Will Denton lose his bet?

By Felix Salmon
February 12, 2011
bet with Nick Denton over Gawker Media pageviews. Can Denton get them up to 510 million in September?

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Rex Sorgatz asks for my opinion on who’s going to win his bet with Nick Denton over Gawker Media pageviews. Can Denton get them up to 510 million in September?

I’m having a very difficult time answering this question, because it really could go either way — it isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means.

There’s no doubt that pageviews are down, right now, post-redesign, rather than up. And a glance at the comments on this post makes it clear why: Gawker’s readers (and the readers of all the other Gawker sites) hate the redesign. They certainly hate it enough that they’re not visiting as much as they used to, and some of them hate it enough that they’re no longer visiting at all.

Commenter “ihatediamonds”, in a comment that I can’t link to right now, says that “Gawker is just giving up on the joyfully literate” — and that seems exactly right. Gawker was built on snark and literacy, both in its posts and in its comments. And Nick Denton is demoting both of those qualities in favor of high-impact photos and video — areas where he doesn’t have the same kind of comparative advantage.

As a result, if Denton’s to win the bet, he’s going to have to replace joyfully literate readers with the kind of readers who love to look at shiny objects. So that’s the first thing I find very hard to predict: can Denton attract such readers? They’re out there, for sure, and Denton has learned that posts with lots of photos and video got the most pageviews under the old design. But what’s not clear is how loyal such readers are, and whether Denton can get enough shiny multimedia content up on his various sites every day to get them into the habit of coming back for more on a regular basis.

There are also technological reasons why the redesign might fail. Hash-bang architecture is fragile, and the technological glitches we’ve seen since the sites went live are severe enough that one can’t be particularly optimistic that Denton is going to be able to build a smoothly-running machine between now and September. Gawker’s tech department does not have a fantastic reputation for reliability, and it has a lot of work ahead of it: tags need to be reintroduced, for one thing, and maybe sections, and navigation to specific pages or comments needs to be vastly improved. I’m all in favor of launching with something not-quite-perfect and then iterating. But this design has been in the works for over a year, which says to me that nobody really has a clue how long it might take to perfect.

On the other hand, Denton has built a blog empire by going ever more mass market, leaving behind various elites along the way. If the commenters are aggrieved, so be it: he wants millions of new readers who haven’t been visiting his sites for years.

And I’ll say this for the new design: once you’re there and you’ve loaded up the first page, it’s incredibly easy to click around lots of other stories in quick succession. Where before you’d look at the teaser text on the home page to decide whether you wanted to read a particular blog post, now you just call up the post itself, and if you don’t like it you can move on to the next one very quickly. That’s fantastic for pageviews — I’m pretty confident that pageviews per session will rise substantially under the new design.

So Denton can win this bet a couple of ways. Either he replaces his departed readers with even more new ones, or else he relies on the increase in pageviews per session to make up for the decrease in visits.

I’ve had a couple of bets myself with Nick over the years, and I’ve invariably lost them. So, licking my wounds, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and say there’s a good chance he’ll win. But it’s entirely possible that he’ll lose quite dramatically, if his revolution fails.

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