Auto-refresh on news home pages

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 11, 2002

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:

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...

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.

Comments

Posted by Chris Heisel on July 12, 2002 at 11:50 a.m.:

Here's what I'd like to see: A little box or graphic in a corner of the front page, or every page for that matter, that would flash or change when new stories have been posted or when the site has been updated.

Perhaps an auto-refreshing iframe or something similar - in the case of new stories it could provide links to them -- I think this would be good because some of the larger sites have so much content that unless the new story is really big, it's tough to find.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 12, 2002 at 12:26 p.m.:

An auto-refreshing i-frame! Now *there's* an awesome idea. Putting it on every page sitewide might be a little too much, though -- maybe a new window? As much as I hate pop-up windows, I think using them might be appropriate in this case.

Posted by Daniel Jansen on July 12, 2002 at 12:30 p.m.:

When and how to use autorefresh is an issue we've recently dealt with. Because we run a headline news service with updates any time of the day -- AND because we know many users have their browsers set to read from the cache for an hour, several hours, or until the next restart -- we decided to set a 20 minute refresh on our home page. I think it strikes a balance between boosting the counter and making sure a visitor who comes back in 30 minutes will see the latest links. I don't think autorefresh should be used within articles, though, and know of several people who avoid sitess that do that.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on July 12, 2002 at 1:05 p.m.:

Daniel: There's another way to ensure visitors will always see the latest links on your site. You can use meta http-equiv="Expires", which basically sets an expiration date/time for a page. If you set that expiration value to a date in the past, browsers will always assume the page is expired and clear their cache of that page.

Posted by Sean Polay on July 12, 2002 at 4:17 p.m.:

[fulldisclosure]Our meta refresh is set to 900 seconds[/fulldisclosure]

That said, I've recently applied a meta-no cache tag to all of our pages, to see if this does a better job of achieving the goal.

My one concern with either method is the harm either does to the load time of a page?

Posted by Daniel Jansen on July 13, 2002 at 8:33 a.m.:

Adrian, thanks for the tip. Wasn't familiar with the "expires" tag. Have updated home page to use it instead of refresh.

Posted by Dale on June 5, 2003 at 5:31 p.m.:

I am currently dealing with this issue myself as I test out a web cam for work. We want the web page to update the picture every so-many minutes; however, I do not want to have to autorefresh the page on every visitor for many of the reasons mentioned above.

I was wondering if anyone knew how to autorefresh an iframe? I have the picture loading directly into an iframe. Autorefreshing this would make life a ton easier for me and better for the viewers on our website...

Posted by Steven J. Cagle on September 23, 2004 at 3:48 p.m.:

Thanks to Adrian for the "expires" tag tip. I've been updating our products available online and the design of many web pages and want to make sure repeat visitors see the latest w/o having to hit their browser's refresh button.

Posted by Just passing through.......... on October 29, 2004 at 9:36 p.m.:

You can stop those web page refreshing commands by simply turning off meta-refresh.

I don't know about other systems but in XP Home, as Internet Explorer is open you go to tools/internet options/security/custom level

and then scroll down to "Allow META-REFRESH" and select "disable". Click "OK" and then click "OK" again when you are asked if you really want to do this (like who would NOT want to do this) and then when you are back to the Internet Options window just click "OK" and then you will not be bothered by web pages refreshing any more.

Happy webbing.

_

Posted by shay on November 11, 2005 at 5:30 p.m.:

hey i understand this auto refresh is annoying but i was wondering if anyone knows how to make it refresh when the page loads. (only once is needed) because when i update stuff it doesnt show up untill you refresh

Posted by bluemoon on January 27, 2006 at 11:48 a.m.:

Could any one tell me how to refresh a only when the page loads..

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