Two questions that guide aggregation etiquette

Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey was getting a little tired of Business Insider aggregating his site’s best work and reaping big traffic from it. So he ran some numbers.

Morrissey writes that over the past year his website received 8,713 visits and 14,379 pageviews from Business Insider aggregated posts, while the BI site reaped over 90,000 views. Roughly a 5:1 pageview ratio from aggregator to creator.

“Is this a fair trade?” he asks.

What ensued was a long back-and-forth on Twitter between Morrissey and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget. You should read it for all the context, but basically this dispute (and the others that arise over aggregation from time to time) seems to pivot on two major questions.

Question 1: Audience overlap

Did the aggregator take audience that would have otherwise gone to the original creator, or did the aggregator create additional audience that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the information at all?

Despite the way it’s often discussed, the Web is actually not one big singular object. It’s a massively fragmented, sprawling network. There are thousands of small pockets of associated people and content (publishers call theirs “audiences”). Those pockets are connected, but loosely. Everyone reads stuff on the Web, but the authors and sites I read are likely different than yours.

Here’s how Blodget framed this question in his discussion with Morrissey:

 

So one component of what we could call “healthy aggregation” is bringing information to a new audience. Taking a tech story and applying it to media. Taking a media story and applying it to culture. Taking a culture story and applying it to science. In those cases, the aggregator is likely not stealing an audience but bridging to a different one. This means healthy aggregators would look for sources of information their audience is unlikely to regularly be reading.

We here at Poynter.org, for example, sometimes don’t aggregate posts from The New York Times — not because they aren’t good or relevant, but because we can assume most of our audience who wants that info is already aware of the Times’ existence and perfectly capable of reading their site or following their Twitter accounts. Of course in any specific situation there’s at least some amount of potential audience overlap between the aggregator and the creator. So the next question is especially important in those cases.

Question 2: Adding new value

Did the aggregator absorb the informational and entertainment value of the original piece? Or did the aggregator add more unique value while preserving motivation for the reader to also read the original? Shorter version: Does the aggregation replace the need to read the original piece or stimulate the desire to read the original?

This is the difference between aggregation that’s a straight rip-off of content and SEO juice, versus aggregation that is really more of a “yes, and…” conversation extender.

Healthy aggregation implies to the reader, “go read this original post first, then come back to hear what else I have to say about it.”

Think of it like a party conversation. John says he saw the new blockbuster movie at a theatre this weekend. Sam chimes in with a funny story about the time she bought tickets to the wrong show and didn’t realize it until halfway through the movie. Pete, the father of two little girls, says he can’t remember the last time he saw a movie that wasn’t animated and G-rated. Each person picks up the previous thread and extends it, adding value (they hope). Nobody needs you to just repeat what the last guy said.

How to deal

Like it or not, Mathew Ingram is right when he writes at paidContent that “aggregation or curation is a fact of life in the digital age.” He concludes:

Until the financing model for online media involves something other than pure pageview-driven advertising revenue, aggregation is unlikely to stop. The only protection is to have content whose value can’t be summed up in a screenshot or a paragraph excerpt, and a relationship with your readers that is based on more than just how many pageviews you can generate.

In the end, there’s not much a publisher can do to control which sites aggregate their work and how they do so. But we can all try to be more thoughtful and reach consensus about what approaches are beneficial for creators, aggregators and readers. I’m encouraged that, in this case, Morrissey and Blodget actually had a civil and nuanced exchange of views and reached an agreement — that Business Insider would respect Digiday’s wishes to not be aggregated anymore.

 

Related: Blodget responds: “thanks to every blogger, media organization, and reader who has ever shared our work.”

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  • Alfred Ingram

    When Google tends to rank the aggregated post higher than the original, there can be real distortions in pageviews.