Nathan Leigh Davis is a designer and developer who writes about design, technology and things that inspire him.


The perils of share buttons

So the new blog design has been live for a couple of weeks and one the many changes made was the decision to remove some social media share buttons from the sidebar. A few weeks prior to this BrightEdge announced that having a Tweet button on a web page drives 7x more exposure to those pages via social media. Given the obvious benefits why remove them?

Put simply I dislike share buttons and in my case I wasn't entirely convinced I was seeing any benefit from them either. Among my key gripes are their prevalence online. They've become the modern day equivalent of the 90's hit counter.

They scream for our attention, especially when they appear more than once on the same page, interrupting the flow of real content. They're not as benign as many would believe and in reality they're just a form of advertising for the network they link to. It's all about mind share! The only difference is that they yield traffic, instead of revenue for content producers. However like advertising they're intrusive - a form of visual pollution masquerading as innovative tech.

While designers such as myself worry about the way in which they distract from content, this is probably of little concern to marketing managers seeking to tick items off their social media marketing checklist. However what should concern them is that share buttons are also a form of bandwidth pollution.

I've written about optimising website performance before and among the many things that can cause performance issues, share buttons are the worst offenders. Inline scripts that load JavaScript, CSS and image files from external servers are never a good idea. Among the worst offenders are diabolical plugins such as Add This and social media networks who don't care about such petty concerns. Facebook?

While you can find all sorts of research out there trumpeting the benefits of share buttons, there's not one study that weighs their benefit against the annoyance users experience because of slow sites. Research regarding the usage of share buttons on smaller sites is also sadly lacking. The study conducted by Bright Edge I mentioned earlier surveyed the largest 10,000 websites on the Internet, but does placing share buttons on smaller sites yield such benefits?

Given the issues that can arise from not carefully selecting social networks to link to and poor button placement, we shouldn't be so flippant about adding share buttons to websites. Like advertising they can yield substantial benefits for content producers, but can also negatively impact the user experience. If we don't collectively consider these issues we may find that users simply start consuming digital content offline to escape the visual clutter and bandwidth pollution.