & gadgets but I want an informed opinion, not the PR sheet.

    I don’t read a lot of blogs but the ones I do are written by people who know what they’re talking about and who encourage you to question your own beliefs and ideas on a subject, topic or even product.

    I’ve always liked comic books. I’m not a comic buff but I enjoy reading about the industry as much as the characters. http://occasionalsuperheroine.blogspot.com/ has informed me more about comics than all of the official publisher sites combined.

    For tech stuff, I’d put your blog in that same category.

    Internet search has to stay ahead of the marketing people. Otherwise quality journalism will suffer. Thankfully there’s a lot of intelligent people working on those algorithms!

    You have to wonder though – if Microsoft had Google’s worldwide market share would MS give you the kind of unbiased “do no evil” results that Google provides? Would journalism be better or worse off?

  11. Gary says:

    Sorry Andy, your comment was accidentally spam-trapped and I only just noticed. I’ll reply when I get a sec :)

  12. Gary says:

    > if Microsoft had Google’s worldwide market share would MS give you the kind of unbiased “do no evil” results that Google provides?

    That’s a really interesting question, and I’m really not sure what the answer is. Although naturally that won’t stop me from blabbing on anyway :)

    Off the top of my head, you could argue that the things that make Google so useful have actually been bad for journalism (or at least, traditional media). Without PageRank you might not have the mob mentality of stories, with the same things being regurgitated by 3 billion blogs, and you might not have seen the rise of the giant blogs such as Engadget. And I suspect that for news, Microsoft would have partnered with news outlets and given ’em a big wodge of cash for inclusion rather than do a Google News on them.

    Whether that would have been good for journalism, I’m not so sure.

  13. Gary says:

    Sorry, that’s not as clear as it could be. When I wrote “Microsoft would have partnered with news outlets” I meant MS would have used their content for a fee, a syndication deal for their content to turn up on MS properties. And I suspect it would have given, say, The Times more weight in search results than blogs.

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