Medium needs to decide which side it’s playing on

Medium-LogoThere’s a lot of good discussion about journalistic practices and so on in this CJR piece about a story that recently appeared on Medium, the long-form writing platform founded by the guys behind Twitter. Here’s the conclusion, though, which also serves as the nut of the piece:

 …until Medium clarifies which pieces contain the full weight of their editorial judgement and which pieces are just hosted on the site, they’re leaving room for a whole lot of confusion and gossip.

That gets close to what has always been the problem with Medium for me. It’s tried to have the best of both worlds but has, by virtue of that, kind of fallen through the cracks and failed to fully do either. If it was just trying to be a cool platform that surfaced, through a mix of algorithms and some human editor curation, some interesting and important community-contributed stories and articles it could be really cool. If it was just a platform for high-end commissioned content from a series of top-tier writers (and maybe paid articles from brands) that would be great as well. It could be a cool platform on which to rethink the traditional magazine format in a way that established media brands – I’m looking at you Newsweek and others – haven’t been able to.

Instead it’s decided to have feet in both worlds. And while that’s made for an experience where the reader often doesn’t know what it is they’re getting – a fully edited story or someone’s random op-ed – there are opportunities to clear things up and eliminate confusion.

The first and biggest step would be to spike the “all content is created equal” mindset and create clear sections on the site that differentiate one type from the other. Right now the “collections” that content within Medium is pushed into are great if you know what you’re looking for, but this needs to be expanded a bit so that, for lack of a better phrase, the professional is divided from the amateur.

The best rest example I can think of is how Buzzfeed a while ago opened their platform to content from outside writers – including brands – that was then vetted by someone on the editorial staff and which had the potential to then be promoted more fully on the site. Those different types of articles were labeled differently so the audience (at least those who were paying attention) knew what they were reading and could judge accordingly.

Medium doesn’t need to abandon both models/services. But it does need to more fully figure out how it’s going to differentiate between the two, not just for the sake of the readers but also for its own sake, so it can decide what it’s going to be accountable for and what it won’t. That doesn’t mean there should be content that it’s alright with taking down because of some complaint or another. Quit the contrary, it should adopt the model used by Twitter, WordPress and other “dumb” platforms that it won’t remove material published there unless there’s a damn good reason to do so, a damn good reason that’s accompanied by a court order.

Most urgently, Medium needs to be clear about what its plans are. Only then can it can get down to some serious innovation, which I remain convinced the platform is capable of, despite my frustrations to date with it.

Some sites just aren’t meant to see search engine success

A week or so ago, Buzzfeed shared the following chart that shows how traffic referrals from Facebook have spiked over the last six months while traffic from Google has remained relatively steady, dipping slightly. The usual caveats around making broad assumptions based on one use case are firmly in place here, of course.

facebook-google-buzzfeed-referral-traffic

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has his own take on the data, including a second chart that shows which publishers are faring best in terms of content being shared on Facebook. In this case Upworthy holds a massive lead and I’m going to stop myself from using any sort of “and you won’t believe why” joke here because it’s been done to death.

As both Ingram and Kafka note, Facebook has been making a big play recently for the attention of publishers, showing off how they can make their content more successful, promoting new tools to encourage sharing and discovery and more. The launch of Facebook Paper is all about that, with mainstream news publications – including ones an individual hasn’t Liked or otherwise followed – getting the same (maybe more) emphasis in the app as a user’s network of friends.

Much of the analysis around all this data has included commentary about how it’s just as likely that at some point Facebook will tweak it’s algorithm in a way that will benefit some and hurt others in the same way Google has done over the years. But, and it may be an over-simplification of the issue, no one has really looked at how it is the most obvious thing in the world that these publications benefit more from Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) while seeing only marginal results from search.

The short and simple answer is that the content that’s published on those sites is about as un-search friendly, at least in the traditional sense, as possible.

In the old days of SEO (read: 2000-2009), content optimization was about making sure there was a date structure in a post’s URL (so search would easily know it was new content and rank accordingly), that the headline and top two paragraphs were keyword-rich without crossing the line and more. You were basically writing for how you wanted people to find it. So you had to think like a searcher. If your article was about banana-shaped fish in the Pacific Ocean, you can be “banana, shaped, fish, pacific” and other keywords were going to be at or near the top of that page.

This is, in fact, an area where the “new” media was trumping the “old.” Newspaper and magazine editors continued to try to out-clever each other in their headline writing while bloggers and nascent brand publishers learned real quick what worked and what didn’t by tracking Google Analytics numbers and adjusting accordingly.

But content on Upworthy, Deadspin, Buzzfeed and others are back in the headline game since their discovery is so dependent on social sharing. They write provocative headlines that feature leading questions because yes, I do want to know why that dog wasn’t allowed in the pets-only area of the local park because that’s outrageous.

And no, that’s not something I’ve ever clicked on or thought to myself.

No one is going to search Google, Yahoo, Bing or anything else for 16 Parks and Recreation GIFs that Summarize the Sochi Olympics or similar stories. It’s highly unlikely that anyone has thought that was something that was missing from their lives. Other than that writer, of course. But it’s something a fair number of people will click on from Facebook because it’s low-calorie content and will take all of 90 seconds to consume.

Buzzfeed and it’s ilk are essentially so uninterested in search it’s kind of startling. Sure, they still get some traffic that way, but it’s not their bread and butter. And that’s almost a 180-degree flip from the old days, when the emphasis was on search while social sharing – done largely through Stumbleupon and the original version of Digg – was secondary.

For people like me who made our bones in old-school SEO (not specifically but as a subset of our skills in publishing) that means one of two things: We can either keep doing what we’ve been doing in the belief that by emphasizing long-term discoverability and value we are continuing to build a better web by not giving in to the latest cheap fad, or we can do the other thing. You can likely guess from how I’ve completely biased the two sides of the argument which side I fall on.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place – a valuable one – in listiicles, occasionally over-wrought headlines and stories that are just GIFs with the bare minimum of context. But, like that Snickers bar I’ve been craving for the last three days, it’s just one small part of the overall picture. And that’s the same advice I give my clients. My career will be decided by whether that works out long-term or not.

On a related note, Upworthy has come out and said they will moving away from page views as a measure of success and instead looking at something call “attention minutes.” They make a fair case as to why some traditional metrics don’t work in all cases and it will be interesting to see if other publishers begin to follow their lead on this in the same way they have on headline writing and so on.

You got your brands in my Jelly…

(Note: I wrote this a week or so ago but just realized it was still sitting in Draft mode. The lesson, as always, is that I can’t even be trusted with my own stuff. –CT)

It took less than a week after the launch of Jelly, the new Q&A app that comes from some of the founders of Twitter, for brands to start poking their noses into the conversations that were happening there.

For those unfamiliar, Jelly is designed to tap into the power of your social networking friends, essentially crowdsourcing the answer to something you can’t quite figure out. It’s based on pictures and works by uploading photos and asking questions along the lines of “Hey, does anyone know what this is?,” with your friends then chiming in. The value proposition is that the people you know are smarter than a generic search engine, something that may not always be true but which is actually more applicable (at least in my experience) with pictures/photos than general queries.

81d02e33.HeroSocialSo far limited metrics are available, and those that are show after an initial flurry of excitement usage and engagement dropped sharply. Jelly itself acknowledges that in its check-in post by saying this is just the start of a long slog in terms of acquiring users and proving its value.

Interestingly, the pushback has already begun. First you have this, about the brands that are taking initial and tentative steps into Jelly:

There may not be a pure business play yet but brands are tinkering with the opportunity nonetheless. GE asked its followers which scientist (past or present) they’d like to sit down and have a coffee with, Travelocity stuck to answering questions as the roaming gnome character while CNBC posted a picture of a Tesla and asked: “If you could own any car in the world, what would it be?”

And then, not much later in my RSS reading, this popped up:

No, the real deal-breaker is the marketing. The thing launched like three seconds ago and already I’m getting notifications for “questions” from mobile phone companies, soft drink firms and so on. As Mashable put it, Jelly is the new “play toy” for brands.

And then this from that same article which perfectly encapsulates my feelings about introducing on a community that hasn’t even had time to form:

But for Pete’s sake, can’t you marketers let me get comfy first? Maybe let me poke around and see why this new platform is fun (a debatable point) before you start hitting me over the head with the brand hammer? Do you have to be in there from day one?

The core problem with social TV

Wow do I wish I’d written this:

Okay, video startups, it’s time to get real: That social TV thing you’ve been trying for the last couple years? It’s not working.

The evidence is all around us: A few days ago, Yahoo announced that it was shutting down Intonow, the social TV service it had acquired three years ago. The announcement came on the heels of i.TV discontinuing the GetGlue service and brand which it acquired late last year in favor of its new tvtag app.

And just today, social TV company Viggle bought Dijit, better known for its NextGuide app. Dijit of course had acquired social TV pioneer Miso a year ago, just around the time when Viggle tried — and failed — to buy GetGlue.

Dizzy yet? I haven’t even mentioned Matcha, Tunerfish, Screentribe, Twelevision, Otherscreen, BeeTV, Numote or Philo yet — all startups that tried and failed to revolutionize TV by making it social. Some got acquired and eventually sidelined, others just fizzled and ran out of cash. Part of this is simply how the startup world works — for every success, there are a bunch of failures.

But there’s more to it: from the very beginning, standalone social TV apps were a solution in search of a problem.

via Let’s face it: social TV is dead — Tech News and Analysis.

WordPress is just kind of great

Mullenweg has a must-read post about the valuable role WordPress – and open source software in general – plays in the world. The whole thing is great but this is the bit that stuck out at me in particular:

What they miss is that WordPress isn’t a checklist of features. It’s over 29,000 plugins created by the community, from the in-demand things like SEO to niche features like using your 404 page to help adopt homeless dogs in Sweden. Every WordPress site looks different, because of the thousands of themes available. Instead of one event to outdo, there are more than 70 volunteer-organized WordCamps on six continents (and there’ll be more in 2014).

via The Four Freedoms | Matt Mullenweg.

It may be a bit of rationalization on my part, but I do consider myself a “contributor” to WordPress, despite the fact that I’ve never contributed a single line of code, use a free theme on this blog and so on. But my embracing WordPress and evangelizing its benefits to others I do feel I’m doing at least something to contribute to the platform. Luckily I work with some world-class developers who are doing real work, so part of me also feels like they make up whatever ground I may be slacking in.

I remember years and years ago when I first experienced WordPress it just felt right. After using Blogger for a while I was able to snag an invite from Auburn professor Robert French to build a blog on his PRBlogs system. Shortly after that I got my “golden ticket” to start my own WP blog – this one – at a time when they were being doled out on a somewhat limited basis. Every other platform has paled in comparison.

Flipboard looks to the past to guide the future

Interesting changes coming from Flipboard:

Flipboard co-founder Evan Doll said the new features — which launched today and will start rolling out to everyone gradually over the next few weeks — are designed to give users a way to scan the top headlines or items in the major content categories they might be interested in — whether that’s content on specific topics, or from specific sources they have chosen, or articles recommended by Flipboard’s human editors and algorithms.

via Flipboard wants to tame the unruly stream by becoming more like a traditional magazine — Tech News and Analysis.

Tumblr bests

Mary Gaulke on the PNConnect team has a great post that looks at some great Tumblr blogs and how they serve the brands who publish them. The post comes from the PNConnect Trends Report, a monthly overview of what’s hot and interesting in the social publishing world. If you’re interested receiving that let me know.

Tumblr is a force to be reckoned with on the social Web, with traffic to the site increasing by 74% from 2012 to 2013. Still, for many brands it’s an open question whether – and how – to leverage the platform. Among the many brands already succeeding on Tumblr, we’ve delineated three broad types of blogs to help provide some insight into what’s working particularly well. (Although, of course, many brands blend elements of the different types.) Here’s an introduction to each of those types, with some illustrative examples of how different brands are making the format work for them.

via Three Species of Tumblr Brand Blogs: A Field Guide « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli.

Super Bowl ads will be hashtagged within an inch of their lives

I’m old enough to remember when like 10% or so of Super Bowl ads even had a URL, much less a freaking hashtag. And the URL strategy was – and is – much more sustainable than a hashtag, which isn’t necessarily unique, can be hijacked by anyone and has all sorts of other problems. But, as I’ve said many times, they’re only going to become more pervasive since most networks now support them. Which, ugh.

Per StarStar’s numbers, during last year’s big game, only 14 percent of the advertisers used a Facebook call-to-action, while 33 percent included a Twitter hashtag and 53 percent mentioned a branded online destination. It’s worth noting that Facebook did not have hashtags at this juncture a year ago and few brands were utilizing them on Instagram compared to now. So high-paying Fox advertisers such as Volkswagen might be more inclined to employ them on-screen since they are now relevant across three major platforms.

via Infographic: Will Super Bowl Advertisers Put Hashtags and Facebook URLs in Their Spots? | Adweek.

4 in 10 Top Retail Brands Using Vine

This is pretty incredible adoption for such a relatively young platform.

An analysis of almost 900 retail brands, encompassing nearly all of the Internet Retailer 2013 Top 500 as well as additional “up and coming” brands has found that many have already warmed to Vine. The 8thBridge report [download page] reveals that while Facebook (99%) and YouTube (98%) adoption is almost ubiquitous among the studied brands, some 38% have already begun using Vine. Also of note, adoption of Pinterest has grown from 78% in last year’s study to 89% in this year’s edition, putting the visual platform on par with Twitter.

via 4 in 10 Top Retail Brands Using Vine.

Facebook burying brands while lifting individuals

On behalf of everyday users of Facebook, I feel like this is a return to the network’s foundation. On behalf of brand publishers, though, this feels like Facebook just making it more clear that they have to pay for access to the Newsfeed.

Over time, we noticed that this effect wasn’t true for text status updates from Pages. As a result, the latest update to News Feed ranking treats text status updates from Pages as a different category to text status updates from friends. We are learning that posts from Pages behave differently to posts from friends and we are working to improve our ranking algorithms so that we do a better job of differentiating between the two types. This will help us show people more content they want to see. Page admins can expect a decrease in the distribution of their text status updates, but they may see some increases in engagement and distribution for other story types.

via News Feed FYI: What Happens When You See More Updates from Friends – Facebook Newsroom.