9 ways to de-rig the movie and TV websites game

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If we want better movie and TV websites, then the ecosystem desperately needs to change: some ideas and thoughts.

On day one of Den Of Geek, way back in 2007, I remember writing some of the first articles for the site and feeling a bit that I was shooting into the void. We didn’t have social media really, Google was still a force for generally good things, but still: the barriers to getting work noticed still seemed insurmountable.

It turned out they weren’t, but it took time.

Nobody can instantly post something and enjoy success. Conversely, there did seem to be a way through if you kept going, kept trying, kept improving.

Now? I’m not sure there is. If I started off with Den Of Geek or Film Stories again now, I don’t know how it’d work. I know in my heart of hearts that people still want to read things, but they click on things that aren’t readable, and seem to reward articles that aren’t very article-y. 

There are reasons for this on both sides. I’m both a frustrated reader and a frustrated writer, in a period where services that once upon a time at least gave everyone a chance – Google, Facebook, Twitterthingy – have gone malevolent, and reward either clickbait or hard cash.

I don’t think this is sustainable. In the last year, so many outlets have fallen, even more since ChatGPT started legitimising digital plagiarism and replacing human beings. It’s all as grim as I’ve ever known it. But, but, but: I’m glass half full person. I do think this isn’t, as it stands, sustainable. And I also think if we’re going to give people on the outside a chance, it has to change anyway.

I also don’t believe that people want to read clickbait forever. Let’s give it a try with this article, and see what you all think. It’s not a first draft, as originally – as my colleagues will tell you – I named some worst offenders. But they were right: I don’t want to be that person. The reason I named sites originally was if I don’t, some people assume I’m aiming potshots at my old home (I’m not), or that I’m aiming it personally at them anyway (I’m not). 

Ironically, I’ve presented this in a list form because I have to eat from the same trough I criticise. A bonus point to the first person who calls me a hypocrite in the comments. Fair cop. Here goes…

1. Stop punishing human beings for writing articles aimed at human beings

I’m starting here because it’s my biggest bugbear of the moment. Search engines are rewarding outlets that write articles the computer algorithm wants, in a way that the computer algorithm demands, presented in a way optimised for the computer algorithm to read. The human is collateral damage in that process.

I’ve got skin in this game, but instead, I’m going to point out this terrifying, comprehensive piece of work from House Fresh about the state of online product reviews, and what Google rewards. It’s not an exact parallel, but it’s the same ecosystem: if you want fast online success, you write for Google, not for a human. That has to change.

2. Not using AI to write material has to be rewarded

An AI check result at a UK film website, that is not being named.
An AI check on an article I ran at a UK film website. Website not named.

Not unrelated to point one. I was working with someone last year, and I asked them what kind of things would continue to push the numbers for the Film Stories website forward. They had a simple answer: do a thousand or so lists of recommended movies, to suggested titles.

I pointed out that each of those lists would take half a day to do properly, assuming we’d seen the films. He quickly corrected me: he didn’t mean for us to write then. He meant for ChatGPT to do the work. To prove it, he sent me a list of top 10 films he’d asked the digital plagiarist to write, and presented a bland, competent, box-ticky piece of work.

I winced, but he was right. That is the way to get noticed quicker. I’m loath to name sites that are doing this, but you can probably guess. It works, too. Google thinks you have a deep well of ‘quality content’, even though a human has barely been near it. I’m penning this piece on the day that my colleague has written a longform, considered response to words from Denis Villeneuve about the state of cinema.

You may or may not agree with his piece, but there’s no doubt a chatbot hasn’t been near it. Unfortunately, both myself and my colleague knew in that there’s more traffic in a top 27 list of the most amazing things in the new Dune film, or something like that. But on a human level, that seemed the least interesting thing to do.

There’s no way a search engine will ever do this, as they’re too financially attached to the AI business. But a results page that actively punishes the stuff people haven’t even been arsed to write (yet they still expect you to read)? I’m in.

3 . Add a button to Google that allows you to only start seeing results from page four

The battle to get noticed in Google is all about the first page of results. There’s an old adage that if you’re on the second page of Google, you never get noticed. Thing is, page one is filled with people who’ve gamed the system. Page two and three is then those who tried, but didn’t quite manage it. The actual interesting human results tend to start on page four.

That way, you cut out the SEO-driven clickbait, the sponsored articles, the promoted stuff, the amalgamated ‘everything we know about’ pieces. You might actually end up with something interesting that’s more directly related to what you’re searching for.

4  Don’t punish websites that get to the point

Many of these issues are Google-centric, but such is its importance to the success or failure of a website. It’s a responsibility that it no longer wields well, and has shaped the way articles are written and presented. Specifically, it’s made them bloated and encouraged them to hide the point of a piece a good 400 words in.

If you write a small piece answering some kind of question – notwithstanding the fact that Google’s AI search engine will soon just do that anyway – then oftentimes it warrants 200 words at best. It’s better for the reader, I’d argue, to answer something properly and efficiently. Yet Google calls this ‘thin content’, punishing it for being too short. As such, there’s no actual incentive to write a short, snappy piece. Nobody will see it, because Google does not deem it ‘quality content’. Hence, you get endless articles to answer a simple question. Is such and such a film on Netflix? No. Peasy. All it actually needs.

It sounds dramatic to say that Google is now killing the independent online publishing that for a while it helped foster, but Google is now killing the independent online publishing that for a while it helped foster. It needs a rethink. That, or…

5. Someone needs to write a genuine alternative to Google that works on merit rather than dollars

Sure, it’ll be flawed as hell. But, well, look around at what we have. Imagine a meritocracy search engine. Feels like a bloody utopia at the moment.

6. Elon needs to sell up

I don’t really like writing about Teflon Husk, primarily because he strikes me as the kind of person who likes searching himself and enjoys people talking about him. His ownership of Twitter though has done a lot of damage to independents trying to cut through.

I appreciate it’s his platform, and it’s his rationale at work. But independents were, in exchange for getting noticed via Twitter, giving him free material. Our posts are free – ugh – ‘content’. Now, with response levels on Twitter absolutely dead, unless you want some far right racist or someone selling you porn in your replies, it’s a dead end.

It’s hard to see under current ownership how that can change, and in its place hasn’t come one alternative to rally around, but lots. I’d love, for instance, for Mastodon to prevail, but I don’t have a masters degree in trying to get the bloody thing to work. BlueSky is lovely, and feels like old Twitter. But in terms of trying to promote, publicise and share work, it’s nowhere near the level of peak Twitter, and I don’t think it’ll get there.

If social media is thus angled towards people who’ll pay for a tick, or algorithms that reward dollars spent, then where’s the avenue for interesting alternatives anymore? Or do we all just shop at Amazon now and end up reading the site whose name I decided to delete from this bit of the article?

Twitter was important. Until Elon decides he’s done playing with his new toy, it won’t be.

7. We’ve all got to stop writing clickbait stuff

In the early days of the internet, before we were all dancing to the Google tune, an ‘ending explained’ article was used sporadically, when there was an ending that could use some, well, explanation. The exception rather than the norm. Now, if I shot a short film of me blowing my nose, I wouldn’t rule out a website explaining that the final shot of me disposing of the tissue had some deep meaning. In no less than 1000 words.

Amidst the clickbait, the AI stuff, the material written purely to get noticed in Google we’re losing longform, interesting entertainment writing. This is not unique to this industry, it happens to be the one I know best.

8.  Readers? Please support the sites you like

One of the best film websites of all time? That’d be The AV Club in its previous guise. Really good, really intelligent longform writing, from people who cared, were primarily writing what they wanted, and were really good at it.

Then The AV Club got taken over. Still has good writers, but it’s not what made it so special. I’m grateful that my old home, Den Of Geek, has held onto good writing when others have gone down a far shallower path.

I regret not supporting The AV Club more, short of recommending it to people, which I gladly did. What I’ve learned since is that if you are going against what most are doing, then the clicks on work are even more valuable. Because there’s always somebody out there who thinks that the easy path is the best one. Every article read, every recommendation, every share? It helps. Particularly now.

The world is never short of people happy to sell you shit. If you want more than that? Sadly, the state of things now means it’s part incumbent on you to find it.

9. Keep going

Finally, those of us who believe in a better way of doing things have a responsibility. To keep fighting, even if we think we’re onto a loser. To not give up, to keep showing that it doesn’t have to be fast food clickbait and AI churn. There’s a generation of new film fans coming through who didn’t get to enjoy the era pre-the algorithm altar.

If we want to get back there, it’s going to take a lot of individual stands to do so.

Such as this one.

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