Wasteful Widgets #1: Most popular articles

We're always hearing about new widgets. I love experimenting with widgets, but I think it's easy to get carried away with the wizardry of widgets. Some of them are, in my opinion, a waste of time, and I thought I'd share my views on some of these.

One thing I see a lot of is the Most Popular Articles widget. The idea is that people can see at a glance which articles on your website or blog have been most clicked on. I've messed around with this myself, and when I started this new website just over a month ago, I was a little disappointed that Squarespace provides no obvious way of displaying this information to the public.

"But", said my wife. "Isn't that sort of widget just a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

She was right. The existence of such a widget is designed to encourage people to click on your most popular articles, thereby making them even more popular. I suppose it's based on the idea that all these people can't be wrong.

But what if the current zeitgeist changes? If your most popular articles all seem to be about X and the new Zeitgeist is Y, doesn't that immediately put people off, especially first time visitors to your blog?

In any case, far better, in a way, would be to encourage people to read your least popular articles.

A more useful variation of this sort of widget is one which provides links to related articles, which is why I like using Zemanta.

That is not to say that knowing which articles are the most popular isn't useful. I use the information to try and guide my writing, to some extent.

I think if you want to draw people's attention to other articles on your site, the best approaches are to list the most recent articles (which is the one I've adopted, and has also been adopted by Windowsbytes, where it works really well, I think), or to show which other posts are related to the current one being looked at, as seen at Problogger (although Darren Rowse, who owns it, also includes a popular articles section). When I come across sites that do one or both of these I tend to get drawn in, which is what the blog owner wants to happen.

If we transfer these ideas to an educational context, it seems to me that a widget in a virtual learning environment which automatically (or semi-automatically) showed related articles or links would be very useful indeed.

It would certainly be more useful, and probably less fraught with potential problems, than one which showed the most popular articles or links.