Simon Willison’s Weblog

News site registration

The single hottest topic in the online news industry at the moment is that of required registration. A number of large news sites (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune) have moved to this model, and many local newspapers are following suit.

If you haven’t seen BugMeNot, go and check it out now. It’s a simple service for sharing free news site accounts, and it’s started to upset some people in the news industry. A post to the online-news mailing list inquiring about possible legal action against the site prompted me to reply with the following:

The flaw here is not with BugMeNot— it’s with the entire concept of user registration in its present form. The reason BugMeNot works is that there is absolutely no value to an end user in keeping their account to themselves. If you want to stop people from sharing their accounts, give them an incentive not to. This is not a difficult thing to do—I have a large number of accounts on different community sites which are used to contribute to discussions and manage my personal information. I would never dream of sharing those accounts with others - it would allow other people to impersonate me and damage my reputation. An account that only allows me to read content (a one-way interaction) is of no value to me, so why not share the account with others?

BugMeNot is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination: shared accounts have existed for as long as sites have required registration for spurious reasons. For as long as I can remember, members of the MetaFilter community have worked together to set up username/password combinations of metafilter/metafilter on sites that require registration to bypass the irritation of setting up yet another account.

If you want to fight BugMeNot, the solution is to monitor the site and ban any accounts for your own site that appear there—but that’s just fighting the symptoms. The core problem is the whole idea of registration itself: it’s anti-web, anti-user, it doesn’t scale and it’s a sign of extreme short term thinking. Imagine if every site on the web required registration—no one would use it!

As a web user, I see registration as nothing more than an unnecessary irritation. Before BugMeNot I would simply hit “Back” whenever I saw a registration screen; now I use it to carry on through to the articles and accompanying ads. As a heavy web user who buys online almost as frequently as offline I’m exactly the kind of demographic sites should be trying to attract.

Reading the above a few days later, I think it still accurately represents my thoughts on the free registration model.

Adrian has also posted his thoughts on registration, which run along very similar lines to mine.

For a great example of the mentality behind registration, check out this spiel from the Toronto Star (via Craig Saila):

Our main goal of asking you to become a registered member of thestar.com is to improve and enhance your online experience with us. Registration is an important piece of our long-term strategy in building a valuable audience for our advertisers and helping us in setting the priorities for future site development and enhancements.

[...]

By asking you to share some information with us we are able to increase the value of our site to advertisers, who help support the cost of producing one of Canada’s top news sites, by offering them the ability to target their advertising messages based on the information you provide.

And that’s the problem right there: as a user, the value proposition of having more targetted ads thrown at me just isn’t a good enough incentive for me to jump through their hoops.

This is News site registration by Simon Willison, posted on 16th July 2004.

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Previously hosted at http://simon.incutio.com/archive/2004/07/16/registration