The Basics Apply Online, Maybe Even More So

By Thomas R. Temin
Media and Government Consulting

In judging for the ASBPE awards, consulting and just noodling around on the internet, I find some things that are just plain annoying.

Here are some of my pet peeves, and I’ll bet they are your readers’ pet peeves, too:

Pricing shell game: What does this research cost to download? How much do you charge for a subscription? Is there even a charge in the first place? Too often, we make visitors click deep into a chain of steps before revealing the price for a product or service offered online. If you are worried that putting a price tag up front will scare people away, then do a bang-up job of writing your sell language.

Take a page from the web site of Business Travel News. At the bottom of its home page the two classes of research available — free and premium or paid — are clearly marked.

Lack of news archive: A reader is thinking, “I know they had a story about XYZ in the last couple of weeks.” But we dish up disappointment, because our online archive of daily web postings only goes back a few days. Readers want a deeper archive, preferably with a robust search function. Heck, our own staff wants it. So why don’t more publications provide it?

Check out this example of a great archive from Government Executive.

Arcade game home page: Rotating lede stories, each with its own compelling illustration, has become popular. Yet some sites lack a way for the visitor to turn the carousel back a notch to a piece that went by before they could click on the link. If you’ve got five or six stories spinning by, each one taking seven or eight seconds, I guarantee you’ll have an impatient reader — presuming he or she sticks around to wait for the story to come around.

The Wall Street Journal figured out this one. Note the clear PREV and NEXT buttons under the rotating feature container.

Who pulled down that window shade? Without doubt, visitors hate what I call window shade ads. You click on a story and – whoops – an ad drapes down over the entire site. There’s a “skip this ad” or similar link, but what a way to frustrate readers! I know the ad climate is difficult, and often publishers lack the leverage they need to refuse this kind of visit-spoiling practice. But has anyone asked an advertiser, maybe they’ll get more clicks with a well positioned, well-written ad that doesn’t frustrate site visitors?

No point in linking to a site that does not have such ads, so root around the Washington Post site and sooner or later you’ll bump your nose into a window shade.

Help, get my sunglasses! As sites grow, they sometimes get cluttered. After a while, it’s time for a little pruning. Not because you are a neat freak, but because your identity and strong branding can get spoiled if the site’s appearance gets out of control.

The famous million dollar home page is the epitome of clutter. That’s what makes it unique and fun. But you don’t want your site to look like that. The trick is finding a balance between dull or generic, and too busy.

From the recent ASBPE contest, I found ALM’s to strike that balance quite well. It’s loaded with information, yet manages to look organized, even dignified while conveying the excitement of new news.

Thomas R. Temin is a consultant with 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology products and services. He is co-host of "The Federal Drive" with Tom Temin and Jane Norris, a weekday morning news and talk program on Federal News Radio AM 1050 in Washington D.C. You can see his weekly column on the op-ed page at and contact him at

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Thanks for making that point about the window-shade ads. The ones that are in the corner of a site and expand to cover the page when you move the mouse over them are the worst -- if you accidentally move the mouse too close to the ad it keeps covering up what you're trying to read.

Internet researchers and marketers I've interviewed agree with your point: A well-written ad is more effective than window-shades and other similarly intrusive ads. They say we shouldn't even be measuring click-through, because people just don't click. Online advertising is becoming more like traditional advertising, where the goal is just exposure.

Professors Neil Hair and Susan Barnes at the Rochester Institute of Technology are doing research on what types of online banner ads work and why. One thing they found was that large text with a short, simple message works best. People won't read too many words.

If you're interested, you can see a story I wrote about these issues on
# posted by Blogger Martha Spizziri : June 19, 2008 at 10:11 AM
Amen to Tom. Right on points.

Yes to his point about window-shade ads. This sort of mentality is everywhere. Why would an advertiser want to deliberately infuriate readers?

And I agree about the ALM site, except that there was a window-shade ad that popped up over the editorial at the top of the home page. Geez....

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# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : June 20, 2008 at 10:53 AM
Another problem with some of the dynamic ads is that they can contain scripts that may crash the user's browser. Not what you want to happen when someone visits your site!
# posted by Blogger Martha Spizziri : June 20, 2008 at 12:32 PM
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