In May 2009, Thebigmoney.com was shouting into the void. Slate’s business site was eight months old, but it was still averaging only 50,000 page views a day, well below The Slate Group’s goal. Staff members, of which I was one, were at a loss: Where do you find an extra 100,000 page views laying around?
But then, manna descended. The tech team had finally built a way for us to publish a slideshow. Until then, The Big Money didn’t have the capability to run simple photo galleries that would earn a page view—and display a new ad—after every new click. Within days we ran our first slideshow, a visual essay about the history of credit-card design. Overnight, we found our 100,000 page views. Over the next few days, the slideshow made up 40 percent of our total traffic.
Slideshows quickly became an economic salve, and so they soon became an editorial priority. The agenda for weekly story meetings had a spot reserved to discuss upcoming slideshows. When that wasn’t enough, more meetings were held specifically to generate new slideshow ideas. Freelancers were encouraged to pitch stories that could be turned into slideshows.
Sometimes we ran great slideshows that were thoughtful, serialized essays (“Dubai to All That: A gallery of the trophy assets and projects that sank Dubai’s ship”). Other times we published something because we couldn’t afford not to (“Madoff’s Celebrity Marks: Where are they now?”). We still were only running one a week, but often that one slideshow earned an entire day’s worth of traffic on its own. In order to publish all of our other content—less grabby and just as consequential—we had to run the slideshows.
(An unhappy coda: even slideshows weren’t enough. The Slate Group’s general manager, Jacob Weisberg, decided to shutter The Big Money in July.)
We weren’t alone. Across the web, slideshows have become a shortcut to better traffic numbers; a shortcut that sites are now going out of their way to take. And increasingly they’re published because of the medium, not the message. The Huffington Post’s eleven-page presentation, “Simona Halep Breast Reduction Surgery PHOTOS: Tennis Star Back in Action” is only Exhibit A. New York and its new entertainment site, Vulture.com, have also committed to the slideshow, running several every week.
As page views became a priority, web editors had to decide when slideshows morph from fun novelty to craven solicitation. When I visit sites like The Huffington Post, I start to think the line has been irretrievably crossed. A slideshow’s desperation is evident in its headline. “Photos” of something “spectacular,” “magnificent,” and “amazing.” A “Top 10” list that must be seen to be believed! The hyperbole is hung out there on a string, baiting us to click.
But maybe all this pandering is worth it. Every site is trying to figure out a sustainable business model, and even the most asinine galleries help to subsidize the serious, thoughtful, and wordy articles that don’t earn as much traffic. Perhaps we should stop thinking of slideshows as the scourge of online journalism. Instead, we should consider them its savior.
The slideshow’s power stems from little more than a trick. Every time a new slide is clicked, a new ad is loaded and a new page view is counted, even if the page itself doesn’t refresh. Page views tell advertisers how many times their ad is displayed. So even though it’s the same person looking at multiple ads, the ad message is theoretically getting reinforced. Advertisers, according to the sales executives I spoke to, don’t necessarily care where the traffic comes from. As long as the number of clicks on their ads don’t dip, they’re willing, for now, to turn a blind eye to the slideshow’s smoke and mirrors.
The page-view trick is dependent on another trick: getting the reader to keep clicking. I’ve mindlessly clicked through even the most vapid slideshow like a junkie in need of one more hit. So why, from a psychological perspective, are slideshows so effective?