When Good Websites Go Bad

The old cliche is that “no one likes change”. Over the years, this has applied to many things, and with the immense popularity of the world wide web, it’s no surprise that this now applies to websites. Facebook has been the subject of vitriol with every design change they make. The vocal minority is always quick to express their displeasure, including creating a seemingly endless list of Facebook groups dedicated to reverting the changes. Of course the opposition is never big enough to cause changes to be reverted, and most people refuse to execute the only action that will lead to reversing changes, stop visiting the site. With a site like Facebook, one that is used for communication as much as it is just general content consumption, is much harder to “give up” than a news site or blog.

Most news sites and many blogs generate income for their owners and writers. As a result, design and content decisions are often more about money and less about what’s best for the user. There is a clear parallel between websites/blogs and musical groups. Fans have always taken pride in getting in early on musical groups, allowing them to say “I was listening to [insert band name] before they were popular”. When bands sign with a big label, or put out an album designed to attract a larger audience, which sometimes means tweaking their musical style, fans often accuse them of “selling out”.

What makes this so crazy is, that while these bands are “artists”, they are still human beings, who need to make money and support their family. Many of these bands spend, essentially years, on the road, with barely enough money for food at times. It’s unfair to blame them for wanting to make more money. Most people wouldn’t turn down a promotion or raise at their job if offered, so it’s unfair to blame musical groups for essentially doing the same.

With that in mind, I don’t blame websites and blogs for selling their sites and/or changing their design or content to increase their income, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Three of my favorite websites have made changes in the last six months or so, which has led me to question whether to continue my relationship with them.

Mashable is a website dedicated to social media news, as well as tips for other web-related things. Their content ranges from news about sites like Twitter and Facebook, browser plug-ins and add-ons, business news and tips related to social media and a whole lot more. Their cluttered website design has never been a favorite of mine, but since I spend most of my time reading their site in my RSS reader, it’s never bothered me all that much.

There has been a new development in the last few months, however, that has become very aggravating. Mashable has long been known for creating lots of “list” style posts, such as CoTweet Gone: Here Are 7 Great Alternatives. By default, these types of lists include an embedded slideshow to view each item on the list. This forces a click through from the RSS feed in order to view the complete list. There is an option below the slideshow to view the list on one page, but it still requires a click through to get there. Its unclear whether this slideshow “widget” was created to increase page views or benefit the user, but it sure seems like the former. At times, these slideshows feel sluggish1 and don’t seem to add a lot of value. While this new development is not a disqualifying offense, it’s certainly a strike against. I am not giving up on Mashable, but I hope this isn’t the start of a new trend.

One of my favorite sites on the internet was TV Squad, a TV blog which I discovered a few years ago. It was part of Weblogs Inc., although it only came into existence a few months before AOL bought Weblogs Inc. back in 2005. Sometime in 20112, TV Squad officially became AOL TV. This change didn’t seem to have much impact on the content, and the website was still the same old TV news site. But after the Huffington Post bought AOL, AOL TV became HuffPost TV.

After a few weeks, things seemed different. The TV recaps that were once a staple, became much more infrequent. The number of “opiniony”, blog-type posts increased tenfold, and the news became a bit more scarce. I am all for blogs, and opinions on things, but my primary use for this site was recaps of shows and news about them, as opposed to a constant stream of, sometimes odd insight. I haven’t spent a lot of time investigating whether there is some sort of special RSS field I can dig up that will avoid these blog posts, and instead just includes news and recaps, but there is nothing obvious. Without this, the signal-to-noise ratio is a bit out of control. Hopefully I can find a suitable alternative.

Last is The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW). TUAW was one of the first Apple news sites I started reading about 7 years ago when I first decided I wanted a Mac. It was also a blog owned by Weblogs Inc., and was therefore also purchased by AOL, and, at least according to their masthead at the time of this writing, part of AOL Tech3 and not The Huffington Post. TUAW underwent a nice redesign in 2011, and overall the site looks really sharp.

One of the major changes though, was the removal of the complete text of articles from the main page, requiring a click through to see the full content. I am convinced this decision was more about cleaning up the home page, making things look more uniform and allowing for more stories to be listed on the front page. This change caused outrage from their loyal fan base. Unlike most websites though, TUAW opted to implement and aptly named “Quick Look” feature, which creates a shadowbox-like window that overlays the middle of browser window and contains the full context of the article. This provides a few advantages. It’s slightly faster than loading the entire website template, and creates a relatively clean environment for reading the post.

At the end of the day, all of these websites made changes, mostly in their own best interest. But like that band that went from touring the country in a van, which they slept in, to being in Pepsi commercials, you can’t blame them. Sometimes they see the error in their ways, like TUAW. Other times their users are forced to weigh their options and decide if they could get similar content with a better experience elsewhere. These decisions are often tough, and, like in the case of me and Mashable, is not always as simple as one and done.

  1. At least in the version of Safari available at time of this post []
  2. I think, it might have been 2010 []
  3. Which also includes Engadget, Joystiq and Tech Crunch []