MEDIA JANUARY 9, 2014
When The New York Times rolled out its website redesign Wednesday morning, the site’s first redesign since 2006 seemed a bit underwhelming. In an era of big, flashy overhauls, the changes to the homepage and section pages were relatively minor. Even the article pages—the locus of most of the effort, according to Ian Adelman, the newspaper’s director of digital design—looked familiar. With one major difference: There is no more pagination. Readers will not be invited to click through to pages 2, or 3, or 4. Everything on the site is what used to be called “Single Page.”
The Times squarely is not alone. The Washington Post did away with pagebreaks in December. Vox Media sites like The Verge and SB Nation routinely publish longform content that is read simply by scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. BuzzFeed, despite running photo-driven “listicles” that other sites would present as click-heavy slideshows, has in its almost eight years of existence never had pagination. The list is long and includes The New Republic's website, which relaunched last year without pagination. The Internet is abandoning the pagebreak—and, with it, revealing some truths about how online media works.
There was a time, eons ago in Internet years, when pagination served a practical purpose. Adelman was the founding art director of Slate, which debuted in 1996. “A long time ago, they existed because of the idea that you might not be able to load all that content all at once,” he remembered. “We were talking about how much stuff should be in a page. 28.8 modems, 14.4 modems in some cases. There was once a time when there was perhaps a user-experience argument for pagebreaks.”
But before long, faster Internet connections slashed download times. Talk to virtually anyone involved in editorial website design now, and they will tell you that, by the current decade, there was exactly one good reason for media websites to continue making readers click through multiple pages in the course of reading a single article: It increases pageviews, which in turn generally translates into more advertising revenue.
“User experience professionals and designers have been advocating for the lack of pagination in the digital space for as long as I can remember,” said Kevin Kearney, CEO of Hard Candy Shell, a New York-based digital design, user experience, and strategy agency. “It’s not something users have ever wanted. It’s not something designers and people who create digital products have ever wanted. It’s only been something that publishers have forced due to boosting pageview numbers.” (Kearney is the brother of a New Republic story editor, Ryan Kearney, and Hard Candy Shell consulted on The New Republic’s redesign.)
The case against pagination is intuitive: Who wants to click when they don’t have to? “The impetus was easy,” explained the Post’s managing editor for digital, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz. “It was just a desire to improve user experience. There’s no question that asking people to click on ‘1 2 3 Next’ at the bottom of an article is an invitation to annoy people and have them leave. We wanted to arrest that and give people a better experience.”
At BuzzFeed, which never used pagination, founder Jonah Peretti bragged in a 2012 memo: “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 pageviews and banner ad impressions. Slideshows are super annoying and lists are awesome so we do lists!”
Also super-annoying: Having to click to a new page on your smartphone. Jessica Ivins, a Philadelphia-based user experience specialist, points out that the increase in the use of mobile devices—from which the Times, for instance, gets nearly half of its traffic—has also encouraged a move away from pagination. “Just by the nature of how someone interacts with a touch-screen device, it’s very tactile, easy to scroll through,” she said. And unlike with those noisy modems of olden days, the type of slow service associated with iPhones militates against multiple pages per article. “Your connection might not be very good,” she noted. “If you’re constantly having to paginate through, it sucks up data from your plan, and it can be slow.”
But behind all the noble talk about making the web more pleasant for readers, there’s money. The trend away from pagination has paralleled the trend away from the supremacy of the pageview as a metric. The early Internet model—where the site gets paid every time a user clicks on a new page, however puny—is fading in favor of models that reward sites where readers actually spend time on pieces. “Advertisers are interested in things like pageviews-per-visit and time-on-site, because it shows [readers’] engagement level with the brand instead of just how many pages got seen by people,” said Kearney. “You want to be associated with this brand that people really engaged with, instead of, you can be a site with nothing but slideshows. Even advertisers are hip to the difference at this point.”
It was particularly easy for BuzzFeed to banish jumps because it doesn’t use banner ads, meaning pageviews are much less directly monetizable for it than for most media companies. “Generating a lot of pageviews was never a goal for us,” said Chris Johanesen, BuzzFeed’s vice president of product and one of the company’s first four employees. Garcia-Ruiz told me that the Post ran several experiments and found that, on articles without pagination, readers stayed longer. “Hopefully it improves time-on-site, the uniques,” he added. “Pageviews isn’t the only metric we should be looking at.”
Some of those other metrics—how long readers spend on an article, or on a site; really, anything that more precisely measures reader appreciation for the site’s brand rather than the site’s ability simply to attract clicks via search or social media—place a premium on things that are also valuable to readers. By definition, their heightened importance to advertisers will make for a more reader-friendly result.
In the meantime, media companies will move forward into this new world while still honoring the rules of the old one. In its redesign, the Times made a conscious effort to try to compensate for the inevitable decline in ad impressions, said Adelman. “The verdict still isn’t totally in on that one, but we’re feeling like we’ve found ways to offset,” he explained. “We came up with a way to progressively load ads as the reader scrolls into a story so that we can work to offset some of the ad inventory loss.” Either way, he added: “It certainly feels better.”