News Organizations, Bloggers Turn to ‘List Journalism’ to Drive Web Traffic

Time.com has released its 2009 edition of the 50 Best Web Sites of 2009, even though we are not even through the third quarter of the year. (Sorry late bloomer startups!)

The list is an interesting blend: Web services, platforms and tools, such as Flickr, Delicious and Twitter, dominate the list. Content-driven pure plays are few in number, while mainstream media brand sites are conspicuously absent from the list.

Sure, I could do any number of posts on this list, like what makes a good site and why, but instead let’s take the opportunity to talk about the increasing trend in — for lack of a better term — “list journalism.”
We all know lists and rankings are not a new idea in journalism. But these days, in the challenged world of online journalism, lists seem to be popping up more and more.
Want to be featured or get the top buzz on Yahoo? Make a list. Want to drive page views and lower your bounce rate? Make a list. Want to get tweeted? Make a list. Want to get stories written about your organization? Make a list.
My colleague Amy Eisman, director of writing programs at American University’s School of Communication, knows the value of publishing a good list. “As someone who came from newspaper, magazine and Web worlds, I embrace the value of lists,” she said via e-mail. “Particularly online, lists are clickable, debatable, easy on the SEO.”
U.S. News & World Report made lists a franchise with its collegiate rankings, and then franchised that franchise into hospitals and just about everything else. Fortune 500 is a stock in trade for the magazine, which split that stock into more and more lists. Forbes plays into this as well, with quick lists on the best and worst of just about everything. All of these sites have “rankings” or “lists” mentioned in their top-level navigation categories.
Although venerable magazines such as Cosmopolitan live on lists (just how many ways can a person be driven wild in bed?), they aren’t the only ones. The social media niche site Mashable is a perfect example of a blog or startup site that drives big traffic with lists of tutorials and resources for products such as WordPress or topics such as Web design.
Social media and public relations expert Chris Abraham raves about the power of lists in drawing traffic. “Online, ‘best of’ lists are considered link bait; people eat them up!” he said via e-mail. ” ‘Best of’ lists have always been the catnip of broadcast journalism, and they’re also the stickiest content online. No matter how profound the content of my blog, the lists are always the biggest attractors.”
There are two main methodologies for producing lists online: in gallery format or as a long single post.
Time and Forbes tend to publish lists in gallery formats that pump up page views as users click through multiple list entries. Entries are usually just a piece of art and a paragraph that explain why the item made the list. Users click through several pages to see who is where and why. These packages leverage wisdom from AOL, USA Today and other sites that have found that photo galleries draw great traffic, keep users engaged and get a lot of clicks.
Resource lists like those offered by Mashable and other design blogs are usually bookmark-friendly single pages. The long list format brings return visitors back and attracts Web searchers who are looking for particular solutions. They have good shelf life.
In the social media world, lists are a killer key to “link love.” Abraham noted: “… Chris Brogan and Christopher S. Penn recommend lists to their readers as a quick and effective way to encourage retweeting and organic sharing. People can’t resist them. Lists are the equivalent of ‘viral videos’ for blogs and twitter.”
So we — journalists and readers alike — love lists, but many publications aren’t necessarily transparent about how lists are compiled. Methodology and ranking factors are generally kept back behind the curtain, leaving plenty of comment fodder for lovers and haters of a given list to battle on.

The NCAA championship bowl series is as clear as cellophane by comparison. When ranking factors are disclosed and the methodology is considered rigorous, the list is more credible but rarely escapes controversy.

Eisman cautioned: “As with everything, lists are dependent on the listmaker’s credibility. Overtly commercial, lacking clear criteria — those don’t bring readers back. Give away your credibility and you give away your readers.”
One would think that ranks and lists would be a great opportunity to engage users, and certainly the Webbys people’s voice is a great example of this. A really bad example, though, comes from Time.com itself.
Earlier this year, Time offered online voting for the Time 100 list of the most influential people, but it must have used some old and insecure software. The hacker community that gathers at 4chan.org gamed the system, made 4chan’s founder the most influential person and manipulated the top 20 spots into spelling out a sophomoric sexual reference.
Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, tried to defuse criticism by saying at the time, “I would remind anyone who doubts the results that this is an Internet poll. Doubting the results is kind of the point.”
But Tyrangiel missed the point himself and made a social-media faux pas of the worst kind when he let his readers and users know that even though he asked for it, he really didn’t care about their votes and opinions about who was influential. This double whammy shows the danger of old media thinking when using lists online.

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