SEO good. User experience bad.

I have been accused of giving my former employer, The Washington Post, a big juicy kiss a couple days back. I looked at how well the Pulitzer Prize winners integrated digital journalism into their prize-winning work. The Post came out on top. Hey, I tried to be objective.

Anyhow, today’s topic gives me the opportunity not just to cast a weary eyebrow at washingtonpost.com, but to throw sand in its face and kick it in the nuts. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The topic is how mainstream news sites–the Post is just one egregious example among many–sacrifice user experience as a matter of daily practice in order to trick Google into ranking its contents higher on its search results.

Delivering poor user experience in the name of building traffic is, we all know, built into the very DNA of web publishing. But one particular practice of mainstream web journalism is so deeply annoying, so persistent, so widespread, so pernicious and so baffling to outsiders that it’s worth pointing out.

I refer to the Inexplicable and Distracting Hyperlink.

Let’s look at the news story that’s currently in the lead position on the washingtonpost.com home page.

Bush to Cut Army Tours to 12 Months

President Supports Suspending Pullout Of Forces in Iraq

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008; Page A01

President Bush plans to announce today that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year’s troop buildup in an effort to alleviate the tremendous stress on the military, administration officials said.

Note how the Post has kindly offered that hyperlink to “President Bush.” Who exactly is being served by this hyperlink? Let’s see. . .that would have to be someone reading Washington Post coverage of national affairs yet is wondering who this Bush feller is, anyway.

Same with Iraq. The audience for that hyperlink is probably that guy who’s been taking ice core samples in Antarctica since 1990 and is wondering what all the fuss is about.

But the Post doesn’t stop there. It offers handy hyperlinks to the following terms that demand explanation for the discriminating consumer of public affairs news: Capitol Hill. Afghanistan. Marines. White House. And my favorite of the day, U.S. military.

To be fair, the article also offers links of some potential value when it blue-fonts the names of prominent figures in the story.

But the stuff you might really want more background about? No links. If you want to know about the details of that Democrat proposal on a torture ban, troop relief-and-refresh and withdrawl timetable, for instance, sorry. You’ll need to visit with Brother Google.

You don’t have to be a search-engine optimization wizard to know what’s going on here. Google and other search engines read the language of hyperlinks as markers for story content. So if somebody is searching the term President Bush (and therefore likely to be looking for biographical information, not what he said yesterday about troop withdrawl) this story will bounce up higher on Google results.

But frankly, that’s SEO chump change.

The really big payoff is revealed if you click on one of those hyperlinks. Go ahead, click on the President Bush link above. You’ll be taken to what’s known in the trade as a “link farm” (or “index page”)–links to dozens of stories (and video, audio and blog entries) more or less related, in at least some tangential way, to President Bush. Torch relay to go on despite protests, IOC says (CNN). Bloomberg’s Zacharia Discusses NATO summit in Bucharest. And so on.

So why do these auto-generated pages exist? We return to the demands of Brother Google. If Google’s silent patient spiders see pages loaded with links about Bush–or Capitol Hill, or the Marines, etc.–they infer that the site is very content-rich about the topic. Up go the pages in search results. Even if the links are nonsensical, worthless or utterly baffling. (Say It Ain’t So, Colin (Balkinization)). Next time some Googler searches for President Bush, wham! Washingtonpost.com is right on top.

Except when it’s not.

Go ahead, Google President Bush. Of the mainstream media sites, the well-tended New York Times link farm (led by Campaign 2004 content!) rides highest. As does (twice!) the New York Sun. And the Bush index page of the Tribune Co.’s The Swamp political blog. I got tired of clicking through results to find a washingtonpost.com story. But I passed the bushisantichrist and bushorchimp sites along the way.

SEO is a darker and far more complex art than this, and let me state plainly that I am a rube. There are complex traffic-steering and -aggregating services (post.com uses Inform and Aggregate Knowledge, at least) that play into this. There are many things going on behind the scenes that I am clueless about. And the thing Google spiders reward the most is links to the content from other credible sites, which is at least an attempt to validate content value.

But my point is this: A reader of online news is constantly distracted by all this blue-spatter spiderbait. It degrades the user experience. It offers no user value. It adds an unsavory layer of trickery to serious-minded content. Like the worst of all journalism, it places the institution’s commercial interests above those of the reader.

The question for serious journalistic enterprises: How can you maximize traffic to great content while keeping the reader’s needs at the forefront?

And isn’t that the same question we’ve been asking as long as this profession has existed?

Explore posts in the same categories: journalism, media, print-to-digital, search, SEO, usability, Washington Post

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3 Comments on “SEO good. User experience bad.”

  1. Katherine Says:

    Your humor is priceless. And I’m clearly a usability/search dork, because it had me laughing out loud at my desk – I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Mark Says:

    You’ve missed the entire point of those links, and built a long diatribe based on this false understanding, leading nowhere. It’s not “who is this President Bush feller”, it’s “show me more about Bush (I know who he is, but might not have read every article in the last day)”. They’re trying to give you access to their other articles without digging around for a search form. Certainly they’d also like to keep you on their site instead of wandering off to Google.

    A real link farm has no content of its own. It’s an insulting term to use for someone who does generate content.

  3. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Mark: Thanks much for your note. I agree there is some value in providing on-site content via these these hyperlinks (though, again, if you look at the content on those pages you’ll find the autogenerated content is not very useful for those purposes).

    But I do suggest you check in with some SEO folks about the value of those hyperlinks and index pages to traffic development–and ask around to see which side of the business the internal champions of these tactics live on. I think you’ll find it’s not on the editorial side.

    Thoughtfully curated links to related, relevant content are among the most valuable reader services in digital journalism. I’m a big supporter of Scott Karp’s Publish2 effort, which is designed to help journalists provide exactly that–hand-curated additional content, selected by journalists, that supports original works.


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