The most dignified of the lot, the slideshow essay is text-heavy, using images as illustrations. Its defining characteristic is a larger narrative woven through all the slides. Focus is on the interplay between images and words. The images amplify the ideas in the text while staying out of its way. Typical example: “The Architecture of Edward Hopper,” Slate.
Despite how prevalent slideshows have become across the web, few sites like talking about how they use them. The Huffington Post, Time, and Entertainment Weekly declined to comment. It’s unsurprising. News sites are always loath to discuss internal editorial processes and traffic figures, and slideshows lie at that uncomfortable nexus.
Of those I contacted, only Henry Blodget offered his thoughts on the slideshow’s role. Blodget runs The Business Insider, a blog network he started in 2007. Over the past few years, he has gone from disgraced stock analyst to middlebrow media mogul. His network claims to pull in 40 million page views every month.
His sites are havens for slideshows because, according to Blodget, they consider them a story-telling mechanism native to web journalism. “Every new medium develops certain forms of storytelling ways of conveying information that take advantage of what the medium does well relative to other media,” Blodget wrote over e-mail. “Good slide shows help increase engagement (time on site, page views), the same way an excellent article helps increase the amount of time a reader spends with a newspaper or magazine. Bad ones don’t help with anything.”
But when even bad slideshows succeed economically, where’s the incentive to make them good? That incentive, eventually, will have to come from advertisers, as they tire of the tricks that their editorial friends are playing on them. Earlier, I noted that advertisers don’t care if dozens of page views are coming from the same user, because their ads are still getting shown. But eventually this will reach a point of diminishing returns. Telling the same person about a new movie a dozen times is not as effective of telling a half-dozen people twice.
Advertisers have an easy way to hold sites accountable: rely on unique visitor, rather than page-view, counts. The page-view metric has become diluted by editorial and business tricks like recirculation tools, landing pages, and slideshows. As Gawker Media owner Nick Denton puts it, “Some page views are worth more than others.” That’s why he now judges his staff and sites’ success on a less-manipulated number: how many people come to visit, not how many pages they visit once they’re there. Denton’s reason for the switch is editorial—he wants more exclusives, and he thinks uniques are a good way to incentivize them. Advertisers should follow suit. Their ads will have greater reach if sites know that it’s unique visitors, not page views, that matter most.
And with that change of mentality will come a switch of strategy. No longer will the worst slideshows be as economically viable. Slideshow quality will rise as sites try to create iconic slideshows that bring in new visitors interested in hearing a story told as only the Internet can. Slideshows will no longer have to be a savior in scourge’s clothing.