The 7 deadly sins of modern publishing

Online publishers constantly talk about how they’re making their sites as beautiful and reader-friendly as possible, with layouts that put the reader first, innovative storytelling formats and ads that don’t detract from the user experience. So why do so many publishers still insult their readers with intrusive ads, offers and borrowed content?

We rounded up some of the classic examples of the worst offenses.

Gawker didn’t invent traffic trolling, but it’s been particularly unapologetic about its use of the tactic. In 2012, it even announced it was embarking on a traffic-whoring experiment, justifying the search for “SEO bomb throws” as a way to free up other staffers to work on more substantial pieces. Recent targets of this strategy have included celebrities like Justin Bieber and Bill Cosby, as well as sorority girls behaving badly.

You click on a link to a story you’ve been dying to read, only to be thwarted by that scourge of the Web, the autoplay video ad. Not only does it obscure the article, but you’re forced to hit the mute button. Despite publishers’ seeming commitment to the user experience, the big bucks commanded by video ads means tactics like this persist, even at top-drawer sites like New York and ESPN, which served an autoplay ad for Hulu’s “Deadbeat” on its home page. Pop-ups “can be very annoying when you are in a public place,” said Roger Fidler, Reynolds Journalism Institute’s program director for digital publishing at the University of Missouri.

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Anyone whose traffic seems to grow too much, too fast has probably cut a few corners — and most likely has aggregation at the core of their operation. Business Insider and The Huffington Post have frequently been called out for this, but smaller players like Talking Biz News could be accused of over aggregating, with stories like this item about a business journal layoff that are almost entirely lifted from another news source; so while it gives credit to the source, it also leaves little reason to click through to the original article. (Ironically, the site also ran this article titled “News aggregation: Both friend and foe.”) But as long as publishers are trapped in a traffic-maximizing model, aggregation will be with us in some form or another.

In these tough times, publishers are understandably flexing their creative muscles in trying to come up with new ways to wring more revenue out of readers, slapping their brand name on everything from events to cafes to frozen food. Some of these attempts feel like a stretch. The New York Times’ Times Premier is a recent example of this. In what Reuters’ Jack Shafer called “bewildering,” the Times is charging $10 for a deluxe package that includes single-topic e-books of already-published articles, access to the Times’ store (to buy more Times-branded products), a slideshow of the newsroom and fascinating explainers on the Times’ quote of the day and tips on what to watch. Did we really need the Times to recommend “Game of Thrones”?

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If porn makes up 30 percent of Internet traffic, you knew that sooner or later publishers would succumb to using porn keywords to drive Web surfers to their sites. Funny or Die, Daily Motion and Vice are just a few sites that appear near the top of keyword search terms like “sex” and “teen strip,” even though they don’t bill themselves as sex sites per se. But the traffic temptation is almost too hard to resist. Even the Huffington Post has a “sideboob” vertical.

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BuzzFeed didn’t invent the high-low approach to journalism, but it’s been especially adept at it; it has parlayed its blend of viral content and serious journalism into an audience of 130 million monthly unique visitors. So who can blame sites like Business Insider, The Huffington Post and Mashable for experiencing a little BuzzFeed envy? If they pull it off, they may make themselves more attractive to premium advertisers, but if not, they may only confuse readers — or worse, invite a backlash.

Advertisers are paying the freight, so more is better, right? There’s a temptation for publishers to cram as many ads as they can into the page, but then they end up with pages like this one that all but obscure the actual content that people came for. Joe McCambley, co-founder of The Wonderfactory, said that when doing site redesigns, he has pointed out to the client that 60 to 70 percent of their site is ads. “They feel like it’s their only way to make money,” he said. “But it’s killing their experience.”

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