NYTimes.com article pages lose left rail

Written by Adrian Holovaty on April 17, 2003

The New York Times' Web site no longer features left-rail navigation on its story pages. Here's an example. Instead, it's got a new breadcrumb navigation scheme. From what I can tell, the change hasn't been implemented throughout the whole site yet, but it's on many pages. (Thanks to my friend David for the heads-up.)

I sense they made the change in order to make room for large ads on the right side of the page. Previously, the site embedded large, distracting ads in body text, making articles difficult to read. As far as I can tell from clicking through the site this evening, this practice has been discontinued on the pages that don't have a left nav.

At face value, this minor redesign seems like a positive change. But I fear the Times might've thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The lack of a left navigation bar creates a wider content area, which is either more readable or less readable, depending on whose usability study you're reading. The Times' opinion pieces are particularly wide now -- some go clear across the page.

And it's obvious that moving from section to section (e.g., from International to Technology) is significantly more difficult without a trusty sitewide-navigation bar always at your side. I get the feeling breadcrumb navigation is being relied on a bit too heavily.

Also, the fact that the Times' ads now appear outside the content area sounds like good news at first, but might it be a sneaky way of introducing even larger ads? I stumbled upon a nytimes.com page that featured a 336-by-850-pixel ad. That's, like, bigger than my face. Just because an ad isn't in the content area doesn't make it any less annoying; in fact, I'd say that humongous ad was more annoying than any other inline ad I'd seen.


Posted by Joshua Kaufman on April 17, 2003, at 3:14 p.m.:

Here's a WSJ article from February about the half page ads.

I think the key is to make ads unobtrusive. As long as they don't distract you from the story (not in the content area) and don't delay from you the story (not a full page ad that appears before the story), readers will be generally okay with them.

Posted by Shannon on April 17, 2003, at 10:23 p.m.:

Well, perhaps it is just my browser and resolution settings, but even the opinion piece linked to above does NOT go "clear across" the page, rather it appears to be bound by the size of the upper navigation/graphic bar, which on my screen at least means that there is a huge empty white space to the right, but is also a very readable format that visually mirrors an 8 1/2 x 11 page.

Posted by Jason on April 18, 2003, at 12:58 a.m.:

I disagree with Joshua about unobtrusive ads. I'm not a fan of websites filled with advertising, but isn't it the point of an ad to be obtrusive? Why would anyone pay for an ad that wasn't obtrusive? Who would see it?

I admit that there are many shades of grey here, but as long as an ad doesn't prevent me from looking at content or hijack the browser, I'm okay with it.

I even like the Salon model where you sit through an ad for a few seconds before accessing the pages you want. There are shades of grey there too - I'm willing to wait a few seconds as long as there is a link to "skip ahead" to the page I want. The day I have to wait 30 seconds (or longer) for a "TV-style" ad, is the day I stop visiting the offending website.

Posted by Julie on April 18, 2003, at 1:40 a.m.:

I find the giant ads in the new style only slightly less intrusive than the old, which IMO is not enough to justify removing the left rail aka the backbone of the site's navigation. I say the breadcrumb navigation is *absolutely* being relied upon too heavily -- there must be a bad pun in here somewhere about not surviving on breadcrumbs alone ;)

Oh, and I would venture that the point of many ads is, in fact, to be obtrusive but whether they *need* to be is a whole other question.

Posted by Joshua Kaufman on April 18, 2003, at 9:48 p.m.:

Call me an idealist, but I don't think the point of an ad is to be obtrusive. Ads should catch your attention, not block it. There is a fine line between the two, and placement has a lot to do with an ad's effect. An ad placed between two paragraphs would be considerably more obtrusive than the same ad placed alongside the article.

The biggest problem with ads that obstruct and delay content is that the Web is an active medium. Web users are used to having control over what happens in their browsers. The less control they have, the less they'll trust the offending website. The more users are willing to compromise that trust, the less control they'll have. Do you really want to wait 5-10 seconds to read an article? That 30 second delay ad may arrive sooner than you think.

Julie, I agree that they breadcrumb navigation is being relied to too heavily. I'm surprised that they chose to replace the standard navigation bar with a far less standard and less intuitive dropdown. It will be interesting to see how the new design plays out.

Posted by Rex Sorgatz on April 19, 2003, at 1:54 a.m.:

I don't really like either side of the argument "ads should/shouldn't be obtrusive." But two things really annoy about this move:

1) Inconsistent Navigation. If I'm on the homepage, I orient my brain around the navigation. It is my gateway into the architecture, the way I mentally conceive of the site. But when I click on a story, I lose my orientation, because I have to find the navigation again.

2) Print Philosophy Applied Online. NYtimes.com upper-ups will tell you that newspapers always have an ad hole that's 40-60% of the newspaper. Why shouldn't we apply this philosphy to the screen? Answer: becuz this ain't a newspaper. It's not even worth discussing all the misconceptions in that comparison.

Posted by Chris Heisel on April 22, 2003, at 3:44 a.m.:

When I read the aforementioned WSJ article I applaued the Times for moving to a larger ad-size.

Without going into the print isn't online discussion, a rule from design basics applies to all mediums -- size matters. A larger ad has more presence and contrast with the content and can call attention to itself without blinking, beeping, or otherwise annoying me.

However, I can't believe they threw out the left-nav rail. I'm not a big fan of the pull down list they have with all their sections listed, but I'm glad they have it.

A horizontal nav bar (no tabs, please!) with links to the paper's major sections would help the situation immensely.

I imagine they ditched the left-nav rail to make enough room for the new ad on screens at low resolutions, not that 640x480 means anything to a cell phone or PDA.

Does anyone know of a standards-compliant way to scale images, based on percentages say? That's one of the things that could truly free designers to create all the liquid layouts they want.

Posted by Joel Abrams on April 23, 2003, at 4:53 p.m.:

I entirely agree with Rex's first point. If they're going to redesign site navigation, they should do it all at once.

The second one, however, I only partly agree with. Television is a medium much more comparable to web browsing, instead of print. The mode of television is brief interruptions of content to catch the viewer's attention. Sure it's really annoying to sit through two minutes of commercials between parts of a television show -- but you will often do it. And that attention is why advertisers pay a lot of money to tv stations for advertising.

The fact that most online ads only attract attention for a fraction of a second is why they're nearly worthless. Frankly, if a big ad is what it takes to provide a value-exchange to an advertiser that can support free-to-the-reader content, it makes it worthwhile.

Posted by Micah on April 25, 2003, at 2:27 p.m.:

Funny, my reaction to the disappearance of the left nav column was largely positive. I had never used it before, and it *seemed* to quicken loading time for the page. Also, it brings the article width closer to that of the print-version page, which I click-through to most of the time anyhow. My first impression was that they did this so that people on dial-up (like me) will stop linking to the print-version of articles in our weblogs.

Oh, and the button below the comment box would probably be better saying "Preview it", rather than Post it. I tend to post, hit the back button and refresh to see my comment. I ended up losing this comment and typing it over. Other than that, I really like the forced-preview. Just a thought.

Posted by Adrian on April 26, 2003, at 12:54 a.m.:

Thanks for the suggestion, Micah. I've made the change.

Posted by Vishi on June 18, 2003, at 10:15 p.m.:

The links to NYtimes take me to their registration page. Even with Userland thing in the url. Is it the same for everyone else?

Posted by Adrian on June 18, 2003, at 10:29 p.m.:

Vishi: Yeah, that's because the linking policy began on May 5.

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