BusinessWeek interview transcript: Registration and BugMeNot

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 19, 2004

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by BusinessWeek reporter Olga Kharif for a piece on news-site user-registration. With her permission, I'm publishing the full e-mail interview here.

What kinds of problems do sites like BugMeNot create for the papers you work for?

BugMeNot doesn't create any problems for the newspaper sites I work for, because our sites do not require registration to access content.

We use registration only where it makes sense to do so from a reader's perspective. The classic example is on message boards and comment forms, where readers want to register so they can "own" the rights to their usernames -- and, thus, their online reputations. It's also beneficial for the community because without registration, online discussion tends to turn into anonymous name-calling.

For several months, we had an open discussion forum on our main site, LJWorld.com, and it allowed anyone to post comments without having to register. The anonymity -- and, hence, complete lack of credibility -- encouraged people to post insulting comments, pose as other readers, and otherwise partake in shenaniganism. We implemented a registration requirement to post comments (but not to read comments) after we got a number of e-mails from readers requesting the feature.

That's the kind of registration we do: When it makes the site better, and when NOT doing so makes the site worse.

Have the newspapers you work for taken any steps to counter BugMeNot, shared registrations? What were they?

I just checked, and none of our sites are in the BugMeNot database -- which I see as an incredibly positive thing. That means that we haven't annoyed anyone with registration requirements and that readers of our sites value their accounts.

What can news Web sites do, theoretically, to reduce the impact of sites like that?

They can, and should, drop their registration requirements for viewing content. Registration should only be used when, from a user perspective, it makes sense to do so and it doesn't make sense NOT to do so.

On the typical registration-blocked news site, there is ZERO incentive for me to keep my account information private. That's why BugMeNot works! I don't care if the whole world knows my New York Times username and password (register_this, register_this), because I haven't invested anything in it. I don't have a personal profile tied to it; I don't care if people go into my account and change my password, because then I'll just create another one -- or, better yet, just go to BugMeNot.

Question on a slightly different topic: What do you think of sites like Mirrordot.com? Are they legal? And, if one of your newspapers' stories got onto Mirrordot, would you be upset? What would you do about it?

I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say anything about whether it is or isn't legal. That will be, or already has been, decided by someone who is probably far-removed from the realities and culture of the Internet.

As for my opinion, I think these sorts of things should depend on the intent. Clearly the intent of Mirrordot.com is to help solve the Slashdot effect. Clearly the intent of Google's cache is to help users get to the information they need if the source sites are unavailable. I think these two cases are fine, because they serve as backups.

If, on the other hand, a site copied our content with no attribution and put its own advertising around it, or put it behind some sort of pay wall, I would see a reason to get upset.

Finally, if a story from one of the sites I work for got onto Mirrordot, I would very much welcome the load-balancing help.

Comments

Posted by Josh Renaud on October 19, 2004, at 3:57 p.m.:

I work for a newspaper, too, though not on the web side... I frequently hear that web registration is around the corner, and it makes me cringe. It's such a huge turn-off to users.

I'm not a marketing or advertising guy, but it seems to me that there must be effective non-obtrusive ways of gathering demographic information about a site's users. Couldn't they *ask* for it at random and maybe offer the user something for participating like coupons, discounts, or promotional items as a reward? The information would then be used in a statistical sample.. I think that's pretty close to how they do demographic studies on the print side anyway, isn't it?

Posted by al on October 19, 2004, at 7:07 p.m.:

Thanks for this! I never give accurate info on sites that require registration. The stats they collect are meaningless.

One tv station that I used to frequent -- http://www.kgw.com -- has disabled right-clicks on the reg. page, so I can't use the handy bugmenot extension on mozilla's firefox. I just don't go to that site anymore.

The Oregonian -- http://oregonlive.com/ -- is a horrible offender. The site's cookies don't work properly, so they get a different DOB, gender, etc. from me each time.

Posted by Adrian on October 19, 2004, at 7:12 p.m.:

Al: There's a Firefox extension that enables right-clicking whenever right-clicking is disabled. I forget the name of it, but you should be able to find it at the official extension site.

Posted by Adrian on October 20, 2004, at 11:33 a.m.:

Matt Haughey, also interviewed in the article, has comments as well.

Posted by Free Medicine on October 21, 2004, at 12:16 p.m.:

Why require me to register if all I want to do is read the news. Do I have to register before I buy a NY Times on the street????

Posted by john on October 22, 2004, at 12:31 a.m.:

Adrian, totally agreed!

When I used to sell advertising for a newspaper, I absolutely hated that we went to a forced user registration model without an explicit need to do so. We did it "because our content was worth something" and that something turned out to be user registration information. In the 6 months I worked there that we also had User Registration, I never found any value in that data from a selling perspective, and would have gladly had the old traffic numbers that we had before user registration...

User registration is a waste of time for the user, and for most companies doing it...

Guess what? I haven't been to that old site to get my news since I left (about a month ago) ... I get it from various other sources, and yes, that includes the printed version of the paper when I'm so inclined to read it (weekends only usually) ...

If you work for a newspaper website, know exactly what you're going to get out of registering your users before you do it, and more importantly, make sure your users are going to get something out of registering before you force it on them. Make it optional for a few months before you make it forced, and see what the uptake is... If there's no uptake then there's no value for your audience and you need to rethink that value proposition. Without an explicit value (other than reading your news) you're going to get bad data, which makes it a useless gesture and will hurt your company in the long run.

I've got 5 registrations at my former employers website...

Posted by Jay Small on October 23, 2004, at 11:06 a.m.:

I've always endorsed, philosophically, Adrian's description of incented registration -- in effect, ask for profile data when it's clear that profile data is necessary to improve the user experience.

But I also work for a company where we've seen tangible economic benefits from targeted advertising derived from section-access registration. Whether some people fudge their profile data or not, the fact is we get significantly better response from targeting ads based on registration data. So I can't sit here and tell you it doesn't work, because it does. Enough people DO provide legitimate profile data, as it relates to their locations and interests, to make targeting based on section-access registration profiles go.

I can't say that will always be the case, either. If more casual Internet users knew about the Bug-Me-Nots of the world, or just had it in them to work around a profile system, I suspect the targeting results could deteriorate.

I do see the point that sites like ours may have to accommodate news "grazers" and Webloggers with a free pass to the first article or two. That'd also make our recent implementation of RSS feeds more logical.

That free-pass step may, in fact, improve the overall quality of the profile database by requiring registration only for people who clearly intend to use a site's content more deeply and/or regularly. The database won't grow at the same rate, but most of the profiles we wouldn't get would be the dubious ones anyway.

Disclaimer: For my company, that's not purely my decision, so I'm not saying that's what we're going to do. I'm simply saying I see that point.

Good to have you back in the blogging fold, Adrian. Haven't heard enough from you lately!

Posted by anonymous on February 4, 2006, at 5:14 a.m.:

Well, the firefox extention you guys are mentioning is called www.bugmenot.com

I dont think they ask for information for demographic purposes only, since they can gather enough information just from the ip address to tell them the area exactly.

Most if not all sites use personal information to send spam and try to contribute in failure of beautiful technologies like email.

Thats b.s. and I completely support not having to register for such sites.

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