In his autobiography, Warren Buffet, the greatest investor who ever lived, succinctly describes his investing strategy as ‘be long term greedy, not short term greedy’. While his approach was described in the context of investing and advocated sacrificing short-term gain for the long-term view, it has far-reaching implications for many areas of business, including online strategy. To highlight how it applies to the online world, there’s a phenomenon occurring, deep under the covers of the internet I want to draw your attention to. First, some background.
The web has gone through several evolutionary phases, both for publishers and site owners. First, when nobody knew what they were doing and content creators had no idea how to monetize the internet, people wrote content, threw it online, rinsed, and repeated.
As things evolved and content creators began thinking about how to monetize web traffic, contextual advertising was born, and along with it, ways of tracking every nuance of what drives traffic. Then, content creators began to investigate what worked and methods of gaming the system emerged, such as slideshows and breaking content into multiple pages to jack up pageviews.
The problem is, many of these methods, such as those cited above and others, such as showing users a massive full page advertisement before the destination page (interstitial ads), are intrusive and make for a poor user experience. Until recently, the evolutionary trajectory of the web was such that they were mostly tolerated by readers.
Readers Have Evolved to Expect A Better Content Experience
But things are changing. Web readers are becoming more mature, expect more from their content consumption experience and are becoming increasingly intolerant of shenanigans that content creators pull to drive pageviews. Or, to put this slightly differently, slowly, gradually, those content creators who have been taking a ‘long-term greedy’ approach to their content creation/presentation are increasingly, seeing their efforts rewarded while those that take a ‘short-term greedy’ approach are beginning to lose out, or at least have the reading public cry ‘foul!’
Buzzfeed On Building a Content Center with a Long-Term View
Last month, investor Chris Dixon published a widely covered blog post where he reproduced a memo from the CEO of wildly popular social content aggregator Buzzfeed. There’s a lot there that is worth exploring, but I want to focus on one particular aspect of the memo that describes steps they took to achieve their success that will help frame the phenomenon we are calling out:Respecting our Readers
We care about the experience of people who read BuzzFeed and we don’t try to trick them for short term gain. This approach is surprisingly rare.
How does this matter in practice? First of all, we don’t publish slideshows. Instead we publish scrollable lists so readers don’t have to click a million times and can easily scroll through a post. The primary reason to publish slideshows, as far as I can tell, is to juice page views and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!
For the same reason, we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.
Instead, we focus on publishing content our readers love so much they think it is worth sharing. It sounds simple but it’s hard to do and it is the metric that aligns our company with our readers. In the long term is good for readers and good for business.
The full memo reveals several steps Buzzfeed took that led to their success, but the above suggests one significant aspect of it has been an intentional, long-term focus on ensuring their readers have a good experience when consuming content on their website. That means finding good content that their readers are interested in, but it also means avoiding tactics that are short-term focused. Put another way, they recognized that web readers are increasingly expecting a good user experience and, to a large extent, stepped into that space to provide it.
Public Outcry Against ‘Short-Term Greed’ Tactics
The move towards an evolving tolerance of web readers has been driven by web sites like Buzzfeed who have made strong commitments to user experience and by sites like Reddit whose communities do not tolerate shenanigans. And, helped by the platform social media provides, readers now have a platform to call out those who are behaving badly.
For example, at the end of May, former Techcrunch writer Paul Carr very publically and verbosely castigated Business Insider for many of their page-view driving tactics. Although his comments were initiated by an (intentionally) inflammatory BI headline, many of his later observations focused on the tactics BI uses including those we called out above.
In one tweet, Carr humorously mocked Business Insider’s headline writing and page-view boosting tactics:
While I can’t say for sure whether or not it is related to their public tongue lashing, I have noticed that Business Insider has recently begun to take steps to reduce the annoyance of their ‘short-term’ tactics such as giving readers the option to view multi-page articles on one page. And, I haven’t seen a headline with [SLIDESHOW] in a long while.
Search Moves Towards ‘Long Term Greedy’ Too
A similar evolutionary trajectory has occurred for search marketers. Initially, tactics such as keyword stuffing were used to game the system with great effect, but as the search algorithms have evolved, many of the tactics have lost or have seen their effectiveness severely reduced. A non-cynical view of Google’s most recent algorithm changes (Penguin, Panda…) suggests the motivation behind them—reducing web spam in search, punishing links in bad neighborhoods etc.—is at least, in part, driven by a move towards a ‘long-term greedy’ web experience.
The Trajectory of the Web is Towards Long-Term Greedy
To be sure, there are still many publications, both old media and new, that still ‘successfully’ utilize short-term tactics to drive page views, and in the process, create a poor user experience for the reader. And, varying degrees of effectiveness of some short term tactics in SEO will likely never go away entirely, nor will those who question Google’s motivations or who may be unfairly caught up in some of their new filters.
But as the web stumbles out of toddlerhood towards adolescence, its users are maturing and requiring that the experience mature with it. For content creators and web marketers, that means taking an increasingly ‘long-term greedy’ approach.
I’ll close with this thought from renowned entrepreneur and Marketer, Seth Godin:
Isn’t it always?
Actually, the long stories are the good ones. About how you found that great job, or discovered this amazing partner or managed to get that innovation approved.
If long stories are so great, how come we spend all our lives working for the short ones? The very act of seeking out the shortcut and the quick win might very well be the reason you don’t have enough successful long stories to share.
A version of this post was originally featured on Search Engine Watch on September 11th, 2012.