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MailOnline: Divining The Appeal Of The Most Popular News Website In The World

Mark Leccese: "Celebrity gossip! Lurid stories of death and dismemberment! Kids and animals doing whacky things!" (Marcelo Trasel/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Mark Leccese: "Celebrity gossip! Lurid stories of death and dismemberment! Kids and animals doing whacky things!" (Marcelo Trasel/flickr)

As guilty pleasures go, it’s hard to beat the MailOnline website. Celebrity gossip! Lurid stories of death and dismemberment! Kids and animals doing whacky things! Bizarre videos! Lots and lots and lots of photos!

Fifty million people a month visit MailOnline, making it the most popular newspaper website on the planet. On August 1, theAlexa.com “Top 500 Sites On The Web” ranking had MailOnline.com ranked 92nd in the world, far ahead of nytimes.com (125), washingtonpost.com (284), and usatoday.com (293).

When your browser lands at MailOnline, it’s as though the website reaches out and punches you in the eye.

Although the site is celebrity-heavy, you can get news at MailOnline, too. Not only will your news come with the most dramatic photos available, it will come with no political slant at all.

That’s because MailOnline is a separate entity from the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, a middlebrow tabloid with a strong conservative slant and a daily paid circulation of 1.8 million, making it the second largest newspaper in the UK, second only to Rupert Murdoch’s down-market tabloid The Sun.

Want further proof of MailOnline’s popularity? At noon on Labor Day, its story about a hacker posting hundreds of nude photos of celebrities online had garnered 1,933 comments and had been shared by email or social media by 2,800 readers.

The lesson here for newspapers is obvious: a website completely different from the newspaper that offers gossipy fare and voluminous visuals can draw flocks of readers. The Boston Globe has tried this, but its Boston.com hasn't quite figured out the formula. Its story about the nude celebrity photos drew 14 comments.

The design of MailOnline strikes you first: It looks like none of the 21st century news websites meant for easy viewing. When your browser lands at MailOnline, it’s as though the website reaches out and punches you in the eye. It’s a visual cacophony of rambling blue headlines, celebrity headshots crammed one atop the other, and a right-side column of nothing but celebrity gossip with the cringe-worthy title, “Femail Today.”

Once your eyes adjust to what must be the intentionally primitive, ‘90s-era web design and you start reading, though, its popularity is no mystery. Those long headlines actually work. For example, when this summer’s Market Basket soap opera finally came to a close, this was the headline on the New York Times website: “Workers Win Supermarket President’s Job Back.”

This was the headline on MailOnline; “Victory for beloved ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ boss: Fired CEO buys grocery company back after all his employees walked out for six weeks to save his job.”

Not only is the whole story in the headline, but MailOnline throws in a warm and fuzzy reference to a classic movie. So what if it isn’t really apt? The reader never needs to click on a too-clever-by-half headline to figure out what a story is about. If you want more information than the MailOnline headline reveals, click it. You’ll get a breezy story interspersed with big color photos.

The lesson here for newspapers is obvious: a website completely different from the newspaper that offers gossipy fare and voluminous visuals can draw flocks of readers.

Actually reading a MailOnline story requires an active scrolling finger. The Market Basket story runs for seven screens on my enormous desktop monitor, and about 15 screens in my iPhone.

That may sound annoying, but it isn’t. It’s the opposite, in fact. Eye-tracking and website usage studies show that readers prefer scrolling to clicking, especially on mobile devices, where scrolling is much easier than tapping. As web designer and blogger Joshua Porter writes, “Scrolling is a continuation; clicking is a decision.”

MailOnline’s homepage features about 200 stories at any time, and the pages change often. According to MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke, the site publishes more than 600 posts a day.

All this makes MailOnline an exceptionally easy website to browse and read. It’s a whole bunch of fun, too. Where else are you going to learn that the “gay man who tried to poison lesbian neighbours with slug pellets over three-legged cat feud” walked free?”


Related:

Mark Leccese Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Mark Leccese, a veteran Boston-area newspaper reporter and editor, is an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College.

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