The High Cost of Clicking

This has been an annoyance to me for quite some time, but the issue has come to the surface recently with two events. The hubbub surrounding the removal of Pulse, an RSS feed reader, from the iTunes App Store and the release of Safari 5 and its new Reader feature have served to expose two camps of people; the ones who appreciate easy access to content and those who impose barriers to accessing content for various reasons (and not all of them nefarious).

First, let me say that I do not mind reasonable barriers for content.  What are barriers?  Anything that gets in the way of the primary message trying to be conveyed.  This could be advertisements, breaking the article up into multiple pages, offering summary-only RSS feeds and so on.  I'm fairly pragmatic when it comes to this kind of thing.  I realize there are costs involved with providing me content for consumption and some of the barriers in place help to offset those costs.  I can appreciate when the generation of revenue for the provider is not directly passed along to the consumer as it would be by the use of a pay wall or some other similar subscription models.  So if seeing an advertisement is what it costs to read something that interests me, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

However, this idea that if one advertisement is good then 43 of them is better is wrong-minded.  This has turned into a game of one-upmanship.  Providers realize that readers (customers) have become adept at ignoring their advertisements, so they become more... interactive.  Ads fly across the screen (obstructing the content) or they turn them into games (distracting from the content) or are repeated on a single page (header and sidebar typically) or they magically convert text within the article into links which, when moused over, create content obscuring popups with questionably relevant topics displayed.  What's more is that these interactive items typically utilize Adobe Flash which, in my opinion, is one reason Flash has been demonized in many circles.  In my experience, pages with Flash content tend to load more slowly than those without (another barrier).

I came across a link to a great write-up on this topic via Daring Fireball.

OK.  So what generated this particular rant?  Like most rants, the last straw is typically something small.  In this case, I'm on the MSN home page and I see a link to an article about 10 mistakes when buying a car.  I may be in the market soon and I'm thinking, "Well let's see what they have to say."  I'm not particularly invested in the topic, but it happened to catch my eye.  So I click the link and what do I get?  A page with three additional sentences that summarizes the article in a way that tells me no more than I new already after having read the link text.  All of this somewhat buried in the middle of other... stuff.

Dutifully, I follow the dangling carrot to the full article.  Well, the first half of the full article.  It's buried amongst all of the usual MSN junk, but I expected that.

Needless to say, the payoff was not worth the effort, but I figured that since I've come this far, I may as well go a bit further.  I noticed that the MSN article cites Forbes.com as the source and I wonder if the experience is any better there.  I click the provided link expecting to be taken to the Forbes version, but I am instead taken to the Forbes home page where I do not see a link to the article in question.  I do a search, find the article and... the experience is about the same as on MSN (not great).

Worse, in fact.  As I scrolled to the bottom of the Forbes page to see the link to the part of the article, I noticed the screen go grayer.  I just thought that the background image might have been slow to load.  Imagine my frustration when clicking any link did absolutely nothing at all.  After a few seconds I scrolled up, and what did I see?  A customer satisfaction survey request dialog with overlay that had popped up near the top of the page and outside the active area of my browser's display area.  Needless to say, I filled out the survey.

What did I learn from this?  The takeaway is that the clicking a link from MSN or Forbes costs more than I am willing to spend.  I don't think that is their goal for the consumer experience.  Or maybe it is or maybe they don't care.  I don't believe it should be the goal for any service provider who wishes to keep its customers.

As far as Safari Reader goes, it needs a little work.  This is exactly the problem it seems designed to solve, but in this particular case, it aggregated multiple pages from different articles.  The feature is new and could probably use some tweaking.  If you try yourself and get different results, I'd be interested in knowing.