Sometimes relatively simple changes in site functionality make dramatic differences. Take, for instance, the Twitter-interface functionality at my two favorite newspaper Web sites, nytimes.com and washingtonpost.com.
On nytimes.com, the share tools appear just to the right of the headline of the story — very easy to find. When you click on the Twitter tool, a small box appears on the page, with the headline and a shortened URL using the bit.ly service. You can add your own comments or hashtags before clicking “post.” There’s also plenty of room for people to retweet. It’s easy — elegant in both design and functionality.
In contrast, the share tools on washingtonpost.com appear at the bottom of the page, below even the “Sponsored links” ads. If you’re habituated to their location, it’s not difficult to remember where the tools reside. But if you jump around between sites, as many readers do, you would have to search around for the tools or assume they don’t exist. (There’s a separate tool box higher on the page with options for resizing, printing and e-mailing, but no hint of sharing tools.) But the obscure location of the sharing tools is not the worst of it.
When you click on the Twitter tool, a new browser window opens on Twitter itself. The headline and the entire original URL appear in the “What are you doing?” window. The headline and URL of an Oct. 11 story about pensions, for example, used up all but 16 of the 140 available characters. There’s little room for a comment or a hashtag, and almost no room for anyone who’d want to retweet the post.
Because it’s both uncool and unwieldy to post lengthy URLs on Twitter, the washingtonpost.com reader would have to copy the original URL, go to tinyurl.com or bit.ly, paste it there, then copy the new URL, go back to Twitter, and paste it in to replace the long URL. What a waste of time. In my humble opinion, it’s better not to have a tool at all than one that’s overly time-consuming.
Getting it right matters a lot. Some sites are seeing huge traffic gains from their Twitter followers. In a presentation at the Batten Symposium on Sept. 17, Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, said his site gets more traffic as a result of its Twitter account than it does from Google. As more and more people use social networks, the stakes are getting higher.