Hey, Huffington Post, Friends Don't Spring Redirects on Friends

by Aaron Bradley on May 26, 2011

in News Media

The Huffington Post Canada Automatic Redirect

NOTE: I'm seeing a lot of search traffic from Canadian HuffPo readers trying to figure out how to access the .com home page.  This link should do it!

This morning saw the release of Huffington Post Canada, the first of "the first of many planned international versions," with a UK version slotted to launch July 7th.

What should have been a triumphant launch for the web's premier news and opinion publication has instead turned into something of a gong show due to one reason:  auto geolocation.  That is, readers from a Canadian IP trying to access huffingtonpost.com are automatically redirected to huffingtonpost.ca, without any option to access the .com home page.

Oh my.  Check out this comment from HuffPo user clabberty, which summarizes a lot of the outrage that Canadian-based readers are expressing today.

Americans only want to read about America. HP thinks Canadians only want to read about Canada. How wrong they are. They don't know us at all and that is going to affect this decision badly. You can put on all the Canadian "celebrity" names as commentators but we see them everywhere so we are very familiar with their opinions. We've only got 10% of the American population here so the odds of finding someone who doesn't know David Suzuki's position would be hard to find. There's an old Canadian adage – "you can lead a beaver to water but you can't make her cut down a tree." Never underestim­ate what sort of difficult curmudgeon­s you are dealing with. We just appear to be polite because we prefer to be nice.

Just to be clear, this auto geolocation is not reciprocal.  That is, readers coming from a non-Canadian IP are still able to switch between the two versions at will.  But for Canucks, it is – at least for the time being – au revoir to the huffingtonpost.com home page.

I've been down this internationalization road many times in my marketing career, and I know that both broad alternatives – allowing full access to each site version, or forcing a version on users based on geographical location – are fraught with peril.  Allowing unimpeded access to different geographical editions makes it much more difficult for the newly-introduced version to gain traction, as technology users across realms tend to like what they know, and are reticent to go to a new site when their tried-and-true favorite is still available.  Conversely, forcing a redirect to the site you want to market to a specific geographic segment is, obviously, removing choice from the hands of readers, and is likely to illicit a backlash.  It is push marketing at it's pushiest.

So there's really no right way of going about the release of a country-specific version of a site, but there is definitely a fundamental error to be avoided if you're going to force a redirect on readers:  don't pretend it isn't happening.

Automatic Redirect?  What Automatic Redirect?

Neither Arianna Huffington's announcement on .ca nor the generic announcement on .com acknowledges the issue of auto geolocation.  Um, what, did the management of HuffPo think that readers wouldn't notice?

These posts should have, in part, been used as an opportunity to come clean about the geographically-based redirect, and to answer some fundamental questions about its functioning.  You can look through the comments on these posts to identify the top issues, but they easily could have been identified prior to publication.

  • Is the forced redirect temporary or permanent?
  • Are any stories duplicated across top-level domains, or is any story published only under .com or .ca (this has social implications – see below)?
  • Does the forced redirect change anything concerning comments made on the site or Huffington Post social profiles?

Nope.  Instead HuffPo used the release announcements purely for marketing purposes, extolling the wonderful bounty of Canadian-facing content that they've now made available.  Or, put another way, extolling the wonderful bounty of Canadian facing-content that they've forced upon unsuspecting readers.

What was the thought process over at HuffPo on rolling out geographically-based redirect without acknowledging that they were doing so?  There's three possibilities here.

  • Management thought readers wouldn't notice.  Bizarre, if true.
  • Management thought readers wouldn't care.  Bizarre wishful thinking, if true.
  • Management thought some readers would object to forced redirection, but came to the conclusion that the best way of handling any outcry was to ignore it.

I can only think that some variation on the third possibility is what came to pass.  And that may be why they weren't up front about the auto geolocation, as it's a pretty cynical marketing strategy.  Yes, we know that you're going to be upset that we're forcing you to the Canadian version of the site, but we know that's going to give the new HuffPo editition the best chance of gaining traction.

Big.  Fat.  Fail.

Again, I'm not passing judgment on the marketing wisdom of automated redirects based on geographical location.  While I'm generally not in favor of robbing users of their navigational choices, there are legitimate uses for auto geolocation.

Without equivocation, however, I can say that the worst thing you can do to a loyal audience is to alienate them by forcing a redirect on them without acknowledgement or explanation.  While this is generally true, it should be overwhelmingly apparent for a publication that has so painstakingly built an engaged and specifically digital audience.

Don't treat your technologically savvy readership as if they're never looked at a URL before.  That's the sort of disdain for readers one would expect to see from a print publication fumbling about online, but not from one of the premier sources of Internet-based news.

To their credit, based on the tidal wave of disquiet from Canadian readers, the Huffington Post appears to be putting a mechanism in place by which Canadian readers can access the .com home page.  But they could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they had given their readers' intelligence more credit to begin with.

UPDATE

In response to the outcry, the Arianna post has been amended with this note:

Update: A number of commenters have requested the ability to easily switch from HuffPost Canada to the U.S. version — or to toggle between the two via a link in the masthead. We hear you — and are working to quickly provide this option. In the meantime, do check out HuffPost Canada — it features all the content from our U.S. version, plus some great additional Canadian content added to the mix. And thank you for the feedback — it is greatly appreciated.

Huffington Post Canada MenuAs per the screenshot at right it looks as though huffingtonpost.ca has already been changed so the US home page exists as a drop-down menu item.  I know they're looking for a way that people can switch "easily," but I'm a little perplexed by the fact that the URL that allows Canadians to access the .com home page hasn't been linked to in this post, or otherwise widely broadcast.

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