Slate’s editorial guidelines call for articles to be split into multiple pages once they hit the 1,000-word mark, so I have to keep this brief: Splitting articles and photo galleries into multiple pages is evil. It should stop.
Pagination is one of the worst design and usability sins on the Web, the kind of obvious no-no that should have gone out with blinky text, dancing cat animations, and autoplaying music. It shows constant, quiet contempt for people who should be any news site’s highest priority—folks who want to read articles all the way to the end.
Pagination persists because splitting a single-page article into two pages can, in theory, yield twice as many opportunities to display ads—though in practice it doesn’t because lots of readers never bother to click past the first page. The practice has become so ubiquitous that it’s numbed many publications and readers into thinking that multipage design is how the Web has always been, and how it should be.
Neither is true: The Web’s earliest news sites didn’t paginate, and the practice grew up only over the past decade, in response to pressure from the ad industry. It doesn’t have to be this way—some of the Web’s most forward-thinking and successful publications, including BuzzFeed and the Verge, have eschewed pagination, and they’re better off for it.
So would we all be: Pageview juicing is a myopic strategy. In the long run, unfriendly design isn’t going to help websites win new adherents, and winning new readers is the whole point of being a website. I bet that if all news sites switched to single-page articles—and BuzzFeed-style scrolling galleries instead of multipage slideshows—they’d experience short-term pain followed by long-term gain. Their articles would get shared more widely and, thus, win more loyal, regular visitors for the publication. In fact, pagination is so horrible that I suspect eradicating it from the Web might also lead to bigger breakthroughs—it would almost certainly solve the Iran nuclear crisis and eliminate the fiscal cliff—but I don’t want to make any promises.
I know you’re ready to call this a First World problem. (When I told my wife that I was writing about the scourge of multipage articles, she responded, “That seems like a … weak topic for an article.” She also told me she likes when articles are split into multiple pages. I’ll get to that argument below; needless to say, that woman is no longer my wife.) I’ve got two responses to the criticism that pagination isn’t such a big deal: First, so what? It’s still a problem, one that affects you, dear reader of the Web, every time you click on a story or gallery to learn about Third World problems.
Second: Objectively, no Internet usability flaw—not even all-cap email forwards from your aunt touting dubious conspiracy theories about Barack Obama—is all that terrible for the world. They’re all just minor frustrations, and if they victimize you often enough, you develop a kind of learned-helplessness that makes them seem less terrible.
That’s exactly what has happened with pagination. Every day at Slate, at the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, Politico, Bloomberg Businessweek, Esquire, GQ, New York, Wired and countless other sites, I and tens of millions of other innocent readers click on articles that turn out to be mere fractions of articles. Pieces that should be readable on a single scroll require one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, or more page clicks. (Just look at any Esquire article by Chris Jones.)
We all have our little routines for dealing with this proliferation of pages. The timid among us just go with the flow—we click, click, and click some more, wasting time and bandwidth to feed advertisers their precious pages. The savvy know about ways to get around the clicks—when I’m presented with a many-page piece, I immediately search for the site’s single-page button. For sites I visit often (like Slate and the New York Times) my fingers have committed the location of the single-page button to muscle memory; I click to see the article, and then, almost automatically, click again to see the whole thing. And when I realize the site doesn’t have a single-page view (I’m looking at you, Washington Post) I make a mental note to spit on my hand the next time I meet that site’s Web designer.
There are some people who claim to like it when articles are split into multiple pages. These people are self-evidently crazy and their opinions on such weighty matters shouldn’t hold much water, but let’s humor them. In general the argument goes like this: Long articles without page breaks look and feel off on a Web page. I heard this argument from a few (former) friends and my (ex-)wife, as well as from pagination-friendly Web editors, including Slate editor David Plotz. Slate began paginating in 2005, almost a decade after it was founded. The primary motivation was to boost pageviews and, thus, advertising, but a secondary reason was to make long articles friendlier.
“Pages that run too long can irritate readers,” Plotz said in an email. “We run stories of 2,000, 4,000, even 6,000 words, and to run that much text down a single page can daunt and depress a reader. So pagination can make pages seem more welcoming, more chewable.” An editor at another site made a further point that pagination can be a useful signal to readers about the length of an article—if you see an article with 10 pages, you know to set aside a lot of time to read it (or skip it).
I don’t disagree that these are nice benefits from pagination. But I think that thoughtful design can improve how long articles look on the Web. One example of this is the Verge, which publishes very long pieces every day and makes them look stunning and manageable without page breaks. In its long pieces, the Verge breaks up blocks of text with photos and design elements like pull-quotes, and each article has internal navigation buttons that let you go to specific sections of the piece. (In this review of the new Kindle, for instance, you can click on “Hardware” or “Software, battery” to scroll directly to those topics.)
I asked Joshua Topolsky, the Verge’s editor, whether he had a hard time convincing the advertising sales department at the magazine to ditch pages. He said he didn’t: “From the beginning, there's been a company-wide belief that we can marry great advertising with great content and not have to cheat or trick our users,” Topolsky emailed. “And so far, that's proven 100 percent correct. Our traffic has been on a big climb, and I believe advertisers are really beginning to see the true value in engaged users who care (and return) versus sheer volume of pageviews (though our pageviews have also been through the roof).”
Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder, echoed this sentiment. BuzzFeed publishes dozens of photo galleries daily, and lately it’s been getting into longform reporting, too. (See Doree Shafrir’s 7,000-word piece on nightmares.)* If it paginated, it could boost its pageviews significantly. But it has never paginated, and Peretti suspects the site never will. (Even BuzzFeed’s homepage isn’t paginated—it keeps loading older stories as you scroll.) BuzzFeed can afford to run stories in full because its advertising model—which relies more on “branded content” and not banner ads—doesn’t rely on pageviews. For Peretti, the most important metric for a story is how many unique people click on it, and how widely it’s shared. He says: “If you build things that people are excited about sharing with their friends—if you build things that don’t annoy people and if it’s presented in a user-friendly way—then, long-term, people will share content more, new people will come and check out what you’re doing, people will have more positive feelings about you, and … OK, maybe it’s a little bit utopian of a view, but it’s working for us.”
I believe that’s right. At the very least, it sounds worth trying. I could go on about this for pages, but I’m already past my one-page limit, so for now, let me end on this hopeful note. I asked Plotz if he’s willing to consider making the single-page view the default on Slate. He said: “We should certainly consider making single-page views our default for articles below, say, 1200 words. That’s probably a good idea. I suspect it makes sense to keep paginating long articles.” Well, I’ll take it.
P.S. Of course I didn’t divorce my wife just because she likes multipage articles. I divorced her because she types two spaces after a period. (Not really.)
Correction, Oct. 2, 2012: This article originally stated that Doree Shafrir’s story on nightmares is 6,000 words long. It is more than 7,000 words long.