It’s the content, not the icons, my rant on social bookmarking icons at blogs, generated some interesting responses.

Effective icon usage
A few commenters challenged my flimsy evidence that icons aren’t effective — a fair complaint since my research, a quick scan of popular listings at Digg and Technorati, wasn’t exactly Woodward/Bernstein caliber. Others offered some traffic success stories…

Pete Ottery: “Yes, multitudes of these icons on every site everywhere gets tired real quick – but for us at we decided to trial a few select ones at the bottom of articles (example). Informal number checking suggests there’s about 10 times more stories from being posted on digg now since those buttons were placed there. (maybe 5 a week pre buttons, 50 a week immediately after buttons being placed.)”
Gina Trapani: “Actually, Lifehacker’s traffic has gone through the roof since we started placing the digg button on select featured posts. We go in and out of the Technorati top 10 regularly (at number 11 right now.) Forgive me if this sounds like horn-tooting. I bring it up only because you asked for evidence. Here it is. That said, we add the button by hand on only one post a day, our featured original content article, the one we want to promote most heavily. I agree that all those icons on every post is pretty ugly and generally ineffective.”

Note that both of these methods use a more restrained approach then the scattershot technique I was discussing (i.e. blogs that feature a laundry list of icons at the bottom of multiple posts on a single page). Moderate use of icons is a lot different then a smack-you-in-the-face-over-and-over approach.

I want vs. they want
Some of the comments also reminded me of the timeless challenge facing web site owners: balancing what you want vs. what your visitors want.

People who defended the usage of icons seemed to fixate on what they want from their site.

3spots: “Personally I’ve added them for several reasons: -For myself. (well I’ve mixed them up with other tools.) -To show which SBs I like. + By curiosity, even if there aren’t much users, to see which ones are the most used, how, why…”
Ben Edwards: “Maybe having the icon there adds just 5% more to the people who would Digg an article. Don’t you think that 5% is worth it to people trying to get a greater readership?”

I wonder if these “I want” arguments are being adequately measured against what “they want” though. The view from the visitor’s side often takes on a different shade…

Ben Darlow: “Every time I see a site that has a digg counter or ‘digg this’ link on its articles, my immediate thought is ‘Whore.’”
Bill: “As a Reddit user, I have to say that when submitting a link to a blog post or news article I’ve stumbled across, the ONLY important thing is the quality of the content…I’ve never clicked on one of these buttons – I mean, how arrogant can you get.”
Rachel C: “For the casual visitor to my site who may have come from a search engine, someone who doesn’t know what delicious is (and if you find that hard to believe, you’re mixing with a select group of people) an ‘Add to delicious’ is meaningless and even sounds ridiculous.”
nex: “i find these icons insulting. the author basically says: ‘so, i figure you’re too stupid to use a bookmarklet for your aggregator of choice, but you sure have nothing better to do than search through this gaudy list for the one icon you need, and of course you’re gonna click it. i write such smart things; it’s your duty to spread my wisdom.’ oh puke.”

And none of those negative comments even touch upon the headache-inducing visual noise created by these repeated big groups of icons.

Making site decisions based solely on “it’s better for me…” neglects the other half of the equation. Whether it’s for icons, ads, or anything else, “How much is this annoying visitors?” needs to be a factor.

Related ad story
Tangentially related: According to an insider (the author of Inside Facebook), Facebook avoids CPM ads that could generate millions because CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to tick off site visitors:

I think [Zuck] had to be physically tied up at some executive meeting to allow that ad on the left side of the page. Facebook now serves many billions of pageviews a month. If it just sold cheap crappy ad network CPM ads (at like $1-$3 CPM) across all of its inventory, it could earn 10s of millions of dollars every month. But that would annoy people and Zuck loves his users. Ow! Zuck just mentally hit me. I meant his “student community on the site.”