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?
Because humans are novelty-seekers. Emily Yoffe, my former colleague at Slate, has written at length about what motivates our desire for new information. The Internet taps into our insatiable desire for more—more pleasure, more distraction, more news. When we get this new stimulus, dopamine leaks into our brain, making us want to dive even deeper into the web. And diving deeper means clicking further—slide after slide after slide.
Jonah Lehrer, the author of How We Decide, furthered Yoffe’s work and noted that we especially want to know more about that which we already know. The slideshow format is designed to exploit exactly this. Once we see one slide, we have enough background knowledge to want to see them all.
The pictures also are key. In the developer and web-design community, it’s well known that web readers’ eyes linger longer on articles and headlines with images attached to them. That same rule applies with a slideshow.
Some sites have capitalized on our psychological vulnerability more vigorously than others. The Boston Globe advertises its slideshows on every article page. (These slideshows range from the serious to the seriously mundane. In September, quarterback Tom Brady’s minor car crash merited a thirty-page slideshow, including photos of broken glass.) Time links to photo galleries from within articles—while you’re reading, a red link asks you to “See the aftermath of the [Pakistani] floods.” Entertainment Weekly runs multiple slideshows, like “MTV Video Music Awards: 26 Years of the Good, Bad and Ugly,” every day, filling its home page’s top-story slots with anodyne top-twenty-five lists.
Of course, not all slideshows are born with original sin. Half-naked photo galleries have as much in common with a serious visual essay as Maxim does with The New Yorker. So to make sense of the new slideshow economy, I surveyed the field and devised a rough taxonomy:
Aesthetically intriguing but editorially empty, the gallery is photojournalism’s most valuable contribution to the economics of web journalism. All slideshows are, in a way, galleries, but the true gallery is defined by its simplicity. The photos do the talking, which means they’re usually hyperbolic in their beauty, horror, or strangeness. Typical example: “PHOTOS: Astronauts’ Spectacular Twitter Pictures From Space,” The Huffington Post.
A gallery with more of an editorial bent, listicles are an easy way to trap the completist reader into clicking through the whole thing. Listicle creators are essentially modern-day collectors, assembling and categorizing disparate items to make a larger point. Typical example: “A Complete Guide to Justin Bieber’s Dance Moves,” Vulture.com.
Little more than a listicle with an extra layer of arbitrary opinion, the countdown is an adaptation of every “Best of” list that appears in magazines and on cable TV at the end of the year. When slides are placed in descending order, the slideshow takes on a narrative momentum, ensuring its audience keeps clicking. Typical example: “The 10 Best Sports Movies of the 2000s,” Bleacher Report.
Once again, an organizational framework is applied to the classic gallery, and once again it makes it a more propulsive read. Great timelines are trips through a past the audience either vaguely remembers, or that informs the zeitgeist of the present. Typical example: “The Secret Origins of Clippy: Microsoft’s Bizarre Animated Character Patent,” Technologizer.
A visual display of the kitchen sink. When there’s a loose scattering of things to be presented, and no good way to present them cohesively, they may as well be presented visually. It’s an unadulterated play for your clicks with little editorial value. Typical example: “VOTE: Where Should Arianna Stop on Her ‘Third World America’ Tour?” The Huffington Post.
The Sex Show
The most noticeable slideshow on the web, and also the most virulent. As scanty as it is shameless, it’s often organized around a theme, celebrity, or body part, the sex show can range from scandalous to staid, depending on the site’s editorial tenor. Typical example: “Blake Lively’s Breast Looks,” Vulture.com.
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.Chadwick Matlin is the former associate editor of Slate's The Big Money. He lives in New York and can be reached at Chadwick.Matlin@gmail.com.