Why do website publishers alienate users with so much clutter?

My friend @HarshadOak recently complained on twitter:

Think content websites need 2 look at delivering only the content that’s been explicitly requested by the user & nothing else

He was, like most of us, unhappy with all the clutter that you find on a typical website these days. There are ads, links to other posts, links to other websites, and a whole bunch of things other than the content that the user requested. The question is, if all the users hate this so much, why are the websites doing this? Don’t they know that they’re alienating their own users/fans?

The answer is simple: most of the users don’t care about this issue as much as they think they do.

I’ll explain.

I learnt this lesson the hard way in the early days of @meetumeetu‘s website wogma. Having views similar to Harshad, I kept pressing for a clean website with minimal advertising. And as meetu asked for advice from experienced folks, the advice she kept getting was that the ads needed to be more prominent. And when we (meetu and I both) pointed out that this would alienate the loyal readers, we got this surprising advice:

If putting more prominent ads really alienates readers, then, as soon as you enable these ads on the website, your traffic should see dip. So, turn on the ads, see if there is a dip, and if there is one, then you can turn off the ads.

This seemed like a reasonable, scientific mechanism of testing the issue one way or the other, and we turned on ads.

And by now, you’ll have guessed what happened. There was no difference in the traffic.

The basic truth is this:

If you have good quality content, then the readers are willing to put up with all the clutter on the website. That is the price they pay for the free content.

But, Harshad points out:

even apart from ads, there tends to be so much content that the user hasn’t requested for

That’s simply because the web publisher wants you to stay on the site for longer. Hence you’ll see links to related posts, and other more interesting sections of the website. The game is to try to increase your page views per visit, since in most cases page view are directly proportional to ad revenue.

But what about this objection:

a clean site with revenues coming from other sources like events, paid content, etc. sounds doable

Yes, and no. I’ll respond to each separately:

  • Paid Content: In some ways, this is worse than ads and other clutter. It dilutes the brand and the content, and it irritates the readers even more than clutter. Increasing the ads and clutter rarely results in irate emails from users, but often content by guest bloggers does (and I am not even talking about paid content here).
  • Events: Is possible in cases of “local” sites, but not possible where the readership is global and the per-city density of readers is not high enough.
  • Etc: In general, trying to do any of the other things will distract from the main goal of most publishers – that of creating great content. This is not a tradeoff that everybody is willing to make.

So clutter is here to stay.

Are mobile sites a solution for this? This discussion started off with this tweet by Harshad:

That people r increasingly pointing to m.__ version of articles is IMHO a vote for clean interfaces & against the current web clutter

Make no mistake – as people start using the m.xxx sites more and more, publishers will find a way put ads and clutter there to. It just hasn’t become a big problem yet.

Here is a final quote to close out this article:

If you’re consuming something, and you are not paying for it, then you are the product…

In the world of (free) websites, the advertisers are the customers, you (the readers) are the product being sold, and the actual content is the marketing.

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