The reasoning goes something like this: If a lot of people are liking – and sharing – this article, then let’s make sure more people see it. Presumably this results in a greater number of clicks and a lower bounce rate.
But the practice of promoting a publisher’s own popular content can have a dark side. Publishers spend much of their money and resources creating content. To the extent that articles are promoted based on their popularity, publishers run the risk that other content will suffer. In effect, this kind of promotion tends to create a winner-takes-all effect that gives a greater share of readership to a small number of articles, sacrificing the visibility of many more articles. And in some cases, articles that might have been really popular may never make it past the promoted articles to gain the prominence they deserve.
It would take a systematic study to determine whether this sort of bias is beneficial or deleterious. Is the traffic gained by a few highly popular articles enough to offset the traffic lost by a lot of less-popular articles? How is this calculation affected by the amount of time that popular articles are kept on the promoted list, or the metrics used to determine visibility?
The problem becomes more complex if one considers not only daily click-volume, but also site-wide performance metrics and long-term effects such as reader satisfaction and loyalty. Promoting popular content might benefit a publisher who creates a lot of original long-form content, but if you are publishing news stories that also appear on dozens of other sites, promoting popular content is unlikely to give you any differentiation from your competitors – who will undoubtedly see the same topics enjoying high popularity.
At a minimum, however, it is clear that these “imposed biases” stifle discovery. The joy of reading a printed newspaper comes, in large part, from leafing casually through all the sections, stumbling upon small gems and interesting tidbits that one was not looking for. Thanks to the invention of the hyperlink, the Internet imbued online reading with variety and fluidity. Unfortunately, manipulating content visibility can drive online reading into homogeneity and stagnation.