Infinite Scroll Is (Usually) Just a Bad Recommendation System

Stairs going down

Only one way to go with infinite scroll.

Infinite scroll, the web design practice that lets readers scroll down into more stories on a news site after reaching the end of a post, became popular with news publishers after the rise of feed-based sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Infinite scroll’s not a simple thing to implement. URLs have to change in the address bar as the reader moves to the new story. Analytics packages have to know when to recognize a new read. Ad units have to be timed to fire again.

Infinite scroll is a recommendation system.

But infinite scroll looks like social networks do, so publishers keep adopting it. (Though some, like Forbes, have abandoned it).

I’ve never seen an infinite scroll implementation that’s smart. Or to put it more kindly, I’ve never seen an infinite scroll site that uses data smartly to decide what to show next.

Why does that matter?

Infinite scroll is a recommendation system.

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Kill All the Authors’ (Bios)

A Too Big Author Bio

No one cares about this block of text author bio, but it takes up beachfront real estate on this post.

I spent ten years of my life writing on the internet, and for the first 3 years, got paid mostly in bylines.

Bylines, for those who don’t follow journalistic lingo, are a fancy name for the author’s name on a piece.

As an ego-driven bunch, writers care a lot about bylines. Writers reading other writers seek bylines out when they start reading a story (so to later know who to envy or disdain or both).

But readers don’t care about bylines, and most don’t even notice who wrote a piece. Bless the ones that do care, but for the most part, if readers notice anything about a story, they notice the publication.

If they share a story or mention it to a friend, they will say, “Oh, the Washington Post had a great story about how acetaminophen kills empathy.” They won’t remember the piece’s author Alice Ellis Nutt at all.

And the thing readers care even less about than bylines are author bios.

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The Things Publishers Can’t Count

Screenshot 2016-04-17 20.51.27

There are things publishers can’t count on the internet. Things that don’t show up in Google Analytics or in Chartbeat.

I know that sounds like heresy in the age of pageview quotas and dashboard fetishism.

It sounds a bit odd to say, like a vote of no confidence, coming from a co-founder and CEO of a data-driven engagement company – Contextly. I know firsthand some of the incredible things that can be built using data and algorithms. We innovate publisher engagement tools like our FollowUp button. It is, however, important to know the limitations of your tools.

And the uncountable things are very important things.

They may, in fact, be some of the most important things to publishers.

Things like a publisher’s reputation. Or, as some call it these days, their brand.

Here’s a few things that publishers can’t and don’t count:

  • Do “content recommendations” on the site appeal to readers’ basest selves and make readers feel dirty for clicking them?
  • Do readers start reading a story only to have that story blocked by a pop-up with X that’s nearly invisible to find or requires them to click on a link like “No, I don’t want to buy life insurance to protect my family. Let them beg on the streets and build character.”
  • How do readers feel about having to be the Lloyd Bridges in Airplane fighting off petitioners as he enters the airport — when all the readers want to do is just read to the end of an article?
  • Do the ads insult their intelligence?
  • How many times do readers sigh? Or curse?
  • Do low-quality recommendations on the site pretend that they are personalized, even for readers that have never visited the site before?
  • Is the site readable on mobile devices?
  • Did a new-to-your-publication reader who followed a story link even remember the name of your site – or did they read one story and bounce off?
  • Are you covering the issues and stories that your core community cares about?

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A Small Ode to the Web

High Bridge, New York
Yes, mobile browsers suck and crash too often. Web pages take too long to load. Too many publishers make it an Olympic sport to read a story to the ending killing pop-ups and dodging auto-playing videos.

And all the other complaints, too.

But, last Sunday night when I stumbled across this Vulture story about 100 jokes that shaped American Comedy, I had to stop and say thank you to the Web.

The piece is a compilation of 100 jokes from American history, from 1906 to the present. Each changed society and comedy, breaking new ground and cultural barriers. There’s a nifty JavaScript timeline that lets you jump by year; but for the most part, it’s just HTML and embeds.

And it’s miraculous.

I’m far from a historian of comedy, so I’m not going to argue over the editorial choices; instead, I’m going to be a simple fan-boy.

I learned a lot from this list – in no small part because the SoundCloud and YouTube clips that accompanied each selection let me experience the joke accompanied by context..

That includes the opener – a 1906 joke from black comedian Bert Williams (who I was ignorant of). Thanks to someone who took the time to upload the likely now-in-public-domain recording, this bit of history just loads in a webpage on a mobile device.

And the piece goes on from there – to classic bits like Who’s on First to lesser known vaudeville from Burns and Allen to a brazen, hilarious Bernie Mac performance at the Apollo in the 1990s.

This experience wouldn’t have been possible without the web and embeds (and fair-use and Section 230 of the DMCA).
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Favorite Feature #14: Automatically Recommending Evergreen Stories


For sites with hundreds of posts, there’s a rich underlying content that isn’t out of date and still gives value to readers. These older stories are what we call Evergreens, since they keep giving value to readers long after they have been published.

Contextly automatically identifies evergreen stories on our publishers’ sites and uses them as one of the recommendation strategies in the Explore section (we pair evergreens with personalization and popular). We’ve found that evergreens perform as well as or better than the popular sections.

Here’s one of my favorites from Make:, a post about how to cut wine bottles into drinking glasses with easy clean cuts. It’s from 2010 and readers still love it in 2015.

Make: Bottle Cutting

After it showed up in the Evergreen section of the Contextly reports continuously, Make: then added a new story updating the post with a way to make cutting bottles cleanly even easier.

The other great thing about evergreen stories is that they do change. We see stories, especially seasonal ones, bubble up and become relevant again.

Getting those in front of readers doesn’t just help readers; it helps publishers get the most from the work they do.

[For the month of November 2015, in honor of National Novel Writing Month and National Blog Posting Month #NaBloPoMo, I’ll be writing a post a day about a favorite Contextly feature. It’s a bit of a love letter and a bit of a how-to.]

If you want to try Contextly on your own WordPress site, you can download it from the WordPress plugin gallery or you want to learn about our custom CMS integration, drop us a line.

Favorite Feature #12: Integrated Video, Text and Product Recommendations

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 5.16.01 PMThere is video over there. There is text over yonder. And in the recommendation section never shall the two commingle.

Or at least that’s what it always feels like out on publisher’s websites.

We wanted to break down those silos, so we made it possible that text, video and even product recommendations could show up side-by-side in our recommendation modules. That’s just like the way chocolate and peanut butter play nicely in a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup.

Call them integrated or blended recommendations.

So when a video is related to a story, we show the video in the Related recommendations. You can see that in the image above and the one below on a story from Make: about GoPro’s new drone.

Make Integrated Recommendations

We do this using the same technology that powers our text recommendations, using metadata and semantically important terms to figure out the relationship between various pieces of content.

You’ll also see videos and products in our Explore section, which uses 3 recommendation strategies: personalization, evergreen and popular.

We do also have standalone sections for videos and products, but videos and products should be first-class citizens.

[For the month of November 2015, in honor of National Novel Writing Month and National Blog Posting Month #NaBloPoMo, I’ll be writing a post a day about a favorite Contextly feature. It’s a bit of a love letter and a bit of a how-to.]

If you want to try Contextly on your own WordPress site, you can download it from the WordPress plugin gallery, or you want to learn about our custom CMS integration, drop us a line.

Favorite Feature #11: Adding Related Links Pointing to Another Site


The middle of the month deserves a sneaky feature, so here it goes: Here’s how you can add a second site to your curation search and have Contextly think it’s your default site.

Let me explain: say you wanted to choose related links for your own site: When you install Contextly, the default search site if you are choosing related links or creating a sidebar will be

But say you had a second site: And you wanted to link to a post from that site in your related section or a sidebar.

It’s a more common situation than you might imagine, and our solution is more graceful than you might suppose.

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Favorite Feature #10: Analytics Reports, Not a Dashboard

A Dashboard

Early on, we made a counter-intuitive decision. We were not going to build a dashboard. Instead, we would send a daily, weekly and monthly report to our publishers with info on how Contextly was working and other info about their sites.

It turned out the open rates were outstanding. Publishers began asking for more. How can we send this report to more of our staff? Can you include X feature?

We’d stumbled onto something right.

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Favorite Feature #9: Promoting Custom Content

Custom Motorcycle

Many publishers have posts and content they’d like to highlight from their site that aren’t necessarily related to a given story.

Say around Thanksgiving, you might have Fall recipes you want to show off – or even content about how to survive extended family time.

Or if you have multiple sites, you might want to have one site recommending content from the other.

That’s where Contextly Custom feeds come in. You simply give us an RSS feed in the control panel, then specify what module or module section you want it to show up in.

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