Welcome to the very first Noisecast Video Editorial! This is only an experiment but who knows what the future will bring! You can either watch the editorial above or read the editorial after the jump. In essence, the article version is a transcript of the video with some pictures added to reduce the wall of text. Since this is only an experiment and we don’t have the funds to hire a film crew, I apologize in advance for the really bad video editing and sound. Of course, we welcome your feedback about the video editorial as well as the article content in both the comments or via email.
On April Fools I replaced The Noisecast site theme with Qawker, an open source WordPress theme that mimics the Gawker Media redesign. It was a tongue-in-cheek change that I did without letting anyone know, not even our staff. Everyone at The Noisecast genuinely shared the surprise of our readers when the prank went live. Of course the Qawker theme is not yet complete and it does have a lot of bugs in it, similar to the bugs Gawker experienced when it launched its redesign. This made the prank effective from both a design and a functionality standpoint.
However poking fun at the Gawker redesign was not my only intent with the prank. I do not believe that the new Gawker design is terrible; I think that it’s a big step in the right direction. My hypothesis was that the Gawker Media community wasn’t up in arms about the design as much as it was about the broken functionality. So I decided to perform a small experiment by implementing the Qawker theme to unscientifically test that hypothesis. The results were fascinating. The prank was well received by our community so I didn’t piss everyone off too much in what I did. The majority of the feedback primarily reflected two sentiments: (a) our redesign had a far superior functionality than that of the Gawker redesign and (b) the site didn’t look all that bad. So why the Gawker Media exodus?
I’ve been involved in a fair share of content revamps that have pissed off a lot of community members, some to the point of causing a community exodus. The biggest one I was part of is considered to be the poster boy of revamp disasters: the online game Star Wars Galaxies. In May 2005 the game developers pushed out what was known as the Combat Upgrade, a revamp of the combat system to allow for a more balanced gameplay. Not everyone was thrilled about this change, proclaiming that the developers rushed this out prematurely without ironing out the kinks or taking into consideration many other aspects of the game.
A few months later in November 2005, the developers released the New Game Enhancements, completely changing the gameplay functionality of Star Wars Galaxies. In essence it was no longer the game that the players had bought, it was something completely different. As a result, Star Wars Galaxies tanked and the exodus was so disastrous that it even got coverage in non-gaming news outlets like the New York Times. The combat upgrade and the New Game Enhancements were a one-two knockout blow for the game’s subscription numbers.
Fast forward to late 2010. The Gawker Media empire was hacked and the personal information of over a million community members and staff was leaked onto the internet. Although the wonderful Gawker staff worked extreme overtime hours to correct the issue, the breach and its widespread media attention damaged the trust that Gawker had developed with its community. But the breach wasn’t something Gawker purposely did so the exodus was minimal. By mid to late January things were back to normal, editors were posting content as usual, and people continued to visit and comment on the sites.
In February 2011 Gawker Media rolled out its site redesign. The redesign was not a secret. In fact, Gawker head honcho Nick Denton published an article in late November informing everyone about the upcoming changes and explaining the reasons behind the redesign. When it did get pushed out, shit hit the fan. News outlets immediately began blasting the redesign and pointing at the plummeting page views and pissed off readers as evidence of failure. To make matters worse, an internal memo from Denton was leaked in which he acknowledged that the redesign execution was not so hot and that traffic was suffering. He said:
Obviously, the reduction in traffic from Google — as from most design changes — has been significant. It doesn’t affect readers of the site — but it does have a disproportionate effect on uniques. Search optimization of the new layout is a top priority.
But was the design at fault or was it the fact that it was broken that drove people away? The vast majority of the comments were simply “the redesign sucks” without any explanation as to why it sucked. You really can’t take the majority of those comments at face value because not much thought is put into them when hate is being spewed. In contrast, emails directed towards an individual, such as a help desk, tend to have a more thought out approach. When people submit a help ticket they usually expect a response back so they tend to be more descriptive about their problem instead of leaving it open-ended. “It sucks because X” is usually the format used. Since I worked at the Gawker Help Desk I received hundreds of tickets regarding the redesign. To my surprise, only a small handful of hateful (and non-hateful) tickets criticized the redesign because of the way it looked.
In a way, The Noisecast April Fools joke seemed to prove that. Thoughts regarding it on Gizmodo, yippayap, Twitter, and even in the Noisecast article comments were actually positive regarding the design. I’m not sure if GitEmSteveDave Tony Kaye OMGPonies Not Nick Denton is trolling with his Twitter post, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, the point still stands that people were frustrated not at the look of the new Gawker design but rather at its bugs and nonexistent usability.
Suppose the redesign launched without any bugs or issues, would there have been an exodus? It’s hard to tell because you can’t accurately predict what would have happened. But we can take a peek at what is happening now that things have settled down for the most part. It’s been almost two months since the Gawker redesign went live and much of the broken functionality has been repaired. Granted they still have a ways to go, but let’s look at Denton’s motives for the redesign and see if they hold any weight. Denton summed up his vision in is original redesign article:
The internet, television and magazines are merging; and the optimal strategy will assemble the best from each medium.
Nick Denton makes a very valid point with this statement, albeit an obvious one. Broadband is becoming more and more widespread, our reliance on the Internet as a content medium is growing, and download speeds are getting faster and cheaper to support high quality media, despite the efforts of certain companies to hinder the transition. Denton continues:
The blog column worked as long as one assumed that items were indistinguishable and the core readers would scan everything. It does no longer.
[The iPhone 4] episode more than any other demonstrated the bankruptcy of the classic blog column. In order to keep video of the iPhone prototype at the top of the reverse chronological flow, Gizmodo actually stopped publishing for several hours. How ridiculous!
Hence the splash story; now we can finally create front pages that match the visual impact of a tabloid wood or magazine cover; and we can leave them up as long as they’re generating interest.
Clearly the new design works just as planned in terms of keeping the “big stories” up front while continuing the flow of less buzzworthy stories constant. What about its focus on media? The best way to show this is by viewing the site design on a device that isn’t a desktop or a laptop. Unfortunately the current site design is not yet optimized for mobile devices…yet…but the focus on media content is much more obvious on them.
I tested out Gawker’s site on my phone by switching the browser’s user agent. Although usage was a bit clunky and the site didn’t work quite well, the media portion of the design jumped out to me the most. In fact I can say that when it comes to the articles, it is the media that sells them in the new design. Even videos were used in a way that dominated the article content.
Unfortunately Gawker Media took quite a hit in terms of visitors and page views. Using Quantcast, which is the same service Nick Denton uses to show off Gawker site stats, I narrowed the stats down to a three-month period. Since the redesign launched in February the number of people visiting Gawker has skydived to nearly half the amount it was at with the old design. This shouldn’t be a surprise since we have been talking about an exodus this whole time. However a silver lining to these statistics exists that proves that the new design does work.
Take a peek at the Page Views for Gawker; they dropped as well, which is logical since site traffic plummeted.
Now take a look at Page Views Per Person. They have boomed! In fact Page Views Per Person have never been higher in the last three months. With content no longer being buried beneath a vertical column of articles, posts are getting more exposure via the sidebar and people are clicking through to other articles that they may not have noticed in the old design. In fact, this is true for all the Gawker Media properties. The only two exceptions are Lifehacker and Fleshbot, with Fleshbot still running on the old design.
Nick Denton’s vision was not a deathblow to Gawker Media. The execution bruised it up a bit but it will recover. The new design is working and it is only a matter of time before other news outlets adopt something similar. Greg, Jeremy, and the rest of the tech team at Gawker will continue to work on the design, fixing what needs to be fixed and then taking the next step in streamlining it to other devices.
The new Gawker design was built for a world where the content barriers between desktop, smartphone, and tablet no longer exist. That world is rapidly encroaching and in a couple of years we will be living in it. Although hindered by bad execution, the new design is sleek, sexy, and a stepping-stone towards the future of online publishing. Statistics, positive and negative feedback, and even The Noisecast’s shitty little April Fools prank back this up. The future of online publishing is upon us and Nick Denton’s vision is leading the way…or at least it will once it works properly.