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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Frank May 26, 2011 at 10:56 am

I cannot believe HuffPost made such a dumb move. Forced redirection is a staple of commercial websites, but not giving people the option when it comes to information access is just wrong. I don’t think HuffPost had nefarious designs when they launched the .ca version, but it feels a bit 1984 to find yourself unable to access web content.

One of the major issues in the coming decades will be the ability to freely access information on the web — will internet users of tomorrow be able to go where they want in cyberspace, or will they be cornered in tiny, isolated islands where they can only access news/content that the gatekeepers allow them to access?

This is a serious blunder, HuffPost. Not sure if your thirst for expansion into other markets blinnded you to the obvious, or simply made your marketing department stupid.

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2 Brent May 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm

WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If I wanted to bore myself into a quick coma I would seek out Canadian news!!!!!!!!

I am so pissed off you have no idea!!!

I have been an American Politics junkie for since I was in my early 20s and I am now close to 50. When MSNBC, Fox New, and CNN are snoring I go to the HUFF to get some new stories. And today I’m blocked out completely!!

All this regional b*llsh*t is getting out of hand. We used to be able advertise our web based business in the US too, and now Google, Bing and Yahoo only allow us to advertise in Canada – this pretty much destroyed our business.

I would move to the States if your health insurance companies were not scum – but they are, so will stay.

Now off to try and use a PROXY Ip to read the Huff.

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3 Aaron Bradley May 26, 2011 at 12:45 pm

HuffPo’s failure to communicate with readers has resulted in just the sort of misunderstanding you have, Brent. You are not “blocked out completely” but, through no fault of your own, there’s no easy way of you knowing this. It turns out that if you follow the drop down menu option “POLITICS (US)” under “POLITICS” you can access the .com politics page. In fact, you can even access the .com home page using this same URL syntax:

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4 Brent May 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Yeah – thanks Aaron. I got USA back again – whew. Had no idea I was such an addict.

I have set my homepage to the URL string you entered.

Great blog by the way.

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5 Keith May 26, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Gotta love that 302 redirect they’re using.. keeping in mind that URL query is only good for ?country=US:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=YMCA
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=KFC
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=Keith-Rules

Without that magic parameter (or lazy developer bandaid) Canadians still get shunted over to the .ca (which ironically at the time of this comment has a title called “Cyber Fail”)

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6 Aaron Bradley May 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm

It gets worse. Without getting into the sequence you have go through to generate this result, did you also observe that the parameter is case sensitive? :)

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7 John T May 27, 2011 at 6:36 am

Not only do Canadians want to be able to access news in the USA, but we want people in the USA to have better access to Canadian news, and we want to see comments from all sources, not just commentary from a predefined geographical area.

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8 Darlene Cunningham-Le Page May 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Agreed. I may just stop revisiting Huff Po if this issue is not resolved — we need true democratic choice in terms of accessing both the American and Canadian versions of the news. I am a long-term fan of Huffington Post so I sure hope that we will be able to switch back and forth easily soon since I do plan to be a frequent visitor of both sites. However, I would like to have access to all of the US content — Huff Post has been my preferred source of US and International News — I have often admired its more progressive stance in terms of delivering both content and format. Its broad selection of writers from all points of the political spectrum and even beyond have kept me coming back for more. I hope that its most recent alliance (or dalliance?) with AOL will not dissuade management from still putting its readership first. As a loyal fan of Huff Post, I hope that it can continue to deliver the same well-balanced perspective, regardless of regional or national differences. I honestly believe that its avid readers have grown to expect nothing less than the same level of fair-mindedness, intelligence, and wisdom.

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9 Matt July 6, 2011 at 8:48 am

First the HuffPo app doesn’t work since the update and now this. I am really disappointed. Anyone know a good alternate site for reading material?

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10 Ray July 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

I found this page when I was looking for news about the UK version.

I live in IRELAND, I go to HufPo to read USA news…now suddenly I’m reading about David Cameron and the NHS…I DO NOT LIVE IN THE UK.
This is insulting to me, and as a reader its very annoying, I WILL DECIDE what website I want to visit, not you HuffPo.

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11 tarko July 7, 2011 at 4:45 am

Just like CNN putting on crap about golf yachting and cricket, instead of letting us in Europe see the Situation Room, John King etc., now that silly ù¨°$!?* Arianna has her cheesy UK (I hate the BRITS) site popping up because I live in France. So here’s how I’m responasably reacting in this modern age of technological prowess: Huffington Post GFY!

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12 Huff&Puff August 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I was dissapointed to see the site start to redirect shortly after AOL buyout, I’ll never go back to the site now. I’ve had to relocate. If they take down the redirect, it’s already too late. I’ve migrated.

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13 Sara February 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Right on! I was so glad to find this blog – I have been a Huffington Post junkie for many years – I live in a border city and most of my family is American – but because I am on this side of the Detroit River I can no longer access the real Huffington Post site? Not fair!

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14 Lorna February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

I have bookmarked the Huffington Post UK site, but since I have a French IP address their “nanny knows best” policy means I am automatically redirected to the French page. I can get to the UK site if I use a couple of mouse-clicks but I really resent this automatic assumption that people located in a specific geographic area only want news about that area. Have they never heard of business travel or expats, for goodness sake?

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15 Thor Kristjanson April 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I too am a serious political junkie …How could they think we would accept a redirect like this… email me when I can see the american version ok?

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16 noira August 27, 2012 at 1:43 am

The geolocation is also a problem for europeans. I can’t get anything but the french version, which is useless for me – I live here and already know what it’s going to say! Why can’t we choose?

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17 noira August 27, 2012 at 1:45 am

Sorry – didn’t see the comment just above mine that says the same thing – but my question is that when if I directly enter the url that’s on this site, it still sends me to the french site, but from this site I can go to the .com. What’s the difference?

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18 Aaron Bradley August 27, 2012 at 8:22 am

I believe all Huffington Post editions now have an edition selector at the top left of the page.

Huffington Post International Edition Selector

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