I was taking my merry time while browsing the headlines on a news site's home page late last night, and suddenly the page reloaded on me.
I hate it when that happens.
Yes, some news sites' home pages are set to refresh automatically after a certain number of seconds. Here are a few offenders, ranked by number of seconds between refreshes:
- Boston Herald -- 300 seconds
- Los Angeles Times -- 300 seconds
- ABC News -- 600 seconds
- Boston Globe -- 900 seconds
- New York Times -- 900 seconds
- Wall Street Journal -- 900 seconds
- CNN -- 1800 seconds
- Denver Post -- 1800 seconds
- Denver Rocky Mountain News -- 1800 seconds
- USA Today -- 1800 seconds
- Washington Post -- 1800 seconds
I can only assume the producers of these news sites do this for two reasons: to make sure their users see the very latest headlines, and/or to drive up their page views. Let's tackle these reasons one at a time.
Using auto refresh to ensure users see the very latest headlines. Oh, please. Let's give users some credit. I think it's safe to say that the majority of Web users know...
- how to use a "refresh" button
- that pages they're viewing are only current as of the second they loaded the page
If users want the latest news, they'll hit "refresh." And if they're confused enough not to know how to use the "refresh" button, just think how confused they'd get if their page automatically reloaded in their faces.
Using auto refresh to drive up page views. This, like related "strategies" (e.g. making users click through several pages just to get content, in order to get more page views), is incredibly ridiculous, unethical and just plain sneaky in the worst ways possible. Any online journalist who does this willingly should really reconsider his or her career: Try spamming, telemarketing, etc., instead. It's more up your alley.
But back to auto-refresh. Not only does it offer no advantages, but it presents several disadvantages in your site's accessibility and usability.
Let's start at the top. The World Wide Web Consortium, in its "Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0", flat-out says:
Until user agents provide the ability to stop the refresh, do not create periodically auto-refreshing pages.
This is a Priority 2 guideline, which means Web developers should do this. There are browsers that do provide the ability to stop auto-refresh, but I don't believe this feature isn't readily available in mainstream browsers yet -- at least the three or four Mac and PC browsers I use. (Please correct me if I'm wrong by posting a comment below.)
Why the guideline? The W3C gives an example of a "retiree with several aging-related conditions" who tends to avoid sites that auto-refresh because he can't get through the site without having the carpet pulled out from under him via an auto-refresh. It's not just retirees; some people read slowly, period -- and couple that with the fact that, people read 25% slower from computer screens than paper. Has anyone given some serious thought to how many people auto-refresh pisses off?
So, we've established auto-refresh is bad. But what to do? Simple. Make it an "opt-in" option. The Simplified Web Accessibility Guide offers this solution:
[W]hen using a continually updated page, inform the users that they should reload the page often...If using auto-refresh is unavoidable, provide a single line of text at the top of the page stating that the page contains changing information and will automatically reload itself after a certain amount of time. Also, provide a link to the next screen for those browsers that don't support the feature.
Or, if you insist on auto-refresh for whatever diabolical reason, fess up, and provide a way out. Digital Web Magazine suggests, "If you must create an auto-refreshing page, warn the user and allow them to request more time, if possible."
Good examples of this are washingtonpost.com's Live Online chats, during which users may specifically designate "Automatically Update Page" (in the left rail). But the default pages do not automatically update.