The death of page views, and why we should care

Ask any web geek and they’ll tell you that the page, as we know it, is terminally ill. For many years, it was the proud atom of the web: an unbreakable, fundamental unit. However, much like the atom, it has now been broken down further, and in modern times is being bypassed by Ajax, Flash, desktop widgets, APIs, and RSS.

This breakdown of the atomic structure of the web is, in principle, laudable since it opens the door to a Semantic future. However, it causes at least two sizeable issues: first, the question of how we plan, architect and design this new world, and second, the impact on how websites make money. I’m going to focus on the second for now; the first is another post altogether.

Millions of commercial sites rely, of course, on advertising, for which page views (PVs) have been the predominant measure for years. Crude though PVs may be, it’s fair to say that if lots of people looked at lots of pages, your site was a good proposition. Same principle as why a TV ad during Corrie costs a lot more than one on UKTV Style. However, the page no longer means what it once did so, as the page dies, the PV goes with it.

The web advertising industry has yet to find a suitable replacement. The auditing companies (ComScore, ABC, etc) are of course striving to find a suitable heir to the throne; unfortunately, the obvious choices each have disadvantages:

  • Time spent per visit can be heavily skewed by the type of site, and can’t cope withRSS.
  • Unique visitors can’t differentiate between a passing glimpse and a whole evening spent browsing.
  • Click-through rate generally isn’t very appealing to advertisers who are looking to build brand awareness rather than get direct response.

So there’s a good chance that we’ll end up with a hybrid measure that mixes these ingredients with how much users are actually doing on the site. So far this equation has been lumbered with unpleasant, mechanistic labels like “engagement” or “attention”, or clunky acronym (I’ve heard recently of the “User-Initiated Rich Media Event” – yuck). Whatever we call it, this magical new measure will quantify how much people are interacting with the sites they use.

And this is why I’m worried. There’s always been something of a creative tension between maximising advertising bucks and acting in the best interests of users. To earn the cash, a site should increase PVs by splitting articles over numerous pages, hiding content deep down in navigation, and so on. However, this clearly isn’t good news for the user. The recent Guardian redesign, for example, has been accused (fairly or unfairly, you decide) of maximising page views at the expense of findability. It’s an emotive issue, to say the least. (As an aside, Merlin Mann has a fantastic solution:

“Thank newspapers for paged site content by sending subscription checks in 10 torn pieces. Y’know. For convenience.”)

My concern is that if the primary commercial measure of a site’s success won’t be page views, but user interactions, this broadens for the scope for evildoing. Bad practice won’t be restricted to nerfing navigation and adding unnecessary pages; site owners can now inject this nastiness into the page itself. More mouse clicks, more reveals, more forcing the user to request information they ought to be given straight up. In short, an interaction design nightmare.

Sure, it’s self-regulating to an extent. A site that takes the piss won’t have users for long. But if a site owner can double her revenue while losing just 10% of her users, will she be tempted? (And would she really be wrong to do it? Yikes.)

This, to me, is a real challenge the web design community needs to shout up about. It’s easy to consider it as purely the domain of advertisers, commercial managers and auditors, but as with so many things if the user isn’t considered in this process we could end up with a system that encourages sites to act in a very user-hostile way.

Postscript

It’s tempting to say, ultimately, there are big question marks over sites that rely purely on an advertising model. Perhaps. I think certainly it’ll take a couple of years for the less smart advertisers to accept the demise of the PV model. Maybe, as a result, the next few years will favour subscriber models, while ad-supported sites gently stagnate in an old PV model until the industry catches up.