The Problem With Our Page View Obsession

This past week, as I was considering what to write for my column, I scored what I call a homerun post. It took off and amassed more than 24,000 page views at last count. I had another that barely broke 200. So it goes in the world of writing on the web.

Yet writers obsess over page views, in large part because-as one of my editors pointed out recently--advertisers view it as a key metric. If we get page views, we get work-that's a powerful incentive.

Old-school journalists are likely perplexed by this. That's because back in the print days, you wrote your story and it was published. There was no way to know if 10 people or 10,000 read it--and it didn't matter.

It worked the same way for advertisers. You ran an ad, but short of holding focus groups for every one, it was impossible to build a direct correlation between your bottom line success and the ads you ran. I suppose if you offered coupons or contests as a lure, that was one way to keep track of your success, but overall it was basically a crapshoot.

Therefore, we measured success in papers sold. If a certain number of people were buying the publication, there was a good chance they might read your article or see your ad. That was as good as it got: a kind of vague sense that things were going well.

One of the advantages of taking print to the web was that you could begin to understand your audience at a granular level. As analytics have matured, we have been able to glean an amazing amount of information about how many people come through the site, what they read, how long they stayed on a page, how they found you (e.g., search or social site), and so much more.

In fact, there's so much information and so many different ways of slicing, dicing, and interpreting the data, it's a bit overwhelming. Yet for some reason, pure page views are still where it's at for advertisers-and therefore for editors and writers. The trouble is this only tells us that a person was compelled enough by the headline to click through.

Clearly, there is no magic formula for attracting readers, or we would all be using it. The closest we've come to such a recipe is a site like BuzzFeed, which until last year was devoted strictly to stories like "13 Reasons Why Cats and Dogs Need to Wear Socks All the Time" and "Michelle Obama Got Bangs." It's divided into categories such as LOL, Geeky, and Trashy. In other words, it panders to the very lowest common denominator to attract the biggest audience possible-I mean, who doesn't like a good story about why cats and dogs wear socks?

And apparently, the formula is working because BuzzFeed bagged a $19.3 million dollar gift in the form of venture capital investment, which according to boosted its funding total to $46 million to date. Seems venture capitalists are enamored with page views as well. (It's worth noting that BuzzFeed actually displays its page views prominently and offers registered users even more detailed statistics.)

It got interesting when BuzzFeed decided to branch out from stories about cats and geeks into actual journalism. PandoDaily reported that BuzzFeed has high aspirations too, hiring former Politico editor Ben Smith to head its "serious journalism" division. Good luck finding it among the cat videos.

In the PandoDaily article, Smith acknowledged the incongruity of mixing serious news with silly link bait, and he's sorry if that makes traditional publications uncomfortable. But if it makes money and feeds his serious journalism budget, so be it.

This is what we get when we place page views über alles. It forces publications to use any means necessary to get readers to the site ... even if that requires stories such as "The 13 Worst Things for Sale on" New media sites such as BuzzFeed don't feel compelled to apologize to newspapers drowning in red ink about it-not when reports peg their current value at $200 million and climbing.

And it could just be that BuzzFeed is on to something by giving readers a heavy diet of junk food mixed in with their vegetables, all while jacking up those valuable page views. Advertisers like it, investors like it, and apparently readers like it. But I still wonder if we should be looking at some other metrics.