I used to be a member of P.R.E.A.M.
Pageviews Rule Everything Around Me.
This was not the best time of my life.
It was filled with a lot of conversations about how to improve my: clickability, shareability, and virality.
“I think we just need to work on finding what hits a nerve”
Oh is that it?
Doing this meant I had to maintain a near constant state of outrage.
When I first set out to write, I wrote about topics that I was genuinely passionate about. In the process of chasing pageviews I veered off of course. I abandoned my values, my voice—and in the worst cases—my ethics, for the sake of more clicks.
The low point had to be when I wrote the sexual escapades of a gym instructor. I knew it would be popular because sex + suburban outrage=success, so I hit the publish button and then watched the Google Analytics while making this face:
It was shortly thereafter that I found myself looking in the mirror doing the whole ‘I don’t even know who you anymore’ thing.
There’s a difference between chasing the page view dragon and using analytics to create products smarter and better.
There’s something about pageviews
Knowing there are people in the universe clicking on something you have created (or helped t0 create) is a rush. It’s instant gratification. Even when things don’t go as well as we would like, that’s still sending some pretty powerful signals to the brain.
Your impulsivity is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is largely responsible for navigating your brain’s reward system. The reward sensation involves two sections of your brain talking to one another, the striatum and the frontal cortex.
- Striatum: Responsible for the planning and modification of behaviors (it’s what tells us to go, take that reward).
- Frontal Cortex: Responsible for executive functioning and self-control (tells us to stop).
Simply, the more dopamine you have firing off in your midbrain (or where the striatum is) the more you are able to over-ride your frontal cortexes’ messages to “stop.”
When you see people looking at something you have created, that’s a reward. That makes you feel good, it is natural that you would strive to do more of it.
When something you create doesn’t perform as well as you would like, or doesn’t get the attention you think it deserves, that serves as a negative reinforcement. You sit there and try to identify what to cut out, what to amp up, to prevent that experience from happening again. Because you usually get this information in real time, it’s an extremely effective conditioning tool.
Oh yah, it also doesn’t hurt that success online generally depends on how many pageviews something has:
It’s a fairly common practice in the web economy to pay people based on the number of page views their work receives. Of course just because it’s a fairly common practice doesn’t mean it’s right.
Pageviews are a necessary component of understanding how your website or product is doing, so you can’t ignore it completely. But you certainly don’t have to bow down to them.
The engagement formula
This engagement equation is meant to give you a more well-rounded view of how people interact with your website. This formula is the brain child of Eric T. Peterson, it’s meant to measure visitor engagement beyond just pageviews.
It has seven distinct categories:
- Click: page/event views
- Duration: time spent on site
- Recency: how often to visitors return to the site
- Brand: awareness of brand and products
- Feedback: do visitors provide feedback and how frequently?
- Interaction: how do visitors interact with the website
- Loyalty: long-term interaction with product(s) or website
Speaking to the Nieman Journalism Lab, the individuals behind the news website philly.com discussed how they used the engagement equation to find out more about their readers. While search engines drove large numbers of people, these individuals were largely unengaged. They found that the more engaged users came from social media.
Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.—NJL
How people become engaged with a website is a book unto itself, but if there is one thing you can do to drive up engagement it would be to answer this question.
Am I adding value?
One of the lessons I learned from writing solely for pageviews or tailoring my writing for Google Keywords is that this writing had no value. I wasn’t personally engaging with the material in a new, different, or relevant way. I couldn’t think of how what I was doing was benefitting society at all, and that felt horrible. It is not a sustainable way to work.
Is that a utopian thought? It’s possible.
What if I put the question to you this way:
Do you want to make something that lasts beyond the next day, or hour, or minute?
Do you want to be in the hamster wheel that is the internet?
Dean Starkman from the Columbia Journalism Review writes about the hamster wheel this way:
The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics(…).
The backlash to producing content in this type of fashion has been swift and just. As quickly as the pendulum swings in one direction, it has started to swing in the other.
A recent article from the American Journalism Review (AJR) discussed how incredibly popular websites like The Verge don’t let their reporters view their article metrics (only broader article metrics that are told in meetings at the end of each month).
Because they want their reporters to focus on the quality of the content, not on what will get hits on a website. This helps people focus on creating content and producing stories that matter to them (and the readers of their website). If you’ve ever created anything, you know how easy it can be to begin to mold yourself to appease others.
When you do that, you often get away from what attracts people to you in the first place: your unique insight, your fresh perspective, your knowledge.
So, most of us don’t have a team or staff telling us how we are doing so we have to look at metrics but the object lesson from the AJR story is this: produce what matters.
If something strikes you, if you are passionate about something, that’s what people connect with. We are always, constantly looking for ways to connect to other people. We need too, it is one of the most innate human needs we have.
When you create out of passion, that is so much more powerful than creating out of the need for pageviews.
Metrics are just that, they are numbers. They can guide you, but they can’t tell you the people you have touched. They won’t tell you about the impact you’ve had on an individual person and those are the kinds of experiences that should drive you to create.
Drawing people in without selling your soul to the pageview devil
I’m no puritan. Most of us need people to go to our websites so you know, we can continue to eat food and pay bills. You can still do this without selling your soul.
Break it up
If there’s a topic you want to discuss or cover, try breaking-it-up into several smaller posts. This not only helps to satisfy the need to update your website (for Google rankings and driving visitors) it actually gives you the freedom to cover the topic more in-depth. The Christian Science Monitor and FastCo have both experimented with this successfully.
You do you
You build an audience, you create relationships with the visitors of your website because you offer them something no one else can or does. This has been one of the takeaways of the incredible success of Vox Media. They understand exactly what they offer people, they aren’t wishy-washy. They are firm and they make no comprises or apologies for it. Neither should you. That of course means you have to have a very good understanding of exactly what your website is and your role within it.
Always be learning
If you want to know the mark of a truly successful person it is this, they never stop learning. They never lose their curiosity. If you were to Google, “how to get more pageviews” you’d get over 46 million results.
I’ll save you the time right now: You experiment the shit out of different styles, content, posting times etc. You fold in what works and get rid of what doesn’t. That’s it, that’s what everyone does.
That’s what their big secret is. What works for one website, may or may not work for you. It’s not rocket science, I don’t even think it qualifies as “a science.”
This is where metrics can help you. They will let you know if what you are trying is working or if you’ve veered horribly off in the wrong direction. Make metrics work for you, don’t let them be the, be all end all of what you do or produce.
One day, I just stopped being able to write for pageviews. I tried, I mean I sat there for hours and I tried to pump out the same rage-filled swill that I had done so many times before. It wouldn’t come.
That was it, and I’ve never looked back.
Now I write and produce what matters and not only do I find it infinitely more rewarding but people actually respond to it more.
Be genuine, know what you do well, and always be open to challenging yourself, to experimenting with new techniques. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself most of the time–the rest of the time it’s just pure dumb luck.