Karura’s Soapbox: Modern websites

The internet is a rich trove of information, misinformation, facts, opinions and funny cat photos. Most of it is served up to us via websites, and for years this has worked pretty well. Lately, however, navigating a website to read a single article of interest can turn out to be quite a stressful experience.

Picture the scene. Someone has posted a link to an article on your favourite social media site, and you’re keen to read more. Optimistically, you click on the link, and the pain begins. A huge bar appears stating the website’s cookie policy, and asking you to accept or deny various types of cookie. Maybe when this change first came in, you had a system – you were going to accept the bare minimum of cookies in order to maintain some semblance of online privacy. These days, however, you just mash away at the acceptance button, hoping to get to the content.

You’re still not done, though. Perhaps you’ve already installed an adblocker in the hopes of reducing the deluge of extraneous content that gets loaded with your webpage. You know that ads generate revenue for the site, but on a selfish level, you don’t care. Not that your prior stance matters, because now there’s a pop-up telling you to disable your adblocker if you want to see the content. You can’t quite bring yourself to whitelist the site for all time, so you pause the adblocker on that tab and reload.

Great, now there are ads everywhere. Some of them are auto-playing videos. If you’re unlucky, they won’t even be muted. Oh, and what’s that that’s popped up now? This random website you’ve never visited before and may never visit again wants to send you push notifications. Of course you click ‘block’ – what possible use could those notifications ever be?

You settle down to read the article, but straight away something else pops up. “Would you like to subscribe to our newsletter?” asks an in-your-face overlay. Well, maybe there was the outside chance you would have done, had you been allowed to judge the site content for yourself and navigate to the subscription box in your own time. Now it’s just one more annoyance to dismiss.

Finally, your way is clear. But even now poor web page design abounds. You’ll probably have to scroll past a massive and irrelevant header image just to get to the text of the article. But at last, you can read the thing you came for, albeit with slightly higher blood pressure than when you started.

And the problem is even worse on mobile devices. At least on a PC or Mac you can precision click on all those ‘X’ buttons to dismiss unwanted pop-ups. On your mobile device you find yourself frantically pressing in the region of the X, wondering why nothing is happening, or likely fat-fingering some region of the screen that takes you to a completely different page. Maybe you try to pinch zoom to give yourself a bigger target, only to find nothing happens. You ignore the physics of capacitative touchscreens and just try pressing harder. Eventually you somehow dismiss the ‘subscribe to our newsletter’ window, only to find the main content painfully slow to load. And if you navigate away from your browser app to do something else, you run the risk of the page reloading when you go back to the app, potentially losing your place.

I’ve singled out news articles thus far, but even other types of website can be a pain to navigate. There are sites where ticking ‘keep me logged in’ offers no guarantee that you won’t be logged out when you check back the next day. There are online shopping sites with absolutely terrible search engines or poor tagging. If I want a piece of yellow fabric, I’d like ever conceivable shade of yellow to be in a single category so I can peruse them all. I don’t know a priori if I want to go the “canary”, “goldenrod” or “sunshine” sections. I can understand why navigating to the “bathroom ceiling light” category wouldn’t throw up exactly the same results as searching “bathroom ceiling light”, but I’d expect the overlap to be significant. And if a hundred websites have trained me to look for the search and login buttons in the top right of the screen, why did you put yours on the centre left?

Why is the internet so awful these days? It’s not like the era of Geocities and Angelfire sites with ‘under construction’ signs and an overuse of the blink and marquee tags were great either, but with the rosy tint of nostalgia, those seem like easier times. Maybe it’s because those websites looked terrible up front, so your expectations were already low. Maybe it’s because bandwidth and memory were so much more limited, so there was no incentive to flood your site with huge assets. These days, anyone with a bit of cash can get a superficially professional looking website up and running in minutes. The trouble is, for all that it is easy to make your own website, it’s hard to do it well.

Of course, there are much bigger problems in the world today than some frustration over the effort needed to read the latest Buzzfeed listicle about funny things people said on Twitter. But all those annoyances add up, making us that bit less happy than we could be if everything online just loaded quickly and responded smoothly.

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