Why Upworthy Wants To Kill The Pageview

The social do-gooder just released its "attention minutes" source code. You paying attention?

Clicks and pageviews are still the standard metric most online publishers use in valiant attempts to convince advertisers to write them checks so that they can keep the lights on. When pageviews are plentiful, selling ads is easy, or so the thinking goes.

But as the publishing landscape expands across multiple devices and multiple platforms, it raises a few key questions. Are pageviews still the best metric? More importantly, do they tell the whole story to advertisers? Today, a handful publishers would argue that the pageview is increasingly becoming a dated notion.

Take Upworthy, the social do-gooder and fastest-growing platform of 2013. In a blog post published this week, the website best known for its smarmy headlines argues that pageviews are a poor indicator of user attention. They write:

Clicks and pageviews, long the industry standards, are drastically ill-equipped for the job. Even the share isn't a surefire measure that the user has spent any time engaging with the content itself. It's in everyone's interest—from publishers to readers to advertisers—to move to a metric that more fully measures attention spent consuming content. In other words, the best way to answer the question is to measure what happens between the click and the share. Enter Attention Minutes.

"Attention minutes," mind you, is just a fancy way of saying "how long people are looking at my website." In that vein, Upworthy is releasing its own sample code so that other publishers can build attention minutes into their systems.

If it's not obvious, let's be clear that it's in Upworthy's best interest to standardize "minutes spent" across the viral web. The site has built its entire business foundation around surfacing long but little-seen YouTube videos, painstakingly rewriting sharing-friendly headlines, and relying on the social velocity of Facebook to spread it like wildfire. Although its headlines may grab all the attention, they are merely bait to something meatier.

But Upworthy is hardly alone in arguing that engagement can best be measured by minutes spent. Medium, the writer platform that restructures that way traditional blog content is surfaced, similarly believes that reader attention is the metric of the future, not whether someone clicks one of its stories or not.

Attention minutes don't work for all publishers. BuzzFeed, for example—probably the closest competitor to Upworthy, all things considered—would rather sell advertisers on its social metrics, like Facebook shares and retweets, rather than clicks alone. That presents its own problems, of course, as Mathew Ingram at GigaOm writes:

Many people see social as the new SEO, but focusing on shares is flawed because—as Chartbeat co-founder and CEO Tony Haile has pointed out—the data shows virtually no correlation whatsoever between whether people share a link to a piece of content and whether they have actually read it, since many users are apparently happy to share links to things they haven't spent any time with at all.

Rather, what we seem to be moving away from is a publishing economy that relies explicitly on a "one size fits all" metric and toward one that is increasingly fragmented. Upworthy is obviously interested in selling time spent because users spend a lot of time watching videos; BuzzFeed is similarly interested in social shares because it is very good at social sharing. Pageviews won't go away entirely. But they will be recalibrated as we move toward more advanced metrics, and publishers will use whatever they can to differentiate their product from competitors and shine the most flattering light on themselves, their sites, and their traffic.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Potter]

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