Generating Interest: Controversial Topics

Posted on March 1, 2012

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My professor passed along the Forbes article “Trolling the Internet with ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’” and it made me consider the role of controversial news topics and how they fit into page views and search engine optimization.

In the article, Kashmir Hill discusses the existence of “pressure points” in the Internet, which are “inherently controversial topics that, if pressed, will cause the Internet to go crazy.”

People love clicking on and reading about controversial topics, and search engines know this. Back when I used to write for the Daily Illini (my school’s independent student newspaper) as a sports reporter, an on-going joke with our staff was that every story’s web headline should somehow include “Jamar Smith” and “Chief Illiniwek.”

Smith is a former Illinois basketball star who was involved in a controversial drunk-driving accident that received national attention, and Chief Illiniwek continues to be a hot topic among the Illini community, and especially a few years ago, any story that had references to either topic was most likely one of our top-viewed stories.

A few decades ago, the buzz phrase in the news industry when it came to popular stories was “selling papers.” Today, it’s “getting page views.” But at what cost? Hill brought up the idea of “trolls” – people who say outrageous claims on the Internet, often creating an online uproar. It’s easy to do and good for business. So what’s to stop us from doing that?

“Journalistic integrity” may be too naive of a defense, and I like what Hill wrote better. She writes that as online content producers, we have a personal brand – “voice, authenticity and reputation.” Search engines may not take this into account, but regular viewers will, and they, ultimately, are who you are after.

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Posted in: News