How do you browse the web? Have a thought, punch it into Google, have another thought triggered by the first, open another tab, punch that in, click on something on the page, let it take you somewhere else, go back to where you came from, have another thought. And so on. That’s how most of us do it. Google (with around 65% of web search volume) now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide. The search bar is your friend. You can use it to get anywhere.
But what if you didn’t? What if you let the content you were reading take you on a journey? Following a train of thought across the internet to end up somewhere you never expected?
Can you surf?
The idea sprung out of a tweet that design and development studio PlayNicely posted back in the summer. A web-surfing contest held at Rockaway Beach, NYC. No keys, no search, no going back. This was a race to get from A-B the fastest without Google, without typing and with just a one click mouse in your kit bag.
No keys. No search. No going back.
Organised by digital conservator and artist Dragan Espenschied, it was a high-paced, highly competitive event where speed would crown the victor. And along the way people stumbled across all sorts of weird, unusual things. “If you can’t type a search request into Google or Amazon, you have to explore more”, Espenshied explained. “You start to understand the structures of what these huge companies think is the world, of whose existence they acknowledge.”
No keys. No search. No going back. I was intrigued by the idea, so as a Feed day reared its head I decided to take it on.
First I had to set my parameters. Just like the surfing contest, I would only navigate the web through the intext links and nav tabs presented by the content on the page I was reading. And I would not go back. But for me this wasn’t a race. This was going to be an experiment in web travel, using my curiosity and the words on the page as my only guide.
I started my adventure with Monocle’s The Forecast. An article about designing the cities of today and tomorrow drew me in. And a quote in particular: “Cities work best when they pay attention to people.” Oh, the places I could go…
The Google results were wildly varied and bore very little correlation to the semantics of my search itself. It was ‘pay attention’ that seemed to have been pulled out as a focus, from getting governments to listen, to catching the eye of the media. And there, above the fold sat a URL that I couldn’t resist. Curiosity sharpened, I clicked.
1. The 41 greatest Andy Warhol Quotes (thoughtcatalog.com)
ThoughtCatalog is an American content-driven website ‘dedicated to your thoughts and ideas’. This article in particular catalogued Andy Warhol in all his quirky, irreverent glory. Including these wise words, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Having digested Warhol I looked around for an open door. Links to other ThoughtCatalog articles. And adverts. And more ThoughtCatalog articles. I had no choice. So I went for…
2. The 6 most motivational commencement speeches of all time (thoughtcatalog.com)
Another catalogue. This time graduation speeches. Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Jobs. They were all OK. But not spine-tingling. Not eye-opening and cog whirring. Not Neil Gaiman talking about ‘always walking towards your mountain’. It felt half-hearted, a little hollow. More about getting content up there than writing something that really made people think. I wanted out. So I looked for a route off the page. Somewhere else. Somewhere with new ideas. Somewhere where the content really counted. But I couldn’t find anything. Not one of the videos linked out to the source page, not one of the celebrity’s names linked off to their own websites, the author’s name wouldn’t even take me anywhere except to more of their ThoughtCatalog content. I was stuck.
With nothing else for it I scrolled. In the footer I found the name of the parent company for ThoughtCatalog, The Thought & Expression Co. And this of course, was linked. It was a start.
3. The Thought & Expression Co. (thought.is)
This is when it hit me. The Thought & Expression Co. seemed proud of what they did. They seemed keen to blow their own trumpet. Which presented me with the possibility of a tiny crack of light, a door slightly ajar – the ‘press’ section.
I clicked on a link to find out what other publications were saying about this ‘publication’. And it worked. I was out. Hello Wall Street Journal. Hello journalism for journalism’s sake. Yes, it was an article about the content industry, but it had taken me to a renowned print and digital publisher, with editorial integrity. Surely that would open my search right back up.
4. Sponsored content that buzzed in 2014 (Wall Street Journal)
Wrong. The article was actually a blog (WSJ is a subscription only site), which showcased content that ‘engaged readers’ in 2014. Brought to the world by brands, consumed by the public en masse, a huge hit. Because the page views, share statistics and exit rates said so.
A video on Mashable about a girl who invented the one minute mobile phone charger stood out for me. So on I went.
5. Inventing the one minute mobile phone charger (mashable.com)
Here I learnt about the remarkable Eesha Khare and her supercapacitor energy storage device. And Intel brought it to me. My first piece of obviously sponsored content. It was interesting, but watching her use various Intel mobile devices in various situations as she told me about her research (dancing with it was my favourite), I couldn’t help thinking about the motivations behind the video. Which left a funny taste in the mouth. Which was distracting. I wasn’t engaged with the content in the same was as if it had been purely to entertain or inform.
I looked for an out, but yet again could only find more in.
6. Beating cancer with video games (mashable.com)
I was stuck on a publishing behemoth’s website with no exit light. Just like ThoughtCatalog, Mashable wanted me on their site and staying there, if they could. Now of course, if I wasn’t experimenting with intext link travel I could have leapt at any time. But the challenge did raise an interesting question.
Since when did the intext, external link become such a content pariah?
The exponential growth of the digital content industry has a lot to answer for. As brand publishing has boomed, so too has the need to measure the impact of content. How engaged are the readers? How likely are they to be emotionally affected in some way (laughing, crying, thinking) by what they’re reading? What’s my return on this content investment? And so SEO measurements have become the tools by which the world decides whether readers are connecting with what they’re reading online. Are they flocking to the page? Are they staying on the page or on the site? Are they sharing it?
Suddenly linger time and exit rate become more important than ever before. But it is accurate? Is it fair? I don’t think so. Surely an indication of how interested an individual reader is in a story, how engaged they are by what they are reading isn’t just whether they share it, or whether they stay on the page. It’s whether they want to find out more.
By clicking on any external links in an article, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a disengaged mind. Just the opposite.
Whether their curiosity is piqued and they want to dig deeper into the reason behind Steve Gonzalez virtual arcade for cancer patients, or find out more about leukemia, or see if there are other video games being developed to support individuals with health issues. By clicking on any external links in an article, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a disengaged mind. Just the opposite.
Of course, if brands are going to understand the impact of their content they need to find a way to measure it. But if we’re stuck using ways to measure engagement that aren’t really fit for purpose and don’t reflect how users read online, how will we ever know if content is actually working? Data is one thing, but actually paying attention to how people behave is quite another.
And there I was. Back at the beginning. I felt like Dorothy. An answer to the question brought up through my adventures in the world of online branded content was there all along. Just replace ‘cities’ with ‘content’ and The Forecast said it. “Content works best when it pays attention to people.”
Pay attention. That’s what we all need to start doing.
I hope you enjoyed reading. I hope you clicked out to one of the links I embedded. I hope you get to explore and discover something new as a result.
And if you do, I’ll know it’s because you’re interested in what you’ve read. Not because you aren’t.