The Back End's the Thing

November 10, 2008

The back doorIn David Weinberger's fascinating book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, he writes that the ability to sort information "on the way out" of a website beats sorting "on the way in," and that this is a core competency of the Web. This back door approach to organization isn't what it appears to the casual observer.

Yahoo's elaborate navigation helps users sort information on the way in (to its ad infrastructure), but Google allows people to enter search terms, which results in the sorting of information on the way out. Google makes its money by putting ads on everything that shows up in the searches, including an enormous number of the sites that the searches reveal organically. Weinberger brilliantly argues that what appears to be miscellaneous chaos actually turns out to be a neatly-ordered organizational system — only it occurs "on the way out."

This ability to "see" the value of the connections that take place away from what's obvious to the average user is what separates what I'll call "the Silicon Valley Web" from that which was built and promulgated by traditional media companies. Media companies intuitively are drawn to the front door, for that is the model of traditional success.

Several years ago, Cory Bergman and Steve Safran — both then of Lost Remote — and I participated in a panel at RTNDA, during which we each expressed the reality that "the Web is not TV." This had been a recurring theme of ours since we first encountered each other, and it was fun to share our thoughts together.

By now, you'd think everybody in traditional media (the Web is not a newspaper either) would understand this, but the longer I'm involved in this field, the less I think people really appreciate the depth of the differences between each. And that lack of understanding leads to all kinds of strategic and tactical errors, because traditional media companies — advertisers are guilty, too — continue to try and shove their existing models into a world that rejects them. Media companies will never reach their potential online until we deal with this fundamental issue.

At the core of the matter is design and, along with it, usability, for there is a world of difference between web people who work for media companies and those who've built the disruption of Media 2.0. I find this wherever I go, that while working in the same environment, the two groups seem to speak different languages.

Media companies design websites to advance their models, while the world of the Web designs sites to advance the lives of users. Media sites are built around a revenue model — their revenue model — while disruptor sites and applications are, again, built around users. Media sites "drive" and route traffic, so as to monetize every opportunity. Those disrupting the media world tend to avoid these traps, because they are more interested in serving the needs of, you guessed it, users. In the end, who will win?

So the statement that "the Web is not TV" is much deeper and, frankly, more important than some appear to believe. The direct pursuit of money online in the form of ad-supported content is, therefore, problematic at best.

Jakob NielsenAt the October "Web Experience Forum" in Boston, web usability guru Jakob Nielsen noted in a keynote address that, as reported by Giga-Om (What if you ran an ad and nobody saw it?), "web design is doomed to failure unless we learn from end users. And one major lesson is that other than paid search, ads don't work."

"We call this banner blindness — people won't see ads at all," said Nielsen. "Ads might as well not exist as far as users are concerned, except for search ads." The number of web users that so much as glance at banner ads, he added, is too small to even quantify.

The findings are no secret to web usability professionals gathered here, who obsess over how consumers use the web. But they're often ignored by ad buyers.

"For the longest time, the web has been in collective denial of this phenomenon," said Nielsen. "People still have this old media thinking: They think of the web being similar to TV because itís on the screen and visual. The main distinction is whether itís active or passive, not whether itís on a screen or not."

The findings of which Nielsen spoke are also ignored by media companies, because, well, ignorance is bliss in the blue-smoke-and-mirrors world of traditional advertising. After all, the networks are out there selling DVR "views" as ratings, because it boosts their numbers, even though everybody involved knows that nobody watches the ads. Do media companies really care? We're content to take advertisers' money without ever asking the obvious — kind of like looking the other way while debt becomes the core driver of business growth instead of equity (but that's another story, eh?).

How long will local ad buyers ignore the obvious? I wouldn't bet the revenue ranch that it will be forever, because the ad community is learning that the Local Web is cost-effective and efficient. This is the ticking bomb for the traditional media online ad model, for the "quality impressions" value proposition offered by local media companies won't mean much when advertisers are able to find those same people elsewhere for a lot less money.

We need to care about this, because the slow leak of revenue from our legacy platforms threatens a bursting of the dam entirely, and the paltry (by comparison) dollars coming from the Web through display advertising on our portals cannot possibly make up the difference. That's no exaggeration; it can't be done. The Web is not TV, and the Web is not a newspaper, so let's take a step back to try and determine why we behave as though it is and, more importantly, what we can do about it.

The Web was not built by the institution of media, and that's vital to understand. If media had created the Web, the ability to restrict access to create artificial scarcity would be built in, because this is the world that media companies know. It's how we make money. We create "mass" by teasing, driving or forcing people to scarce content, and then serve advertising to that group or charge them for the privilege of membership.

But the Web is about abundance, not scarcity, and if we're ever going to find the gold in "them thar hills," we're going to have to adapt new mining tools and skills. Hence, the Web is not TV.

The Grateful Dead, circa 1976So who did build the Web?

As Fred Turner, Stanford Professor and author of the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, says, "The distance between the Grateful Dead and Google...is not as great as we might think."

So it's those damned hippies that built the Web, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that its roots are in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and anything fed through that nozzle is unlikely to behave in a manner conducive to the financial needs of the status quo.

New York Times online home page, November 1996 - courtesy archive.orgEarly iterations of the Web — as far as news and information are concerned — resembled that of newspapers, because the bandwidth available "worked" only for text. The image on the left, for example, is a home page of the New York Times in November of 1996. It looks like a newspaper on the Web. Hence, we make "pages." We sell "display ads." There's a "fold." And so forth. Yahoo is essentially a giant newspaper, so it makes for a natural marriage with the newspaper industry, which has hitched its future to the portal.

But the Web is not a newspaper. I don't even like the term "pages," because it's so misleading. But that's what we have.

Television is just beginning to hit its stride online, after ceding a big lead to disruptors who understood the Web. Few media companies really appreciate what's happening at YouTube, for example, because all they see is the lack of ad money attached to all those videos. In so doing, they miss the communities being created on the back end and the value of being THE repository of everything video. If we've learned anything from the Web, it's this: new value creation doesn't have to even vaguely resemble old value creation.

So if the Web isn't TV or newspapers, then what of the news and information business? If media people were to step aside, how would the technology experts who built the Web communicate news and information? The answer is in our old friend — or nemesis — the blog.

Blog software was created in the social media world for personal journals, following the linear process of writing when you have something to say and then posting it for others to read — writing, posting, writing, posting. With the assumption that people were reading the journals, the latest entry always appeared at the top. The simple content management systems that drove the journals all delivered a "home" page with multiple items stacked on top of each other and individual entries of the journal displayed — with reader comments — on internal pages. As tech media developed, the industry adopted the blog format, generally because the content management software was sophisticated and usually free.

Then came professional blogging, and the writers stayed with the software and the format. Nobody thought anything about providing news and information in a descending stream, with the latest entry on top. But as the blogging world grew, so did the elegance with which the back end of the software communicated with the Web, and the differences between the software choices, like Movable Type and Wordpress, more often involved the back end and not how the content was displayed up front. This focus on the back end is what separates tech media from traditional media. Old media's online emphasis has always been on the front end and driving traffic to the orderly display of content within in order to make money.

Traditional media companies have adopted some of the interactive innovations of blog software, but it's all done in the name of keeping people on the site to make money. This overlooks what's happening at the back end, and this is where traditional media needs to take a lesson from the tech denizens of the Web.

Blog software talks to the Web in such a way that it fits all its nooks and crannies. The handshake is perfect. It's automatically unbundled. Its interactions work across thousands of applications. RSS output is second nature, because the mission was always about getting the message out instead of driving users in. Linking — both outbound and inbound — are part and parcel of blogging, because its creators understand that links, not page views, are the currency of the Web. Comments, tags, pings, automatic referrals to related sites, trackbacks and a legion of other plug-ins and applications "connect" blog software with the Web and its users. Blog software isn't about form or format; it's about the Web. It is the ideal form of communicating information online.

In a very real sense, this is the real mission of journalism, only this format wasn't built by professional journalists. Now that many pros are adopting the blog format, there's a blending of both worlds underway. But the big difference between the two — at least for most local media — is in the back end.

move to the back doorThe fact that the innovators of the Web and their user-centric vision produced a form and format for transmitting news and information is a critical point, if one is to honestly examine where we are and, more importantly, where we're going. You can say all you want about the depth of information available via the portal model, but simple blog software will run circles around it in terms of meeting the information needs of users. Simplicity is at its core, and it does it well. You have a message. You want people to read it. You make it as easy as possible for them to do so, or they will go elsewhere. Unfed sheep will bolt to other pastures, and this is the crisis facing traditional media and professional journalism.

We think that bigger is better, that the more "sections" or "channels" we can attach to our URL, the greater the opportunity for revenue. There are two problems. One, we simply cannot make enough "pages" to carry the volume of display ads necessary to sustain the business, and, of course, this assumes those pages will all be seen. Two, even if they are seen, we run into Jakob Nielsen and his usability research. Nobody sees the ads on those pages anyway.

Local media companies need to design their brand-extension web entities to fit the medium of the Web, and we need to take a lesson from the technical press. TechCrunch and Engadget are the two monster sites of tech media, and both are presented in blog format. Are they "blogs" or media companies? What's the difference? Giga-Om is another successful tech media site in blog format, and there are many, many others. Other tech news sites use the blog format for internal pages but play with the home page. Take a look at The Inquisitr, which is actually built in WordPress, a popular and free open-source blog software.

Veteran tech writer Duncan Riley is the founder of The Inquisitr and wrote in an email that the top of the blogosphere and traditional media are beginning to blend, as tech media reaches into the old world and traditional media reaches into the new. "Most people who hit The Inquisitr wouldn't know they were hitting a blog," he wrote. "The Inquisitr is proudly a blog, but our mix of content is more towards a magazine or newspaper format, and our design changes over time have come to reflect this."

Riley strongly disagrees with statements by some that blogging is fading. "Blogging is still growing," he wrote. "It's just that the line between blog and traditional news site is now blurred to the point that many can no longer recognize the difference." The difference, most assuredly, however, is in the back end.

TMZ.com logoAnd then there's monster entertainment/gossip site TMZ.com, which is also presented in blog format. This subsidiary of AOL launched only three years ago and has even developed its own syndicated television program, which has now cracked the top ten in syndicated shows. It has no plans to change its basic format, because it works beautifully in sustaining its continuous news model.

TMZ.com's parent company, AOL, also uses the blog format for its general news and business news sites, presenting the front page in hybrid format.

The ad models for these sites vary, but they generally emphasize impressions in the right column and between items in the left column. Ads in this format don't compete with other ads, and that adds value to their positioning. Advertising here is linear, because the content of the page is always changing. Hence, it can be sold by daypart. As I've written previously, TMZ.com sells roadblock ads by-the-hour and makes a killing in so doing. We could and should be doing the same thing.

Most of these companies also monetize their RSS feeds, because they know that much of their content is consumed in that format, and this is another lesson we could learn from them. Most media companies use RSS to drive users back to their portal sites, but this is not the practice of tech media. Full feed RSS, where the feed itself contains the entire story, is another example of putting users first.

The blog format, or some variation thereof, may not be the be-all-and-end-all for local media companies, but we need to stop looking past it as a real vehicle for communicating with our users. Most of all, though, we need to take a big step back and honestly ask ourselves a few questions. Do we require people to dance through hoops in order to access what we're presenting? Do we bury content to serve ads that nobody sees? Is our content free to roam in the wide open spaces of the Web? Are we restricting our ad infrastructure to that which is only within our own walls? Is what we're doing online really useful to web users? Really?

If it isn't, we need the courage to start over, because the front end is increasingly irrelevant, and the back end's the thing.