AOL, Google, The News, & I

Dave Zatz —  February 21, 2011 — 25 Comments

In the last couple of days, two respected Engadget editors have resigned (details here & here). Amongst their publicly disclosed grievances, both cited the AOL Way – which appears to favor assembly line content. Quantity over quality, current, and search engine optimized. While Engadget hasn’t yet been subjected to the AOL Way, these defections make many wonder if the writing’s on the wall. Instead of continuing to evolve as a largely independent (and loved) entity, will Engadget be consumed Borg-like into newly appointed Huffington’s AOL media empire?

Along with this discussion is a renewed debate over ‘blogs as journalism’ and eHow Google might deemphasize the likes of low quality content farms. From a blogger with stints at Mashable and Engadget:

Almost everyone uses Google to find out more about news that’s happening right now, whether it’s tech industry stuff, celebrity breakups, or political revolutions. Unfortunately, the rules Google uses to determine which websites gain strong rankings — and thus frequent traffic, high impressions and strong ad revenues — betray journalists and the people who need them at every turn. Google’s algorithms and the blog linking customs built around them favor those who write first, not those who write accurately. I have no qualms about producing entertainment and other products to meet demand. But journalism must not function this way if it is to remain useful.

And it certainly seems like many pander to Google. For example, TechCrunch (another AOL property) was once a blog purely dedicated to Web 2.0. They were extremely successful and I was a regular. But I suspect it’s been even better for business to expand their reach by covering Apple’s every move.

Yet, building a business around Google’s indexing and oversized influence shouldn’t necessarily be burdened with negative connotation - they clearly surface what folks are looking for at any given moment. Perhaps most of us don’t have time or interest in lengthy, hard hitting journalism most of the time? Speaking for myself, I have a very short attention span. I love long form work, as often seen at Ars Technica or Tom’s Hardware, but I rarely read it.

As a blogger, I’ve often been frustrated with the simplistic chronological order in which content management systems present stories. But when I do manage to surface older, interesting stories , it’s infrequently acted upon. Again, emphasizing the nature of our collective reading styles. Related, it’s also why I rarely take the time to compose longer posts. A 250 word story generates as much demand (and discussion) as an 800 word story. Often times, less. Which brings us to my role as a blogger…

While what we do here contains elements of journalism, I see us as digital media emcees. We hopefully identify interesting topics or products, share our insight or perspective, and then open it up for discussion. Go.

25 responses to AOL, Google, The News, & I

  1. Ironically, this is an example of a story that won’t generate much traffic. But it’s obviously something on my mind, which motivates to write. As hobbyists, we have that luxury.

    Over the weekend, we debated a bit over on Investor Village as some folks took issue with a TiVo-related query I fired off on Twitter Friday night.

    “If you want the legitimacy to blog and Tweet about things you’ll have to be more careful.”

    It’s an interesting comment. Because, merely by responding, he’s bestowed legitimacy upon me. Of course, I prefer Google’s brand of legitimacy. ;) But I’ve been chatting online since before there was a Google. Heck, before there even was a web browser. And I’ll continue to do so. Hopefully entertaining and stimulating folks along the way. Not to mention I have some selfish goals in learning from the collective.

  2. “Go.”

    It’s a bit of a very multifaceted post, which makes it hard to figure out a commenting departure point, no?

    But tangentially, as many other folks have noted, Arianna was smart to get her end in cash.

  3. “If you want the legitimacy to blog and Tweet about things you’ll have to be more careful.”

    My response would’ve been:

    “If you want the legitimacy to blog and Tweet about things you’ll have to be more honest.”

  4. “Ironically, this is an example of a story that won’t generate much traffic”

    Yup. That’s sorta what I was getting at in my initial comment. It’s ‘the fox and the hedgehog’ line.

    Hedgehog posts, (on the correct topics, of course), are the ones that get high traffic. Good fox posts may be far more interesting to write and/or read, but there is less of a hook for high traffic.

  5. “We hopefully identify interesting topics or products, share our insight or perspective, and then open it up for discussion. Go.”

    This is a tangent not about this particular post, but about discussion blog-wide: do you have any easy way on your end to enable an RSS feed for comments on individual posts? Or if not, an RSS feed for all comments?

    I think that generally helps discussion.

  6. Chucky, I’m casually working on a site redesign and I’d like to bring comment subscriptions back. The last time we ran them, we had some performance issues that I wasn’t able to overcome.

    For existing comments as RSS, try these.
    Sitewide:
    feed://www.zatznotfunny.com/comments/feed/
    Post:
    feed://www.zatznotfunny.com/2011-02/aol-google-the-news-i/feed/

    Regarding legitimacy and honesty, if legitimacy is measured in audience size and success measured in revenue, you could argue one may be better served, quicker by being less honest. As I’ve turned down paid product coverage and travel junkets, but am aware of tech personalities and sites with far broader reach than I who partook. The lines are real fuzzy these days. And a lot of this doesn’t even occur in back rooms. Here’s Eye-Fi targeting smaller and mid-tier bloggers with a $200 bounty to cover the bullets their marketing team deemed worthy.

  7. Given that Engadget isn’t subject to the AOL Way, there had to be other reasons for departures and they probably have to do with too many simple write-ups and not enough features/specials on Engadget compared to, say, Gizmodo.

    (Giz isn’t infallible — not a fan of the new design; actually, don’t even visit the site anymore except once per day to see if they: (a) changed it back or (b) actually made it work with Chrome – article switching isn’t working properly for me.)

    I wonder where Paul & Ross will end up… Perhaps, writing for GDGT?

  8. I just hope you don’t shut ZNF down. Whatever you want to call it, the posts are always interesting and the comments are (almost) always well thought out.

    I guess the question is: What do you do it for? Journalists do it for their jobs. I blog because I want to write about certain things and don’t care so much about the traffic. But then again I’m not reliant on the revenue to make a living.

    If something isn’t written by a person who went to journalism school, does it mean it’s not legitimate? Who decides what is valid content?

    Okay, maybe a slight tangent here. But you got me thinking.

  9. “For existing comments as RSS, try these … Post: ….”

    That’s exactly what I was looking for.

    “The last time we ran them, we had some performance issues that I wasn’t able to overcome.”

    So, if I’m parsing that correctly, you don’t want to just put that link on each post page, because it’d lead to overloads on the server?

    —–

    “I guess the question is: What do you do it for?”

    Well, as Dave says above, it’s educational for him. I’d guess it’s also fun for him, and that it has some potential future value in establishing the brand of his name.

    Similarly, why do folks write free software?

    Like you, I’m just glad he does it. ZNF is a good read.

  10. I read both of the departure messages and there are no specific grievances. Certainly respectable not to dig up the dirt, but if you’re making general allusions to concerns, you’re already dipping your toe…

    Any business ends up being a balancing act to a certain extent and the real question may be, what purpose does the site serve? No matter what I WANT Engadget to be, it serves a particular purpose to a majority of its readers that is different than what I’d want it to be, which I’m sure would not serve their business well.

    Dave, you seem to get a scoop now and then. Perhaps it’s raising a not-yet-noted story out of the fog and then getting the link from Engadget, and I particularly enjoy the subject selection and the launching off of discussion. These can’t really happen at Engadget or Gizmodo because there’s no time to type up a response before the comments are blown out by a bunch of iPhone sucks/rules messages and personal attacks.

    As with the newspaper business, headlines sell papers (in this case google rank), but if the depth isn’t there, then people will stop coming back. Engadget is more than just a latest news page. They do decent reviews that I’m sure are given more than just a cursory glance. They also take the first look/unboxing approach to keep people hooked with an element of ‘the latest’. I can live with that if it pays the bills.

  11. Ivan, another point that most bloggers offer editorial versus investigative journalism… as TechCrunch sort of mocked Paul’s post announcing his exit, yet didn’t inquire with him or others at Engadget as to reasons of his departure… or more interestingly, as to where he (and Ross?) may be going. Additionally, it’d be interesting to learn why Arrington sticks around given his scornful public persona and assuming it’s something more than financial incentive.

    Joel, I’ll keep blogging as long as I’m having fun. There are days and weeks when I’ve been burned out and/or not interested. But generally speaking, it’s enjoyable and has led to many amazing opportunities, adventures, and friendships. ZNF does generate revenue these days. And it’s “real” money. But I wouldn’t call it life altering and I’ll feel free to walk away and find a new outlet if/when that time ever comes.

    Jeremy, they both cited the AOL Way in their respective posts and it ties into a broader conversation. Namely, Google’s role in news. On one hand, I want to see eHow crushed. On the other, would such a restructuring also crush worthy blogs? Specific to Paul and Ross, I linked their posts so folks can read them in their entirety. I wouldn’t speak for them, nor would I pry or disclose personal information given my long, meaningful relationship with Engadget. Perhaps “grievance” is too strong a descriptor?

  12. “As I’ve turned down paid product coverage and travel junkets, but am aware of tech personalities and sites with far broader reach than I who partook.”

    I’d guess you’ve already read Felix Salmon’s most excellent takedown of Dan Frommer’s Samsung junket to Barcelona. If not, it’s worth a look.

  13. I haven’t found Engadget engaging for quite awhile. ZNF is. I read your posts. I rarely read theirs.

    Modern humans are incented to respond to what is measured, whether in standardized testing or search-engine result formulae (AKA algorithms).

    If Google likes inbound links, you are well-advised to get as many as possible. If Google likes lots of pages versus lots of words on a single page, then you are well-advised to make your posts multi-page because that is what spiders like, even if it is inconvenient for humans. If Google prefers keywords in page titles, even if they make little sense to human readers, then satisfy the Goog and screw the humans. The spiders and robots will eat it up.

    Fortunately, the beginning of the end for pure algorithmic search is on the horizon. The case of the Brooklyn, NY based crook selling lousy eyeglass frames and benefiting from all the complaints in his search engine rankings, and more recently JC Penney gaming Google via link-farms/link-mines, highlights the limitations of formulas without brains.

    Facebook is well-positioned to eat Google’s lunch if they don’t start to adjust results with a modicum of human reality-checking.

    It is probably too late for all the blogging properties consumed by the Borg. Fortunately, there is no monopoly on blogging and the rest of us will soldier on with the hope that the future will be better than the present.

  14. @ Dave – TC didn’t mock Paul Miller’s resignation post. It was a typical Paul Carr post — the point behind his dry British humor was he wished PM would’ve gone out in a blaze of glory, so to speak, instead of playing nice.

    An action that would meet Paul Carr’s approval would be Jason Kilar’s recent manifesto — http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/aftermath-hulu-ceos-bad-boy-101517

    P.S. I read PM’s and RM’s posts on leaving Engadget and they didn’t really seem all that juicy with any specific grievances. Only the timing makes them somewhat interesting.

  15. Dave — Insider selling is rarely a great indicator of anything anymore. People are generally too smart to sell in front of bad news and it almost never happens en masse. Sometimes the Form 4s are bunched together because of an options vesting date or options that are expiring soon.

  16. So much to discuss on this topic, so little time. Seems this is the general issue right now. I get what Gizmodo / Gawker are trying to accomplish with the redesign, but they will not succeed. The blog timeline is as flawed as the twitter timeline. This is where I feel apps like flipboard and thedaily have real potential to reshape content consumption. Gawker is really trying to create an “app” experience on the web/browser. It’s not working. I visit ca.gizmodo.com for the old format.

    The tough pill for any of these blog writers to swallow is the fact that they are in a low paid employment position (relatively speaking). Denton / Calacanis sold / monitized their networks back in the day. Now Arrington and Huffington did the same. The guys over at Sillicon Ally Insider are desperately trying to get the ear of AOL for a payday. But the writers, they are pawns and sticking it out for AOL options doesn’t make sense. It seems Arrington at least got some sort of payoff / earnout for his writers, but one has to guess exactly how much is it worth for these guys to stick around while Mike makes his $40M over the next few years. I suspect Mike is angel investing and doing everything he can to piss off AOL. Good for him.

    The end result is that AOL is going to have a hard time retaining qualified talent. Anyone that has an sort of personal brand is better off just starting their own thing and going for their own payout.

    As for ZNF, it remains one of the few independent resources that I trust to cover a few areas I still care about. I also follow ehomeupgrade.com, smallnetbuilder.com and avsforum.com. Probably a few others, but most of the content out there these days is more like the AOL Way either directly or indirectly. The link bait is just painful and sad anymore.

  17. Chucky, the RSS comment stuff is fine with the server and I’ll consider adding a link. The subscribe-to-comments widget that I referred to utilized my WordPress database and emailed folks which was a different story – it was often unreliable and other times spammy.

    Jeremy and Richard raise good points about the newer trend of crowd sourcing content (outside of Digg, which I vacated years ago). But will Twitter and Facebook recommendations replace Google or will they merely be additive. Hm. I will say I’m a fan of Techeme and Flipboard. Whereas The Daily doesn’t interest or impress me yet.

    Andy, yeah, I’m having a hard time with the Gizmodo redesign as well. I give them much credit for experimenting, but I’m not sure it’s working (especially in Chrome). Related to your talent point, it’s probably worth mentioning when Weblogs got started, bloggers-for-hire received something like a mere $5/post. Wonder if we’re coming full circle.

    Dave L, thanks for the TiVo Form 4 stock info/clarification.

  18. “I haven’t found Engadget engaging for quite awhile. ZNF is. I read your posts. I rarely read theirs.”

    I let Dave read Engadget for me. That’s where he adds value.

  19. The low paid employee statement is true. This is common in industries where people ‘love what they do’. I found similar sentiment in the video game industry where people would be offended when business decisions trumped artistic decisions. Perhaps it’s more easy to accept when you’re being paid more money.

    I’m sure they were talking with each other about the AOL way on a regular basis, just as any employees talk when their companies do something they don’t like. If you’re dissatisfied with your job, you don’t have to look far to find reasons why it’s not the place for you. I’ve been there many times.

    Their real reasons for leaving may never be known by us (but probably will be known by Dave :) but the larger question of compelling content will continue. Truth is, it’s harder to come up with something original and thoughtful than it is to create something that is not. Is it any different in any other medium?

  20. Re: Gizmodo redesign — thanks to a comment on TC story, I found out you can switch to “blog view” by clicking on page-looking icon to the left of house icon. Still doesn’t work in Chrome, but at least I can now open story links in new tabs.

  21. So many good discussion points here. I’ll add that the reason I continue to be invested in ZNF is because Dave values even the posts that aren’t bringing in huge traffic or revenue. Not that he doesn’t like that kind too :) but he’s interested in good content, not just the financial payoff. As for why I blog at all, there are many reasons: it’s enjoyable, it’s motivation to keep learning, it gives me credibility, and I get to meet interesting people. No doubt it would be a lot less enjoyable if I made it my day job.

  22. Too… many… points… to… make…

    I still troll Engadget, but since they don’t even bother controlling their commenters anymore, and its just the Apple lovers vs. the Apple haters I rarely read the comments anymore. Which makes it much less valuable to me than it used to be.

    Which IS one of the things I like about ZNF, which is that it is worthwhile reading the comments. At least Dave patrols the comment section. Or maybe he’s just built a good following.

    As for short vs. long content, I’m not a big fan of just links myself. If you don’t have a take on the story at all, I’d rather you not link it. And quoting the whole damn thing like Paul Thurrott does seems to me to be as good as stealing. Dave if you never wrote any long posts I’m not sure I’d read all your shorter ones, so some balance is still a good idea.

    I’ve pushed Gizmodo off my bookmark bar. The redesign is unbearable and their approach to tech journalism (iPhone 4 coverage ad naseum, the incidents at CES with the universal OFF remote, etc) just turn me off. No big loss there. I do miss Lifehacker though. Hoping they undo some of the redesign at some point.

  23. Mari, my aunt shared a short story with me like 20 years ago. Can’t remember it exactly, something like a woman was a beautiful singer or musician of some sort and she got great enjoyment out of performing for herself and loved ones. Anyway, someone convinced her to perform publicly or for hire or something. And she hated it. And never sang again. I’m probably not remembering it right, but that’s the gist.

    I’ve contemplated taking ZNF full time on a few occasions and larger sites have approached me for employment now and then, but it’s mostly the equivalent of a writing sweat shop. If I were ever to switch gears, I’d be interested in a CNET, PCMag, Washington Post where they have actual offices, labs, and have some variety in what and how they cover content. But the thought full-on full time blogging makes me tired.

    And, yes, we wouldn’t survive without also seeking timely, hot topics to cover. So we’re in the game too. But we have the luxury of being able to deviate from the script or take a day off. Which we do. :)

    Glenn, I come from the land of BBSes and forums – as in I’ve been interacting online a long time and appreciate meandering, but mostly civilized online conversation. Heck, even the old Usenet beats some of the stuff you see in the Apple comments these days. We’re very fortunate here at ZNF to have an intelligent group of folks who participate down below. Beyond that, yes I’m very aggressive when it comes to removing spam, valueless astroturfing, and personal attacks. Every comment that isn’t obvious Akismet spam ends up in my inbox and gets read for worthiness. We’re nearly up to 25,000 approved comments…

  24. Another aspect of the AOL Way has also slipped by most of us.

    Their sports portal, AOL Fanhouse, was sold off to The SportingNews along with the name. So it is still called AOL Fanhouse, but it is a Sporting News property and as of March 1, almost all of the Fanhouse writers will be given the axe.

  25. The comment degradation of a site is the first sign of the down hill slide. Comments and community are a double edge sword. I’m surprised sites haven’t found more productive ways to engage / reward / promote star commenters; and bury the dead weight.

    TechCrunch committed Hara kiri as they sought page view growth and drove the quality to unbearably poor levels. And AOL took the bait. I’m convinced the earnout they have is based on page view growth. I was hoping they would return to quality post acquisition, but it’s obvious they are motivated to keep up the volume at the expense of quality. Mark my words, the entire team will implode spectacularly as soon as they get their payday.

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