The struggle for readability

Adverts and search engines have massively impacted the ways in which we read online.

I don’t just mean how we find things to read, but impacts on how we read and the quality of reading online.

Adverts make content worse in many different ways

Even simple banner adverts add visual clutter to a page. Pop-ups, auto-playing videos, advert blocks that follow a scrolling page, interstitial ads between page sections. All of these make the experience of reading even worse. More and more of the page is given over to adverts.

To increase the surface area of content to which ads can be attached, publishers turn simple articles into multi-page click throughs.

Adverts incentivise quickly put together clickbait style articles that often just rehash social media posts or articles on other sites. This quickly turned over content is also getting longer and longer.

A single bit of trivia or a pointer to a social media update is preceded by a thousand word essay that provides wide-ranging background defining that has little relevance to the article. You have to read a precis of an actors entire career before learning which they’ve film you won’t believe they’ve been cast in.

This too is about increasing surface area. Longer pages mean more space for ads, more time spent on page to be served ads, and more text which can be linked to other content containing ads.

Search engines amplify this by penalising pages that are short and show similar content.

Recipe sites are the archetypal example of this. Every recipe includes a history of the author’s relationship with food and an exploration of the ingredients before you get to the instructions.

So there’s an arms race for attention which ends up in an increasingly poor quality reading experience.

The evolution of tools for readability

Offset against this are a number of tools and browser improvements that try to increase readability.

Ad blockers have been booming since the early 2000s. They block most of the clutter.

Read Later services like Instapaper and Pocket, which date back to 2007, are also part of trying to deal with a poor reading experience.

While these began as evolution of bookmarking, the addition of simplified text views (which Instapaper has included in 2008) to these services meant that we no longer had to deal with either adverts or poor web design. We can read just the text.

“Simplified” or “reader” views are part of every major browser. I don’t know about the others, but Firefox added a Reader View in 2015.

While reader views strip away adverts, they don’t help to deal with increasingly waffly content.

The next step seems to be to use text summarisers.

There seem to be a few of these services that have launched in the last 4 years, including Scholarcy, SummariseBot and TLDR This. These all aim to summarise a block of text to save you time, extracting just the key insights.

It seems likely that this functionality will eventually be integrated into browsers and services like Pocket too. But perhaps tailored not just to summarising the entire text but in finding the specific insight alluded to in the article title.

It feels odd to almost always be reading the web at a distance. And a shame that the needs of readers are so often overlooked. But this is where we are.