Why cite the most popular content?

Every so often, I’m tempted to do what I’ve seen other website/blog owners do, which is to insert some code that lists the most popular content on their website. But I can’t seem to be able to answer a very fundamental question:

What’s the point?

This seems to me to be a clear example of people using technology (this time in the form of a snippet of code) for no reason other than that it’s there, and they can. Surely listing the most popular articles on a blog becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? If I were to do anything along those lines, it would be to insert a widget which listed the least popular articles – so I could feel there was going to be a better return on my investment of time and effort.

I have to say, though, that in a sense using any kind of code for this sort of thing strikes me as lazy, and missing the point. Surely it would be better for readers of your blog to have more articles in the popular genre, and/or for better-written articles in the least popular ones, or more publicity for them? The statistics tell you how visitors voted with their virtual feet. Responding to that by ignoring it, and using a code to drive even more people to your most popular articles, doesn’t strike me as particularly useful or clever.

Note that this i not the same as the sort of code that says “Readers of this post also liked the following posts”, a bit like the information Amazon includes on is pages. To me, that is a good way of accommodating to your readers’ predilections, and enhancing the value, to them, of visiting your site.

My own preference, though, is to use the Zemanta plug-in to suggest other blogs people might find interesting. True, as often as not it takes the reader away from your own site, but it does help to provide a richer experience in my opinion.

There is a wider issue here, I think. Many students now create, and are encouraged to create, their own apps, code widgets or similar. I think they need to be challenged to answer some fundamental questions before they even get started:

  • What is its fundamental function? Note the singular: nobody uses or likes using the application equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.
  • What is the point of it? Not what it does, which is covered by the first question, but why does anyone need something to do that?
  • What are the likely unintended consequences of using it? For example, in this case you would probably find that even fewer people read your least popular posts.
  • What is the ultimate goal? For example, in this case I should imagine that the ultimate goal is to increase the “stickiness” of your blog, ie to encourage people to stay on it longer.
  • Is there a better way of achieving the ultimate goal?
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