For a time, people measured site ‘traffic’ by the number of page views on that site. So, any time someone opened a page on that publication, it counted as one. Shortly thereafter, people started juicing the pageview stats by throwing up a bunch of pictures and asking people to click through them. It was a lot easier to generate 20 pageviews with 20 photos than it was to bring 20 people to the site by other means.
Of course, the fact that these pageviews are not all worth the same is obvious to everyone: readers, writers, editors, advertisers, advertising agencies, etc. So, many forward-looking media companies like Gawker went away from pageview metrics back in early 2010. The company’s head Nick Denton wanted to focus on unique visitors to his site. Many of us have followed suit.
And yet still, today, nearly halfway through 2012, we find this story on The Atlantic Wire. The president of the Washington Post, Steve Hills, told his team that “awards ‘don’t matter’ [and] urged more traffic-driving slideshows.”
Now, I’ve got nothing against slideshows. At their best, I see them as a kind of horizontal storytelling. They are a tool you can deploy to tell certain stories. In fact, as storytelling widgets, I think they’re actually underexploited. You can embed them as a sidebar to convey some complicated set of ideas without interrupting the main flow of a narrative. And I’ve got nothing against a well-curated set of images a la our own In Focus or BuzzFeed’s random weirdness.
But that’s not what the WaPo’s slideshows are all about. Instead, they are seen as a cheap and fast way to produce “traffic.” The problem is that they are not producing “traffic” — which in any other context would mean the number of people in a space — they are producing page views. This is not a simply academic distinction. The company’s president is calling on his workers to juke the stats, effectively. These companies want you to think that more pageviews equal a larger, more engaged audience, but that’s a quantitatively and qualitatively shaky proposition.