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A Testing Hypothesis
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by Brett Thomas on June 26, 2009 in Staff Editorials

Should content posted on a website be decided by its readers, or companies? Rather than have typical advertising sustain a site and support its growth, are there other avenues worth exploring? These are the questions on the table, and Senior Editor Brett Thomas has taken a hard look at both, analyzing the pros, and the far more important cons.

It doesn’t take a long trip through our news posts to see one of the uglier sides of our jobs here at Techgage. The results of Rob’s latest revamp to our GPU suite are an almost agonizing tale of capped frame rates, nebulous and inconsistent antics and driver debacles. And honestly, folks, that’s just to choose the games – it avoids some of the other difficult aspects such as how to best present the data, whether there is a brand favoritism, and how to provide our methodologies so that you can repeat our tests at home. Whew. I get a headache just thinking about it – thankfully, I’m not Rob.

These types of things are just part of the industry, though. As we revamp and add content, we’ve been thinking a lot about how we test, how we review and how we get that information out to you. Some of these things can be so seemingly objective, when in reality they mask a beautifully woven bias. This top title is optimized for NVIDIA, that one for AMD. One test stresses a system this way, another that way. I’m sure some people wonder why we agonize over our games suite and don’t just take the most recent top titles, and this is why – we want our reviews to be impartial and unbiased, and how we test products says a lot about how we think about the industry as a whole. In a word, we like that thought to be “Skeptical.” The devil, my friends, is alive and well in the details.

I’d bet that many people who read the reviews probably don’t even think too far into how we come to the conclusions we reach – the actual business of reviewing products seems almost simple and empirical. Companies ship you products, you review them. Some are obviously good, others not so much. Buyers and interested parties read your thoughts, and generate ad revenue that pays for the site (assuming they are kind enough not to block it). The more you review, the more readers you get, the more ad revenue… it’s simple, right?

This long and rambling thought pattern actually reaches its point here: What if the business model were slightly redefined? For instance, what if we were to skip that whole advertising thing and just get paid to review by the companies themselves?

It was this exact business model that was recently proposed to us by one rather large player in the industry. After all, viewers come for content and content comes from product suppliers, so why not just skip the middle man? The company had realized that its direct advertising budgets spent on sites sold pretty much nil – let’s be honest, you guys aren’t the type to run out and buy something just because you saw an annoying Flash advertisement on the side of this page.

To reach savvy readers like you, a company has to have its products reviewed – and there are so many that come to market that no site could really review them all with any quality. So, the company surmised that simply paying the site to make sure its product hit the top of the pile seemed like a sensible trade-off. Rather than wasting money on advertising that sells nothing, it would spend its money making sure things actually hit the front page of various tech sites. It’s an interesting hypothesis, to be sure.

I’ve spent a couple of weeks since this offer came to the table mulling over how I felt about what I ultimately decided was quite an indecent proposal. It’s seemingly innocuous enough – the payment is for the specific intent of a guaranteed review, and on its face has nothing to do with the results.

Of course, the fine print to such a devil’s deal is that the more unfavorable reviews that appear, the less products that site will see. It’s something that any site which has curried ill favor can tell you – review samples become limited quantities, things seem to not show up timely, etc. It’s not blatant, it’s just a subtle but clear reminder that you are no longer on the “A”-List. There’s always a reason, and usually it’s because some other site was slow getting the sample back or any other of a whole line of conceivable but often complete BS excuses. These things are not unintentional – time is page views and page views are money, and the difference between coming out on launch with even a half-assed article and coming out a few days later (even with a top-notch review) is staggering.

But if the favors and back-hand moves are already happening, what’s the big deal with making it more direct? It takes us as consumers completely out of the picture.

In a proper capitalistic market, there is a willing buyer and a willing seller at all times. If one of these two should fail to be present, there is no deal. If we look at the way business in the industry of tech journalism functions now, there are three separate revenue chains: manufacturer to journalists (advertising), journalists to readers (content), and readers to manufacturers (product purchase). Advertising is fairly regularly chosen by the size of a site’s readership, which is of course chosen by how many readers think the site produces good content. Good manufacturers are sustained through readers buying products that they trust are good and hopefully end up being satisfied with. All of this is controlled by you, the reader – if you don’t like the product, you don’t buy the brand, and if you don’t like the site (or feel it’s not doing its job) then you don’t read it.

Now, imagine a world where the money chain breaks a link. Manufacturers pay the site for reviews, and the site posts those reviews for you to read. However, the site’s not really accountable to you – your page views are no longer paying for its existence. Instead, it’s accountable to the manufacturers, who are paying it directly. If it doesn’t get more products (and thus payment), it goes under. So those sites that cater get the gold, and those that don’t (for whatever reason – not every bad review is deserved) get the shaft. Eventually the shafted sites get tilled under, and we get left with a couple IGN’s of the hardware world as the only places to even view a review.

I think that what bothers me most about this horrible suggestion isn’t that it was made – it’s that it was made by a company large enough to have some takers and a change in its advertising could affect a lot of people. Worse, I don’t see a lot of talk about it since then… I’m sure that we are not the only site of any size to receive this offer. I can only hope that the rest of the recipients had the same pro-consumer “F___ that!” thought as we did, because they’d be under no contract to tell you that they traded teams.

For all of our sakes, I hope that this experience is not a portent of things to come. Companies have had to go leaner and meaner every year as the industry at large has become more aggressive, and as much as I am indignant for the offer, I can understand the (rather poor) logic. Demand for cheaper, better, faster products along with a world-wide economic downturn have put several companies, large and small, in a difficult position. Like us, they’re trying different methods to see which ones work best for them.

One can’t blame them for testing a hypothesis. I just hope that this one doesn’t find enough support to be proven valid.

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