Readability on News Websites

It’s a somewhat uneasy subject among websites such as OSNews – advertisements, the site’s readability, and how to get a little more income without compromising the pleasure of using the site. Brent Simmons published a blog post about the topic which has been making its rounds across the web. The gist: websites, save for a precious few, seem to be getting progressively worse.

Since I scour loads of different websites and get links to just about every corner of the web, I’ve seen my fair share of horrible websites. It would also seem that it’s getting worse – more ads, more intrusive ads, but less content, or content that’s spread out over several pages. It’s infuriating.

As much as I hate to point fingers at other websites who I think are doing it wrong, I can’t really get around it. Despite the absolutely excellent content, I find The Verge to be close to unreadable. Long loading times, slow scrolling, confusing multiple-column layout, no horizontal alignment, ten million different fonts, and so on. Heck, if I load up the page without AdBlock, there’s no content above the fold.

Other popular sites with good content which have succumbed to the ads-and-sharing-nonsense and/or confusing navigation bars are Ars Technica (four toolbars at the top!), Engadget (again, no content above the fold), or Gizmodo (which has become virtually unreadable).

It’s not all bad. As much as I often disagree with John Gruber, Daring Fireball is a beacon of proper content-focused design. Another really good, content-focused design is HackerNews. The Loop recently ditched their very confusing and heavy site for a far lighter, and more Daring Fireball-like design. I aspire OSNews to be like those when it comes to its design.

Currently, I think OSNews sits somewhere in between. We don’t have that many ads (although we do have the occasional runaway overlapping ad), we load really, really fast, and content is presented above the fold. However, I still believe we can do better, and I can reveal that we are thinking about how to do this. We have the first basic mockups flying around, and if everything works out the way I have it in my head (which covers a lot more than just our site design), OSNews is going to be radically simplified.

Anywho, back to Simmons’ article. He details how he had to visit an article on a news site, and outside of the comfort zone of his RSS reader or Readability, he was flabbergasted by just how bad the site in question had become.

“I was there because I just wanted to read something. Words. Black text on a white background, more-or-less. And what I saw – at a professional publication, a site with the purpose of giving people something good to read – was just about the farthest thing from readable,” Simmons recalls, “They’re filled with ads and social-media sharing buttons – and more ads. And Google plus-onesies and Facebook likeys. And also more ads. Plus tweet-this-es. Plus ads (and, under-the-hood, a whole cruise-ship-full of analytics. The page required well-more than 100 http calls).”

Simmons has worked for various publishers, and notes there are four reasons as to why the current state of many websites is what it is: they’re got no money, no idea where the money is going to come from, a rock-solid faith in the importance of analytics, and “a willingness to try anything as long as it’s cheap or free and has analytics”.

Simmons, too, notes the examples of sites which are trying to buck this trend – but for now, they are outliers, and it would appear it’s only going to get worse. As Rian van der Merwe notes, “I’m worried that the wells of attention are being drilled to depletion by linkbait headlines, ad-infested pages, ‘jumps’ and random pagination, and content that is engineered to be ‘consumed’ in 1 minute or less of quick scanning – just enough time to capture those almighty eyeballs.”

“As advertising clickthrough rates continue to drop, the ads become more desperate and invasive, and readers are starting to notice and do something about it,” he adds. The popularity of things like Readability illustrate that readers are getting fed up with this as well, and really want to do something about it.


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