It’s like clockwork. When anyone gets a payday, there are those who will express dissatisfaction with one thing or another that they’re doing to cheat the system, hurt the little guy, or kill innocent animals. Clockwork.
Disclosure: I am an unpaid and (very) occasional contributor for Business Insider. Even if I were not, I would still defend them against the horde.
First and foremost, everyone is right. Business Insider has made a killing by taking advantage of a system that is designed to reward content aggregation more than hard-hitting journalism. In the world of journalism, it’s an unfair truth, the blight of the internet, and worthy of the scorn of those who are underpaid, underexposed, or both.
In the world of business, it’s smart.
Felix Salmon got the Business Insider hatefest rolling on Reuters with this piece about over-aggregation and the mad grab for traffic. Marco Arment followed with his own perspective based on personal experience. BetaBeat, John Carney of CNBC’s NetNet, and others have followed with similar attacks on a business model and publishing style that recently yielded big bucks for the NYC-based website.
They’re all right.
They’re all wrong.
Why they're right
The internet has much more bad content than good. It’s an unfortunate fact that strong journalists and proud publications often have to fight for exposure in a world slowly but surely being dominated by search, social media, and traffic-driving strategies that are geared more towards highlighting¬† well-positioned content based upon loopholes rather than quality.
That’s not to say that quality cannot win. It does every day. Google’s Panda update to their algorithm was designed specifically to serve better results for unique, high-quality content rather than scrapers and spammers. Sites like Reuters or Marco.org are backed not just by the quality of their content but also a reputation that vaults them to “respected sources” status by sites like Techmeme and Google News.
Still, it’s unfair that websites like Business Insider are able to “cash in” on the work of others by aggregating the content in the form of snippets and a buried link to the source. Content aggregation is often despised by traditional journalists because the intention is often to get people all the information they need (and in today’s world, it seems like we live off snippets and dig down into the details less and less) without making them click through to read more.
Why they're wrong
There are so many reasons why content aggregation is good for the readers AND the journalists. In proper (ironic) form, here’s the snippets:
- The Link: It was pointed out that the traffic driven to the source sites is minimal from content aggregators. They give just enough detail to not compel a click. However, the traffic that comes from Google and the other search engines as a result of these links isn’t discussed. In many ways, the link is more important for driving search traffic than the original content itself. It builds credibility in the search engines. When content is aggregated, the source nearly always ranks higher than the aggregation, even if the aggregating site is highly respected by search engines like HuffPo or TBI.
- The ADHD Mobile Society: The world is changing. The term TL:DR applies more today than ever before. We are consuming more news and media through our mobile devices every day. As a result, long-form journalism is taking a beating and aggregators are making a killing. It’s a shame to be sure, but there will always be people who want to get down and dirty with the complete details. As a result, traditional journalism will always have a place in society.
- Yes, Pageviews Equal Money: This is the only argument that many of the critics are making that baffles me. On a personal level, I do not like the use of slideshows and unnecessary multipaging to bump up pageviews and I rarely read on to page 2 when they’re presented to me (other than Cracked – funny guys suck me in every time). While I may not like it, to criticize those who use this practice is a nice luxury when you’re employed by Reuters or when you’re not writing for the money. There are some of us who rely on the extra one-fifth of a penny we get when someone looks at one of our stories that has ads on it.
- Limited Loss of Readership: This could be debated, but one could argue that the minimal exposure that sources receive from the aggregators was created rather than stolen. In other words, one argument against aggressive content aggregators is that they steal pageviews from the sources. On the contrary, it’s easy to assume that the exposure a site like TBI gives to sources is traffic that they would not have acquired otherwise. Even though much of society is leaning towards snippet journalism doesn’t mean that the perceptions of feature reporting are being hurt by it. People who want to read more have that ability. The fact that the link is “buried” below the snippet doesn’t mean that people wanted more but couldn’t find the button. People aren’t that stupid. If they want to read more, they’ll find the link. If they don’t find the link, they’ll Google it and in many cases will land on the source (even though the click wasn’t registered as coming from the aggregator). You’re not losing readers. You’re gaining them based upon aggregation.
- Scraped Content Yields Limited Traffic: Google is getting smarter. Social media users are getting smarter. Anyone who believes that the scraped content that TBI uses has anything other than a miniscule effect on their traffic needs to look more closely at the analytics.
Keep in mind that I do not like content aggregation or repurposing of stories. It goes against my roots – my first job before becoming a “family man” was as a reporter at a local newspaper – but I am acutely aware that it’s a necessary part of the infrastructure of media. While I would love to have an army of trained journalists in fedoras with a press pass tucked into it scouring the tech world for the latest breaking news, we’re not there yet. For many, we have to rely on journalists for the details so we can expose it to our audience (with proper attribution, of course).
It’s not to say that the criticism against Business Insider isn’t right. It’s just that what they do and how they do it isn’t wrong, either.