Jonah Peretti: Don’t worry about traffic

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Jonah Peretti speaking at Social Media Week. ()
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Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti kicked off the Association of Magazine Media’s two-day American Magazine Media Conference Tuesday afternoon with a message to warm the hearts of toilers in digital media everywhere: Don’t be a slave to the numbers.

Peretti sat across from Andy Serwer, the managing editor of Fortune, in front of a crowd of reporters, magazine publishers and members of the media and cautioned against the dangers of solely basing decisions on site metrics and numbers. And his most vivid cautionary tale was drawn from The Huffington Post—a site he also helped to found before leaving to begin his own experiment, but never mentioned by name.

“There’s a lot of over-optimization on the web," Peretti told Serwer. "You see this sort of side-boob attraction. There are some celebrities whose dress lets you see their side boob, right? And so you put an image of that on the front of your website and you say ‘wow that gets really high numbers.’ If you were a slave to the numbers you start creating more stuff like that and more stuff like that and more stuff like that, and pretty soon you will have a site full of trash and salacious garbage, and you could say, by just looking at the numbers, you will be hitting a local maximum where lots of people would never want to read your site.”

The problem, as Peretti seemed to be describing it, is that a site that enslaves itself to counting the pageviews it gets doesn't always understand that that maximum is local—the traffic stats don't count the number of people who are turned off by the content, and so they don't disclose the opportunity cost of doubling down on clickbait.

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Peretti seemed to be introducing a new concept to the crowd here, as the MIT Media Lab graduate often does, though the idea has been circulating widely among user-experience designers recently. The “local maximum," as Peretti described it, is essentially the highest amount of traffic a site can receive given the limited topics the site’s content covers. And hitting it can impede the exploration of other varieties of content, Peretti argues, preventing a site from optimizing their reach.

“You need to have creative, experimental people trying lots of different things,” Peretti said.

He's a famous believer in the notion that there is a tension between creating content designed to be shared on social media and designing content to attract clicks (mostly by gaming its appearance in search results). He said he pays very little attention to traffic.

“It’s a tricky thing, I think that search will at some point have to catch up to social,” he said. “There’s a problem with the way Google aggregates data. So the aggregators win on search where people cram in key words, and do S.E.O. and rewrite stories, but on social you want to share the authoritative story. Ben Smith’s scoop is going to get retweeted a bunch of times, not the rewrite of the Ben Smith scoop. But the rewrite is going to get a lot of traffic on Google. So that’s a thing that Google is going to have to figure out and fix.”

Though many of Buzzfeed’s 80 million unique visitors reach the site through Facebook, Twitter and, at a slower rate (but with deeper engagement), Pinterest, Peretti said that there are still a handful of these visitors that go directly to the homepage. There, readers in search of content to share with their networks will find a variety of topics to choose from, Peretti said. And so he was able by the end to turn around the most common dismissal of Buzzfeed, that it's a site for cat gifs and politics: “The eclecticness of the site," he said, "is really a benefit.”