Sunday, October 30, 2011

Are those news sites or ad sites? It gets ugly.

Over at the Monday Note (petty much required reading here at CSJ World every Sunday night) Frédéric Filloux has performed an interesting experiment in looking at news site Web design - mask all the ads and see how much of the site really is left devoted to news.

It's pretty eye-opening. For instance, here is the French site 20 Minutes as Filloux found it the other day.

 He blocked out the ads with red.

Fascinating. There is some squishiness in this, because when I went to the site today, the big splash page and background he found were gone and there was a more subdued feel. Still, it shows how excesses have been known to pop up.

At the Swedish paper Aftonbladet, however, the ads still reign, just as he found them. Look at the mask:

U.S. sites seem a bit more restrained, but hardly without problems. Go to his post to look at the masked screenshots and judge for yourself. Consider this gauge he put together of where the typical page for various sites actually begins with news content:

So what does that say about concern for the reader given all that we have seen in eyetrack and similar studies about readers' reluctance to scroll more than about a screen and a half before they start losing interest?

Now, the scrolling dynamic is a bit different on mobile screens, where it tends to be built more into the psyche of the screens (plus it's easier to do with the flick of a finger). But as Filloux writes:

The weird thing is this: On the one hand, web designers seem to work on increasingly large monitors; on the other, the displays used by readers tend to shrink as more people browse the web on notebooks, tablets or smartphones.

The result is a appalling when you try to isolate content directly related to the news. (His emphasis.)
There are many forces pulling at online sites, not the least of which is the need to make money. But I find it fascinating how much of the real estate has been given over to ads. It seems to be the print mindset brought to the Web (you could often find, in the "good old days," inside pages with one or two short stories and a huge ad stack). But the online audience, as we know, is not "captive," and my experience anecdotally observing people's digital use is that they are not willing to be subject to the same kinds of thinking.

Mobile could change all this significantly, if it really does generate new design principles - and Filloux discusses some of the better iPad apps that have eschewed the "print" layout and "start from a blank slate in which a basic set of rules (typefaces, general structure of a page, color codes) are adapted to the digital format."

But we also know from experience that large swaths of the news industry will take the path of least resistance, which right now seems to be simply "scaling down" the cluttered website designed for the desktop and squeezing it into a smaller screen (perhaps not even with all the elements, but still with many of them including the ads).

I think his illustrations show why that won't work.

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