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4 Lessons From The Web’s Most Ruthlessly Addictive Site

With its four-foot-long home pages and hundreds of sidebar images, the Mail Online breaks every rule of web design. It’s also winning the web (and design awards).

During the average workday, I allow myself to take a couple "Internet breaks," little bursts of Tumblr and Gawker and other forms of web candy that tug at my attention span like a needy kid. There’s one web threshold I never step over on a weekday, though: the Mail Online. The online outlet of the British tabloid is a one-way ticket to an hours-long surfing spree of celebrity gossip and moral outrage. It’s not web candy—this is web crack.

And it’s not just me. The Mail Online now outperforms The New York Times, The Guardian, and pretty much every other online news property in terms of unique visitors. It generated almost $40 million last year, an increase of 500% since 2008. I’ve always wondered at the remarkable magnetic pull of the website, which isn’t particularly beautiful and isn’t known for its in-depth reportage. "Mail Online breaks just about every web design rule in the book," Jakob Nielsen (yes, that Nielsen) has said of the site. Yet, as Nielsen adds, "the traffic figures speak for themselves." What keeps so many of us coming back for more heaping servings of non-stories, even when we know that’s what we’re getting?

That question was partially answered this week, when the Mail Online was singled out for a Design Effectiveness Award by the British Design Business Association. Brand42, the British agency that designed the Mail Online, received the Gold Grand Prix for the 2008 revamp that spurred the Mail to where it is today. After getting in touch with the designers, I was excited to get a hold of the case study that lays out some of the most successful aspects of the design. Four of them follow.

More Is More, Ad Placement Be Damned!

Brand42 started off by throwing out traditional ideas about above and below the fold, a model many news sites have maintained online. Sometimes the Mail’s front page is so long, it scrolls for the pixel-equivalent of several meters. The model here is more—always have more content available for those landing on the front page. In another unusual move (at least in 2008), Brand42 got rid of all advertising on the front page and doubled up on ads on the rest of the site. "We recognized and utilized the fact that the webpage does not conform to web media rules," they write.

Like A Maze With No Deadends

An average sidebar on a Mail Online story has nearly 70 stories, each with its own image. As readers move past the threshold into individual stories, the sidebar acts as an anchor pulling them into the next story. "We created a radically different information architecture, allowing more flexible entry points and journeys through the site," says the Brand42 team in their case study. The size and ratio of the sidebar was tested using eye-tracking, giving the design team a heat map of how the average eye moves over the page. Based on those maps, Brand42 created SEO-optimized templates (now numbering over 200) that allow editors to easily link in their stories, preventing dead-ends. Right now, more than half of the Mail’s page views come not from the homepage, but from click-throughs elsewhere on the site.

Okay, So This Rule Is Pretty Standard

The Mail puts hundreds of stories online every day, and that meant Brand42 had to come up with a way to parse the content into discernable chunks. Surf around the Mail Online for a few minutes, and you’ll find yourself dropped into one of around a dozen topic silos—from FeMail (ugh) to Science & Tech. This strategy helps users avoid getting "lost" amongst the vast number of stories that go live on the site every day. "It not only gave the medium a revitalized look but allowed the user to know where they are on the site," Brand42 explains.

Win The Ladies, And You’ve Won The Web

We’ve long known that female web users drive more traffic than their counterparts. The Mail Online has made it a point to exploit that fact. If you take a peek at their front page, most of the images are geared toward women, or at least the gender-normative version of what women are interested in—that is to say, celebrities, beauty, and family. According to the case study, the "FeMail" channel outperforms every competing beauty and fashion site in the U.K.—even those of magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmo.

So there aren’t any truly new tricks beneath the Mail Online’s hood—these are all tried-and-true online publishing strategies, just scaled up a few orders of magnitude. The Mail takes what we already know about attracting clicks and drives those principles to the breaking point. Check out the rest of the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awardees here, or read the full report on the Mail Online here.

[Image: CarbonNYC]

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  • LD

    I'd also add that most of the "content" is lifted from Reddit, Twitter and other social sites. Not only are they racist, mysoginist, every -ist known to (wo)mankind really but they're also the online equivalent of the schoolyard bully who copies others' homework.

    Did I mention that I loathe the DM?

  • Greg Emerson

    Agree with everything here, but I think it misses one big important point: PHOTOS and photo composites are what sell the MailOnline. That right rail full of celebrity content? Sure it's clickable for what it is, but it's also thanks to the fact that every single photo is actually a composite of two or three photos. You get so much more without clicking in than on any other site. It's brilliant.

  • Barefoot

    Nice piece. There are a few examples like this on the web of people paying no attention to the fundamentals are ranking anyway. Sheer power of domain authority I guess!

  • Charbel Jamous

    This is another evidence of the importance of the topic and content. Some might say that it is all about rumours and misleading information. Well it doesn't matter anymore, if the content is the "queen" now since we are talking about women audience.

    But I am still convinced that having a good usable design is a must! The question remains, why are they attached to this kind of late old fashioned design, and by design I only mean the new trends of web design?

  • Matthew Kaulana Ing

    They're breaking bad in journalism, and the Daily Mail is Heisenberg, cooking up that blue gold.

  • Sora is a bunny

    I'm convinced that the Daily Mail's popularity has almost nothing to do with it's (awful) design. I believe it's down to it's mis-informed, uneducated patrons spreading its misleading headlines and lies throughout social networks out of misplaced rage and hatred for subjects they neither understand nor care to explore themselves.

  • Steve Cowie

    Ah! The Daily Heil.  And the sidebar of shame. Yet it works by appealing to human nature.  We're Doomed!

  • Luke Mitchell

    As others have said, the success and addiction is less to do with the design and mostly to do with the editorial approach. They invented linkbait before the web existed.
    However it is interesting to look at the design and the two stanout elements for me are the highly 'fleshy', gossipy sidebar and the way they break content into digestible chunks with excessive photo use.

  • Andre Bourque

    I should never have read this article. Introduced to Mail Online, I now know there's a small fraction of my life I'll give over to this site, that I'll never get back. 

  • vickytnz

    Personally, I actually like the design of the site, just for its utter garishness. If you're reading about some reality star, you might as well revel in the shame. I'm always shocked to see the real paper with its far more tasteful typography!

  • Mark

    I'd argue it's the content and photos that explain the website's popularity as opposed to its design.

  • MyLoudSpeakerDotCa

    Unexpectedly, the long headlines really do it for me. I feel like i've already read a good chunk of the story in the headline, so I might as well finish the rest.  Reminds me of Reddit.

  • Khalsa Lakhvir Singh

    correct - design has no role here. content is king. as a daily visitor to the site (which i now need to back out of), i feel that what draws people in the hoards is the off-beat stories, shocking and unexpected peeks into what can go largely unreported in other popular media brands. some of the stories in mailonline border on 'sick' but it seems like that is what people want, only to privately justify their own failings in life - reflected by some of the natiest comments one can find anywhere, even on the most positive of stories. some stories are really heart-wrenching, but the rest is all trash - and that is what the flies come for - the really rotting stuff.

  • Steve Mac

    "The Daily Fascist" as many over here in the UK call this rag! :)

    According to the the DM, all problems, of any kind, can be answered by the influx of illegal immgrants, celebrities putting on weight matters (a lot) and talking about Princess Diana every other page is still relevant.