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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Death of the 'Next' Button

After ads, pagination may be the latest casualty in the conflict between readability and profitability.

  • August 3, 2010

The makers of Readability, a simple bookmarklet tool that strips Web pages of everything but the content itself announced on Monday that users may soon liberate themselves from one of the web’s miniscule tyrannies: The ‘next’ button that turns readers into pageview multipliers for publishers of online content.

Instapaper, a similar and much-beloved Web/Kindle/iPhone/iPad/Epub app is following suit, says its creator, Marco Armenti.

Both Readability, which was recently incorporated into Apple’s Safari web browser, and Instapaper will, in short, turn every article into a sinle-page read whether its publisher wants them to or not.

In many cases, Instapaper already has the problem solved.

“Instapaper already attempts to use the “single-page” or “printer-friendly” version if it can figure out where it is, so it’s less of an issue for my customers most of the time,” says Armenti via email.

Online publishers have crowed about the death of pageviews for years - here’s a recent example related to MSNBC’s redesign - but when it comes to demonstrating reach to an advertiser, or just plain figuring out what to charge them, pageviews still rule the roost. When calculating the value of a website, the math is simple: (number of ad positions) x (value of each ad position) x (number of pageviews).

That’s why publishers use those little “next” buttons at the bottom of webpages, breaking articles across multiple pages. When used appropriately, they’re one way to help recoup the cost of the extra verbiage that appears on subsequent pages, and could even be defended from a design perspective; in a worst case scenario, they’re a way to trick readers into reloading a page 67 times in order to view every image in a gallery.

Whatever purpose it might have served, the “next” button may go extinct as Instapaper, Readability and other personalized scrapers give readers - or at least some readers - what they really want: a reading experience that is as unencumbered as what they’ve come to expect in print.

It can’t be a coincidence that this trend arises just as the form factor in which many of us consume web content shifts from the computer to something that resembles books and magazines.

Whether or not it will have any effect on the bottom line of publishers remains to be seen - a similar debate about whether or not to truncate RSS feeds has been rattling around the interwebs for years, and has ultimately led sites like Gawker to limit the functionality of its own feeds in order to push users to the site, where their views can more effectively be monetized. If something similar happens with Readability and Instapaper, it’s worth asking whether publishers will begin to attempt to interfere with the functioning of software or browser ad-ons that streamline reading experiences to the (apparent) detriment of their bottom line.

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