January 1st, 2008

Can Pay-For-Performance Improve The Quality Of Content On The Web?

by

Nick Denton and Gawker Media are wrestling with the problem of content quality on the web — specifically, how to give bloggers incentives to create content that drives traffic based on quality rather than quantity. Gawker has announced that incentive pay for its bloggers will now be based entirely on the number of page views that each blogger’s posts generate, rather than on the total number of posts a blogger writes. (Vallewag has posted the entire internal memo, which anyone interested in the economics of publishing on the web should read and re-read.)

The downsides of this approach are obvious — the incentive rewards content that is salacious, titillating, slanderous, nasty, etc. — anything that appeals to the base interests of a mass audience. It rewards gaming of social news sites, i.e. creating content that appeals to the most parochial interests of users on Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, etc. And of course it rewards search engine optimization, writing content that is packed with keywords and that foots to the top searches, with headlines written for search engines rather than people.

Google AdSense is in many ways the most successful pay-for-performance content system on the web, rewarding content that ranks high in search and draws in readers who then click on ads. It’s easy to argue that this system has flooded the web with junk “Made for AdSense” content that has no purpose other than to generate ad revenue.

But the flip side is that Google AdSense has also financed innovation on the web, giving web start-ups and niche content creators an easy stream of revenue to help bootstrap new sites. AdSense may not be a long-term business model, but it does reward innovative new sites that can attract attention.

So what about Gawker? Nick seems to believe that pay-for-performance will lead to an overall improvement in the quality of Gawker content. He uses the adjective “linkworthy” to describe content that is of sufficiently high quality that other sites will link to it. Of course, the same salacious, titillating, slanderous, etc. content can also be linkworthy, but I think Nick is less focused on the problem of offensive or “cheap thrills” content, and more on the problem of mediocre content.

When blog networks like Gawker paid writers based on the number of posts, they provided an incentive for writers to post even when they didn’t have any interesting information or anything interesting to say. The result of this “infinite news hole” was that blog networks generated a lot of mediocre content.

You could argue that mediocrity is the real scourge of content the web, and that more “linkworthy” content means, on balance, higher quality content. Links are of course the principal driver of search engine ranking, so writing linkworthy content is ultimately the best SEO strategy. Search can and does reward the best content as easily as it can reward poor quality content engineered to game the system.

So in the final analysis, does pay-for-performance create incentives for better or worse content? I think the answer is both. The web in many ways turns a blind eye to quality — it rewards both the good and the bad.

What the web lacks most right now is a content filter that adheres consistently to a high standard of quality. If their were such a content aggregation system, it might be possible to significantly improve the quality of content on the web with pay-for-performance systems.

Comments (34 Responses so far)

  1. I think because A) the bonus program is aimed at single posts, rather than aggregate results; and, B) has pretty substantial PV numbers before bonus kicks in … that the system has little danger of rewarding salacious, etc. posts.

    The posts will need to be good content to get the kind of attention that will drive links and traffic — mere good SEO won’t drive that kind of traffic.

  2. Absolutely correct. I did six videos about the Amazon Kindle. Which one got all the traffic? The one where I was an asshat, of course!

    So, if I worked for Denton I’d do nothing but Asshat videos.

    Hint: that doesn’t bring traffic (or relationships) that companies, er advertisers, value.

  3. [...] UPDATE: This post is in reaction to this post by Scott Karp. [...]

  4. Scoble’s onto something — the real story here is not just that Denton wants to increase his margins even more (after running the numbers I have all new sympathy for his writers), but that they don’t seem to be able to make quality *audiences* pay out. The memo berates quantity of posts but sings the praises of (undifferentiated?) quantity of audience pageviews?

    How long before the writers are replaced completely by user-generated content that involves no overhead at all?

  5. Page views are becoming a red herring – If you attract gawkers with sex and slapstick, you get poor ad targeting (unless you’re selling sex or slapstick).

    Lead generation is the real value. Advertisers will increasingly look for demographic-specific audiences.

    That’s why whoever creates the best blog-network software will win. If you can aggregate bloggers in a given niche, make it an open network, make the homepage a well-edited media site, you get lead generation.

  6. [...] Karp has some concerns about Gawker’s new approach: “The downsides of this approach are obvious — the incentive rewards content that is [...]

  7. [...] is that — as Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 — rewarding writers based on traffic is both good and bad. In some cases it will make that writer more engaged, and in others it will simply encourage them [...]

  8. [...] is that — as Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 — rewarding writers based on traffic is both good and bad. In some cases it will make that writer more engaged, and in others it will simply encourage them [...]

  9. By focusing on quality of posts, I assume that Vallewag is following the same trend that I’ve seen a few key bloggers (i.e. Skellie, Leo Babauta) mention in 2007: fewer high quality posts (with high value for the reader) are better than plenty of mediocre posts: more like a “sniper” effect than a machine-gun or shotgun effect.

    How do you build a quality-detection algorithm, I wonder? It’s somewhat subjective, isn’t it?

  10. Great observations here, and agree that this bring “more” of both the crap and the good stuff, though I don’t agree that “quality” is measurable. One person’s quality is another person’s assclown BS crappy worthless drivel. Even many thoughful folks are going to click on a Perez Hilton “Britney drops Baby” before they click on a brilliantly reported story titled “Musharraf outlines nuclear plans”. Why? We (humans) are defective in this respect, and that probably won’t change until the singularity.

  11. [...] ValleyWag: Denton to pay bloggers based on traffic Publishing 2.0: Can Pay-For-Performance Improve The Quality…? [...]

  12. Can Pay-For-Performance Improve The Quality Of Content On The Web? (Scott Karp/Publishing 2.0)…

    Content is all about personalization and community. Quality content builds communities. Professionals can also create custom content (i.e. custom research reports).

    That’s the future of content, pla……

  13. What makes the web great is that we see things like Miss North Carolina. It is a reality we need to see and want to see. But there isn’t a content filter in the world that would ever pick that set of inane utterances to pass through to readers.

    No content filter, of course, except network television, which produces that level of ‘quality’ on a regular basis.

    What was that about getting paid and producing quality work again?

  14. [...] along with some tongue-in-cheek criticism (check out Scoble’s “announcement”) and general commentary (check out some excellent [...]

  15. Pay per post has a secondary effect of having a single post on a subject get picked up by a host of other bloggers who don’t question the veracity or source of the original post and are just rushing to get a post out on what looks like news. The result, unfortunately, is a mushrooming “telephone” effect where the facts become progressively more blurred and, combined with the “asshat” effect Scoble describes, progressively more bombastic. Unfortunately, this is a predictable outcome of the pay per post incentive system. The net effect is lower quality content.

  16. [...] What is interesting is the idea of increasing quality in blogs, which will be hard, as the distinction between blog and media has gotten to be quite blurred, both sides of the argument are using each others on line tools, meaning bloggers can be journalists, and journalists can be bloggers. So what about Gawker? Nick seems to believe that pay-for-performance will lead to an overall improvement in the quality of Gawker content. He uses the adjective “linkworthy” to describe content that is of sufficiently high quality that other sites will link to it. Of course, the same salacious, titillating, slanderous, etc. content can also be linkworthy, but I think Nick is less focused on the problem of offensive or “cheap thrills” content, and more on the problem of mediocre content. Source: Publishing 2.0 [...]

  17. It seems everyone on here lives in a world without editors. The only people rewarded in these plans for huge page views are the reporters. And in traditional worlds, all of those reporters have editors, whose job it is to filter out the onslaught of sensationalist crap you doomsdayers predict.

    Even at Gawker there are site leads who Denton says (if you read the memo) can strike the page view bonus from any post they deem inappropriate.

    And since when are reporters in this business for the money? It’s going to take a bit more for all of them to just drop their principles.

    I’m a big supporter of the plan and have been for a while.

  18. We’re talking about Valleywag here right? It’s not like this is in-depth thoughtful content, right?

    Now, try this on a site with some integrity, and no, it’s probably not going to work.

  19. [...] Can Pay-For-Performance Improve The Quality Of Content On The Web? :: Scott Karp – and of course any discussion on blogging, journalism and the worth of each wouldn’t be complete without Scott Karp’s opinion. [...]

  20. I’ve found that quality content performs as well or better than sheer quantity. The trick is “digestibility.” Readers – including sophisticated online readers – crave quality, but they also crave their time. Readers want a quick synopsis of a story, similar to the bullets on CNN and the teasers on AlterNet articles. Then they want a well researched and structured article that includes sub-headers and bulleted lists. At the end of the article, include references and resources with links.

    Most readers know quality content when they read it and they crave it. Change (tweak) how you deliver quality content and I believe that people will both follow and refer other people to it.

  21. [...] And where base compensation is not tied to performance, bonuses typically are. But this is not a simple issue and online reaction really has ranged. I think that some of the negative comments have been in [...]

  22. [...] More: Dan Blank, Mathew Ingram, Scott Karp. [...]

  23. I think a policy change like this can also mean that mroe bloggers will have to hustle to make more connections, network, sell themselves outside their online contributions. I know a lot of bloggers focus as much on relationships with real people who can swap links or just help sell the blogger. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad for content. Or whether that’s fair to other bloggers who may not have the personalities to network with real, live people.

  24. The problem is the metrics being used to define success. Number of posts? Page Views? These are not metrics built to last in publishing 2.0 let alone 3.0.

    One we start to look at outcome based metrics to quantify and redefine what success means to advertisers this all gets sorted out.

  25. Scott Karp states the following at the end of his piece:

    “What the web lacks most right now is a content filter that adheres consistently to a high standard of quality. If their were such a content aggregation system, it might be possible to significantly improve the quality of content on the web with pay-for-performance systems.”

    What Mr. Karp apparently does not know (or chooses not to know)is that such a “content filter” (or rather and more properly an “information utility”) with the quality of Web content that Scott rightly wants, is here and available now and has been here for almost a decade layered across the public Internet in the form if “Interchangeable Master Channels” (IMCs) that are basically a private commercial Internet with a built in “filter” called a quality driven marketplace.

    Scott was offered access (does he not now remember this?) many months ago to the IMC network whch has more than 700 dedicated IMCs in the dot-com name space that (a) bypass ICANN for practical purposes and b) can acommodate almost every conceivable brand name product or service, where the brand name sponsors then become the enablers for the “high standard of quality” criterion for content aggregation that Scott evidently (and rightly) wants to achieve.

    And, not incidentally, the network absolutely protects the PRIVACY of every single person who intends to receive such content on any consistent basis (RSS and so forth), the latter about which Scott has also written.

    Nor is Scott the only person who has access to the network. Anybody can access the network. It appears to be the case that persons like Scott who really are rather knowledgeable about such things, sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees – perhaps because they are not the ones who actually invent the solutions about which they now complain are unavailable?

    All Scott has to do is ask and his really rather meritorious and above-mentioned complaint about quality filtering is, for practical purposes, alleviated.

    I’m not saying that the EXISTING network is perfect, but the original concept which contemplated a UNIFORM AND COHERENT NETWORK with 700 plus dedicated channels in the dot-com name space was and is sufficient to accommodate all content considered worthy by in all probability any brand name sponsor anywhere in the word that wants to sponsor quality content.

    Think of it as a Web-based PBS, with the difference bring that content creators work with their sponsors while the network itself is laissez faire in the sense that it anables connectivity in the rott zone but otherwise totally “hands off”.

    Sure, content filtering raises questions about who decides what is the quality criterion that triggers the filter. The best I could come up with in the original design was the marketplace. Sleazy and meritless content presumably would not easily find sponsorship – as if, for example, I wanted to program a Howard Sern nudity festival on PBS and tried to find a sponsor.

    I admire Scott very much. And I also think his would an excellent voice to have present in the management of the network. Nonetheless, I do think on this occasion that Scott protests too much.

  26. [...] is the approach I’ve practiced and preached for the last two years, and yet smart people are concerned that this “more bang per post” approach will cheapen the discourse in the blogosphere [...]

  27. Freelancers who win cover stories for print magazines don’t automatically have an advantage over paid staffers. An editor decides what’s worthy and puts his/her neck out to fight for great work deemed so. Lazy or indifferent staffers can be scooped at their own publications. I’ve seen it firsthand.

    How can clicks and links provide a meaningful metric for quality web content? They encourage manipulation for the sake of circulation and ad revenue.

    Measure the length of visitor stays. Measure the quality of visitor paths. Analyze who among your contributors is most read. Measure ad click-throughs (novel concept). Then factor in raw visits and figure out pay.

    What’s the difference between a 5-second web visit and a 5-minute web visit? A video rant? A compelling post that breaks news? A headline written purely to grab attention for a moment? Tough dilemma. But the editor shares in the burden. Temptation is to go for the easy way. I can’t see that as a long-term business model.

    Responsibility, respect and trust are part of publishing — no matter where. You have to consider the people who produce the work, the customers who read it, and the advertisers trying to sell amidst it.

  28. [...] memo was published today in Valleywag.  The subject of writer pay at a tech blog provoked interesting questions on Publishing 2.0. It will fuel a few more blogger keystrokes until the Consumer Electronics Show and [...]

  29. [...] 2.0 provides their concerns around the idea that Pay-For-Performance will improve the quality of posts on the web: The [...]

  30. [...] to be embedded, so you’ll have to go to Gizmodo and see it yourself. Maybe it’s because the editors are now getting paid by the page view. It’s not about page views, guys, it’s about whether or not you’ve got an [...]

  31. [...] Scott Karp does a nice job elucidating the “cons”: “The downsides of this approach are obvious — the incentive rewards content that is salacious, titillating, slanderous, nasty, etc. — anything that appeals to the base interests of a mass audience. It rewards gaming of social news sites… And of course it rewards search engine optimization … with headlines written for search engines rather than people. “ [...]

  32. Scott, as you note, “[w]hat the web lacks most right now is a content filter that adheres consistently to a high standard of quality.” I think that’s absolutely right. Fundamentally, it’s why we’re building Brijit. But we don’t believe paying your writers based on traffic is the way ensure quality. Combining the best aspects of algorithm, user-generated content and traditional editorial control allows us to control for quality. Pay-for-traffic, more often than not, is a race to the bottom.

    More here: http://brijit.wordpress.com/

  33. [...] Can Pay-For-Performance Improve The Quality Of Content On The Web? – Publishing 2.0 (tags: blogging media economics) Filed in Del.icio.us on January 2nd, 2008. [...]

  34. [...] for pageviews adds on obvious, if controversial, incentive for writers to create popular content, but in our IM conversation, Denton described the [...]

Add Your Comment

Subscribe

Receive new posts by email