I haven’t blogged about blogging or social media in quite a long time — and I apologize to my readers that aren’t interested in this non-travel post, but I think it’s too important to ignore. There is something quite foul afoot at one of the biggest social media platforms out there today and it needs to be talked about…. and corrected immediately. Plus, some of you know that I occasionally blog about bad things going on in the real world.
The Growth of Pinterest
Pinterest is the new social media darling. Its growth has been astronomical in the last year or so. The latest stats I can find indicate that they had 18.7 million visitors in March of this year. The private company, which only launched in 2009, is estimated to be worth over 1 billion dollars.
Perhaps most importantly to the point for this particular post is the immense power that Pinterest now holds to make money for people using its service. And that is why this whole thing stinks.
The click-through rates on the photos on Pinterest are some of the highest on any social media platform. Studies earlier this year indicated that Pinterest is already driving more referral traffic than Twitter, and also more than Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn combined. What does referral traffic mean? Simply put, that means that more people click on the photos displayed on Pinterest (and get taken to the website where the photo originally got “pinned” from) than any of those other social media platforms.
Why is this all important?
Lots and lots of opportunities to make lots and lots of money.
Which makes the whole process of how Pinterest handles new subscribers signing up for this service incredibly irresponsible, bordering on simple business malfeasance.
I recently gave a speech on Pinterest at a travel blogging conference and was talking about how it appeared that some users were buying literally millions of followers. It was more of a throw-away observation than anything in my talk, but afterwards I decided to email Pinterest to see what they had to say about it all. What I discovered was far, far worse than people possibly buying followers here and there (more on buying followers later this week).
Pinterest Has Been Intentionally Stacking the Deck
I will get more into the back and forth of the emails I had with Pinterest over the last week in tomorrow’s post, but basically they denied that any of the Pinterest users with 1+ million followers are buying them. Frankly at this point, I completely believe them. But how did some of these people acquire literally millions of followers in a period of weeks?
Here is an example screenshot (and to be clear at this point, I’m not accusing anyone at all of buying followers to get these numbers).
These are two slides I prepared for my presentation showing the amazing growth of subscribers of one photographer using Pinterest. I blacked out the name in each because at that point I thought there was a chance he was buying followers. Again, I don’t think that is the case now and I want to be clear I am not accusing anyone in this post of doing anything wrong at all — except Pinterest.
The top shot is a screen shot taken on September 2, 2012. The bottom is a screen shot of from a website called Zoomsphere.com, where you can track the follower numbers on various platforms, showing the growth of his account from the beginning, until it took off like a rocket ship around August 1st of this year.
How about today?
How does that happen?
Look, Trey is an incredibly popular photographer, but unless your name is Lady Gaga or Barack Obama, you aren’t naturally picking up over ONE AND A HALF MILLION followers in just over a month… especially on a service that was only had 11.7 million active registered users in total back in March of this year. Its just simply inconceivable that is a natural growth rate of followers.
And it’s not.
When I wrote Pinterest asking about this astronomical growth, I got the following reply from their spokesman:
I encourage you to create a new account so that you can test the orientation process. We’re constantly trying to improve the way people get started on Pinterest. As a result, the process changes all the time. It looks like you’ve been on Pinterest for quite some time, which is great. However, the orientation process is very different from what you experienced. I think you’ll find that the account you create today will look exactly like the ones you identify [in my emails to him, asking about accounts that looked fake]. That is, it will start by following an average of 50 or so people or boards that are based on the interests expressed during the onboarding process.
So, I created a few new accounts to see how this process worked now. It was an eye opener.
The Current Sign-Up Process
Here are some screenshots taking you through what happens today, when you sign-up for a Pinterest account. Explanation below:
The initial screen (not shown) is where to submit your username, email address (or Twitter or Facebook account information, since you can start an account by logging in with either of them) and your password. You then click “create account” and get taken to a screen that looks like the top screenshot.
Pinterest chooses a selection of its photos and you have to select five photos you like before you can proceed. To be clear, there is not an option for skipping this stage — you must select five photos. After you select five photos you like, you get taken to the middle screenshot. This is the news feed of photos from the boards and people you are now following.
Here’s the thing though… you haven’t voluntarily chosen to follow anyone. Pinterest itself has selected boards that you begin following. That’s right. Pinterest selects the initial boards that each and every new subscriber follows when they sign up. Not you. There is no way to opt-out of it.
Note on the 2nd screenshot the explanation Pinterest gives:
Welcome to Pinterest!
This is your homepage. The pins you see are from boards that we picked to help you get started. “Follow” people or their boards and their pins will show up here. (emphasis added)
There is no disclosure in the process that Pinterest is going to select boards/people for you to follow. There is no way to opt-out of it. In fact, even on this “disclosure” that Pinterest gives on the homepage after you have signed up (and I believe this is the one and only time it ever appears), Pinterest doesn’t even mention how to unfollow any of the boards that they have signed you up for involuntarily.
Given that Pinterest made you click on five photos in the sign-up process, it would them seem at least marginally appropriate that they sign you up just for the boards of the five photos you picked, right? Guess again. Check the last screenshot above.
Five photos selected, somehow 54 boards followed. Now tell me how that makes any sense at all. When signing up I hadn’t had any contact, even remote contact, with the 49 other boards Pinterest signed me up for. They just basically picked 49 extra boards they thought I might like, given on the five photos I picked. Completely involuntary on my part.
And completely juicing the numbers of the entire Pinterest service.
That’s how some people on Pinterest have accumulated millions and millions of followers in the past two months. The numbers are rigged by Pinterest — artificial inflation.
The Pinterest Explanation
When I asked about Pinterest signing people up for boards they had no interaction with at all in the sign-up process, the spokesman replied:
We want to help new Pinners understand how to use the service. We’ve found that people learn best by seeing examples and doing. That’s why our most recent orientation system matches people to boards, so that they can see what the following experience looks like and so they have content in their feed to start the process of discovering inspiration. The feedback on this latest system has been positive, especially in comparison with previous systems, which could end people up starting with a totally blank feed if they didn’t choose anyone to follow.
First, that isn’t what happens at all. Let’s take a screenshot of www.Pinterest.com before you even sign up:
Note… pictures. In fact, Pinterest provides a perfectly valid stream of photos on its site as users upload them, even if you aren’t logged into the service. Additionally, note at the top there is simple-to-use drop down menu of photo categories, where you can then find possible photos from boards you might want to follow.
The big difference if Pinterest provided this feed to its new subscribers versus the way it does business now?
Any boards or people that new subscribers would sign up to follow would be voluntary, not artificially imposed on them by Pinterest.
The second thing the Pinterest spokesman pointed me to was how other social media services handle new sign-ups, so let’s take a brief look at them.
What Do Other Social Media Services Do?
In a subsequent email, the spokesman mentioned “but one other thing I meant to mention is that every social service offers recommendations to users.” He then gave the following links to Twitter’s policy and Facebook’s policy. I actually signed up for a new Twitter account to make sure I remembered how it worked, but this whole argument by Pinterest is disassembled based on one simple word: recommendations.
Pinterest isn’t offering recommendations of boards for you to consider following… they just sign you up in the first place!
Recommending would be showing a new user a series of photos, perhaps grouped in categories of possible interests, with the links to the boards they came from, so that the new subscriber could make his or her own decision on what to follow. Leave the choose of who and what to follow in the hands of the subscriber and let them opt-out if they don’t want to participate in this selection process.
But Pinterest takes that voluntary action completely out of the sign-up process and just assigns you to 45+ boards… totally determined by some mysterious formula they are unwilling to discuss in any depth (more on that later this week).
By the way, I signed up eight new Pinterest accounts, just to check the numbers and each new subscriber I made was assigned the following number of boards after the sign-up process: 54, 48, 46, 56, 54, 59, 59 and 55.
Quickly, here is what happens when you sign up for a Twitter account:
First, a new subscriber has the option of skipping the recommendation process entirely, as they obviously should be given the right to do. Secondly, Twitter doesn’t sign you up to follow anyone that you don’t choose yourself, after the ability to click on their profile link, look at their tweets and make that decision on your own.
Can you imagine the outcry if every new subscriber on Twitter that initially followed Barack Obama, for instance, also was just “assigned” by Twitter to also follow Mitt Romney, David Cameron and John Boehner?
“Well, you showed an interest in following people in politics, so…..”
Besides that problem, can you imagine the outcry as certain people’s followers numbers just rocked through the roof — if Twitter was making those initial who-to-follow decisions? That is exactly what Pinterest is doing.
Quick sidenote on the Facebook policy. Again, Facebook just recommends those fan pages — they do not make those decisions for you, as Pinterest is doing.
Bottom Line — Why Does It Matter?
Money. Lots and lots of money.
Let’s forget for a second whether this whole process calls into questions all of Pinterest’s numbers for the purposes of its own valuation for past or future investors. Are they intentionally juicing the numbers of people that new subscribers follow, so as to make their overall product look more enticing to possible investors?
The average person using Pinterest follows 89 different people, showing that the interaction on our service is much higher than Twitter’s where the average number of followers is only 24.
To be clear, I just made that entire hypothetical quote up. I am not saying any of those numbers are accurate. I am merely speculating how artificially juicing the numbers might mean more money in the end to Pinterest when it goes public or sells itself to another service, like Instagram recently did to Facebook (for a billion dollars). Frankly, there are much better business reporters out there than me that can ask these hard questions — I look forward to their analysis.
But let’s talk about how the people that get all those new followers from the sign-up process can possibly benefit. That is the truly horrible thing about this policy that struck me immediately.
In January, Mashable reported that Pinterest had become the top traffic driver for retailers. Recall those numbers on how Pinterest is now driving more referral traffic now than Twitter and more than Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn combined. In the online world, eyeballs on your website means lots of ways to make money.
And Pinterest is artificially skewing the playing field of who gets the eyeballs in the first place.
On one of the Pinterest accounts I created, I clicked on 5 photos of clothing. Pinterest assigned me to 46 different boards. Of those 46 boards, 17 were company’s boards — companies potentially using Pinterest to drive traffic to their websites to make money or certain to do so in the future, with all their new millions of followers.
I created five different accounts over a one-week period where I only clicked on clothing photos in the sign-up process. United Colors of Benetton (1,117,307 followers as of today) was one of the boards followed by each and every one of those accounts. Is Benetton doing anything wrong? Absolutely not. Are they getting a massively huge advantage over everyone else in the process.
There are dozens of more ways to profit off this sign-up situation, if you are one of the lucky few to get selected to get tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of new followers by Pinterest. I’ll go into more on that tomorrow, since it goes right to the core of why this sign-up process is simply and completely rotten to the core.
Sidenote: I asked the Pinterest spokesman if there was any process whereby someone could pay Pinterest to appear in the list of initial photos shown to new subscribers or otherwise promote themselves through the sign-up process to be selected as one of the boards new subscribers are automatically signed up for and he categorically said that wasn’t the case.
After back and forth with Pinterest on this topic, it was clear it came down to this for them:
Instead, it is pretty clear that what you are observing is the intended behavior of our onboarding system.
Exactly. That’s the entire problem. This is all being intentionally done by Pinterest.