HuffPo’s Jonathan Peretti thinks Web editors are idiots

I mentioned in my last post that I wasn’t as upset as the Chicago Reader’s Whet Moser was about ChuffPo – the Chicago branch of the larger Huffington Post site – stealing content from local publications. Mainly because everything ChuffPo does is slapdash so it was hardly surprising that their ethics were, too, and the resulting direct harm seemed minimal.

Until someone in the comments at Chicagoland pointed out that ChuffPo’s Bon Iver page with the stolen content was coming up higher in a Google search for “Bon Iver Vic” than the Reader’s page (the source of the stolen content). You can see that here (3rd and 4th main links).

So there was the direct harm laid bare. And HuffPo’s reaction to their questionable behavior dialed up my ire.

Wired picked up the story, and spoke with HuffPo co-founder Jonah Peretti, who admitted that they made a “mistaken editorial call.” And to the site’s credit, they are no longer publishing the full content, and are instead excerpting it the way every other aggregator site does.

But the other comments attributed to him in the story show he still doesn’t get it. Excerpts from the Wired story in ital below, my comments following:

The Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti says the contretemps are overblown — that the complete re-printing was a mistaken editorial call and that The Huffington Post’s intention in aggregating other publications’ content is to send traffic their way.

“You tease, you pull out a piece of it, and then you have a headline or link out,” Peretti said. “Generally publishers are psyched to have a link.”

And yes, that is what they did. And no one – Whet, me or any other Web Ed – begrudges anyone else who does this. I love when people excerpt our content, credit us and add a link. Hell, we even allow for some image use so long as the credit’s given to the photog.

But as Whet’s pointed out (read Update III in this post), what ChuffPo was doing was not aggegrating. It was re-publishing without permission then selling ads on that content. It’s hard to put this in print terms because the Web is so different in its approach. But the generally accepted notion is when you aggregate, you excerpt. And ChuffPo was re-printing entire previews.

Did they send traffic our way? Yes, some. But it was minimal. The greater crime here was in establishing a competitive advantage vis a vis SEO traffic, which means any traffic they did send our way was superseded by their higher Google search rankings (which equals more traffic).

(The more I write about this, the more I wonder why I wasn’t more pissed off. Note to self: When something like this happens in the future, throw a ball against a wall Toby Ziegler-style until you think it all the way through.)

Anyway, back to the Wired article:

The headlines on The Huffington Post, he points out, link to the outside site, not to The Huffington Post page with the two to three paragraph excerpt of the other site’s copyrighted story. That page is accessible via the comment and “Quick Read” links, and serves as the “anchor” page for comments or for follow-up reporting by The Huffington Post staff.

Almost all of the readers click on the headlines and photos, according to Peretti, which means most don’t know the excerpt page exists since they get sent to the original site.

Then why have those pages at all? Again, it’s all about the SEO, baby. Peretti’s being disingenuous here. He knows that people will find those pages via Google, which accounts for a significant portion of his site’s traffic. Just because it happens off the main page, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Also, to suggest that users don’t know those pages exist because they only link to the QuickRead or Comment sections, particularly since HuffPo has vigorous commenters, is also disingenuous.

He compares The Huffington Post’s influence on other sites traffic to that of link-voting sites like Digg and Reddit. Those sites, along with Google News and Slashdot, rely on small excerpts or user submitted summaries of online content in order to create lists of the best new content on the web.

First of all, don’t flatter yourself, sir. The effects of ChuffPo on our traffic are minimal compared to sites like Digg, Reddit or Fark. The competitive advantage they’re creating for themselves far outweighs the tens of weekly pageviews we get from their site.

Also, the operative words here are “small excerpts” and “user submitted summaries.” Note that HuffPo was neither printing small excerpts or user submitted summaries.

But Peretti says some 95 percent of The Huffington Post’s traffic goes through the headline links, and that when The Huffington Post does original reporting or adds to a story, it changes a headline link to point to its content.

That 95 percent number is hazy and here’s why: It suggests that a very small percentage of HuffPo traffic reaches those pages with the stolen content, which is supposed to diminish the ire that Whet and others have over their practices. “Hey, it’s only 5 percent of our traffic! Why are you getting so upset?”

But what Peretti probably means is 95 percent of the traffic from the HuffPo/Chuffpo home pages clicks through the headline links. That’s a big difference. The real question is how much pf a percentage of their overall traffic do they get by using SEO strategies to get click throughs from search engines?

As for disgruntled publishers, Peretti seems genuinely perplexed and says The Huffington Post links should be good for them — and suggests that upset editors get in touch and build relationships with Huffington Post editors.

Yeah, silly us. We should have predicted they’d steal our content and called them pre-emptively to ask them to instead enter into a business relationship with us.

I have some Christmas shopping to do this afternoon. I think I’ll just steal a couple things, and if a retailer gets upset about it, I’ll suggest to them they get in touch with me and ask me to become a paying customer instead.

4 comments for “HuffPo’s Jonathan Peretti thinks Web editors are idiots

  1. December 20, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    i have to say a lot of this SEO stuff is above my head primarily because i haven’t had the inclination nor the time to learn about it (i hope that’s the reason, maybe it’s because it’s just over my head!).however, whenever i hear about this sort of stuff on the web, i just always go back to journalism and english class 101 — it’s always a problem to take someone else’s writing or speech or words of ANY kind and put them down in your paper or newspaper article or speech and repeat them (even if you’re not directly claiming them as your own) and NOT say who said them. not quote the person directly. not credit them. not attribute the source.i don’t care what you call the crediting and i don’t care what you call the taking. if you take something without asking, it’s called stealing. and in the word world, it’s called i the only one who thinks this is a simple concept? and i’m the only one who thinks it’s a VERY big deal? with the rash of speeches by high school principals, etc. in the last few years to major newspaper reporters getting caught, these sorts of things have always astounded me. *especially* since it’s so easy to get caught these days.

  2. December 20, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    I understand enough about SEO to be vague. But conceptually my first thought when I read your first piece was “Um, if this was a student web-J project, the student would totally get knocked a or several grades for stealing content.” And I think that’s always my tactic when presented with any sort of journalistically questionnable behavior, “If I did this as a student, how would I be graded?” And I think that is exactly what chuffpo and other sites like it need to do. I’ve considered them shady long before they came to town, and that opinion hasn’t changed. Thanks for explaining it further, and may I suggest a raquetball? Better bounce sound and it won’t mark your walls.

  3. December 20, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Smussy> I think HuffPo felt like it was big enough that it could set a new standard, so they weren't afraid of getting caught. Though there was attribution, it was – and is – hard to find. Plus, the entirety of the most valuable part of the content – the blurb – was being republished, which isn't the standard for this kind of thing.Cinnamon> I like that yardstick. Also, I'm getting a racquetball next chance I get.

  4. December 31, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    I echo Cinnamon’s sentiments. I’ve always found HuffPo to be the most awful, awful hacks and never read anything on there until I started blogging myself and their infernal “stories” came up CONSTANTLY in my Google Alerts.Whatever this SEO strategy of theirs is (and I also have a somewhat dim understanding of it), it’s crude, rude and unappreciated. It’s a crime on all literate humanity when their often thoughtless drivel gets more attention from online content readers than something that’s truly good, insightful writing.

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