More on Content Aggregators

This is a follow-up to my article Home Alone? How Content Aggregators Change Navigation and Control of Content on Digital Web magazine.

This is a follow-up to my article Home Alone? How Content Aggregators Change Navigation and Control of Content on Digital Web magazine.

In that article, I talked about how the increasing use of content aggregators changes the way users navigate to content. Specifically, aggregators allow users to bypass a site’s information architecture and instead rely on the information architecture of the aggregator to find the content they need. In many cases, they never even see a site’s home page before they reach their target content.

The few examples that I gave at the end of the article deal with strategies that I think will help us design effectively for aggregators. However, since I wrote the article I’ve noticed a couple of traits of the most popular aggregators. Here they are:

    Describing Content Accurately

    I don’t mean optimizing content for search engines, I mean writing content using your audience’s own words and taking the time to describe things clearly. Some blogging tools are moving toward this, of course, by prompting us for things like “excerpts”, “keywords”, and “titles”, but they won’t write words for us and they won’t tell us what words are important to our users. At least, not yet.

    Where this becomes increasingly apparent is in those places where users don’t see the whole content of a page, but only part of it. This is the point at which they make the decision to either keep reading or give up. In many aggregators users glimpse only a title and an excerpt, which in some cases has little or nothing to do with the general notion of the content being linked to. More than a few times I’ve seen perfectly interesting excerpts lead to amazingly useless articles, and vice versa. This serves to erode the credibility of the source, even if the transaction took only a second or two.

    Publishing on a Schedule

    Nowhere is the timing of your updates more apparent than in aggregators: most sort content by freshness of content. My favorite feed aggregator, Shrook, sorts each site according to which were updated most recently, so that the most recently updated site is at the top. Granted, this has little to do with the quality of content, but certainly affects the rate at which each site is visited.

    The advantage that new content has over old content is never about quality, but always about novelty. New content is imbued with a sense of importance simply because it is new: we give it preference because it might contain the greatest ideas ever known. We are always-on optimists in this case: give us what is new, and we’ll be satisfied.

    Publishing Within a Genre

    Most people, and thus most bloggers, have interests that span many parts of life. However, the most read sites (and the best written ones) usually have a distinct topic that the author(s) knows about and that drives the majority of their traffic. The political blogs are the most obvious example. Sure, there are apparent exceptions like Boing Boing and Metafilter, but it could be argued that they comprise and stick to their own, unique genre.

    By observing that the most popular blogs are very content-specific, we can let go of the desire to be everything to everybody with our content. If we’re making a corporate web site, we can focus on those few things that the company does well, instead of introducing features that could be great for everyone, even people who aren’t necessarily customers. If we’re making an informational web site, we might try and research those sites that have similar information, and specifically target what those other sites don’t talk about. This will help us get noticed by the other aggregators that answer general queries: the search engines.

    Accepting the Loss of Visual Style

    When content we create isn’t presented in the style of our own web site, it loses something. It’s like being quoted out of context: sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. However, given the number of RSS and Atom feeds out there, it is pretty apparent that even designers who spend countless hours poring over finely-crafted visuals of their design still appreciate those readers who are reading on aggregators. And it makes sense: who wouldn’t want a bigger audience?

    In other words, those people read content from a site without ever visiting it. In the article, I gave an illustration of the case where someone came to a site without using the site’s navigation, ending up on the page holding their target content after clicking a direct link on an aggregator. However, with feed readers and similar tools users often have the choice of whether to come to your site at all. In these cases, your style has to be in your words, not your visuals. Seeing your site in a feed reader for the first time has to be one of the most anxious moments in design: your content is living and breathing on its own, without the aid of visuals. And all the user has is the ideas contained in your content: nothing more.

These traits are presumably central to any publishing industry. But even though nothing is ever really new, I think that web-based content aggregators are helping those of us on the Web (who may have never been in publishing before) recognize how important it is to focus on both the quality of the content we create as well as the behaviors of those who consume it.

Published: November 4th, 2004

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