Rating The Top Twenty Magazine Websites 2009

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24/7 Wall St. completed an analysis of newspapers websites for the years 2008 and 2009.  We have added magazines to this analysis because print media clearly faces potential extinction if it cannot move most of its content to the Internet in a way that brings in very substantial revenue.  The attempts to do this have proven unsuccessful so far. There are reasons for this.  The most important may be that most on-line versions of print products compare poorly to the largest and most successful websites.  The 2009 analysis of the newspaper websites was received with interest and provoked the kind of debate that the article was created to do.  Editor and Publisher said that the analysis of the newspaper websites was “in great depth and newspapers should take note.”  This statement is not included here to be self congratulatory but to point out that the industry understands that this debate is necessary and urgent.

Digital content is threatening print editions of magazines the same way it is undermining the success of newspapers. Large publishers such as Conde Nast, are closing titles. Revenue from online versions of magazines has become essential to their survival, but Internet revenue is not making up for the decline in print advertising and circulations sales. A potential solution to this revenue shortfall is to charge for online content.  However, the fear is that this may drive some readers away completely and reduce the number of visitors to on-line versions of large magazines enough to damage existing advertising revenue.

The success of online versions of magazines clearly relies on their brands and quality of content, but those elements are not enough. 24/7 Wall St. pointed out in its analysis of newspapers that comparing print sites to one another is not a very useful exercise. The sites have to be compared to the largest and most successful content sites on the internet which includes MSNBC.com., AOL,  Yahoo!, and NYTimes.com.  These internet properties have been successful in the creation of enormous audiences and the sales of hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.  24/7 Wall St. has analyzed the Top Twenty magazine sites based on the circulations of the magazines in 2008 using figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Management at a many of the magazines on the list have said they will sharply cut their circulation this year to save money.

The sites were rated “A” though “F” based on: 1) strength of content; 2) ease of use and navigation; 3) use of new technology and online tools including comment sections, message boards, and multimedia; 4) layout; 5) presence of a strong set of advertisers;  and 6) size of audience based on unique visitor data from June measurements by Compete.com.  Each listing shows Compete data for June 2009 and in brackets the figures for the same month a year ago. Some of these figures are likely to be affected because several of the magazines on the list, Time and Newsweek , share their content with news portals including CNN.com and MSNBC.com.  The traffic numbers may be skewed by that. Two organizations had more than one publication in the Top Twenty: AAA and AARP. The on-line publications owned by these organizations were grouped under their parent organizations.

Update: Since a number of media experts believe that Compete data is flawed, as a point of reference 24/7 Wall St. is providing data from Nielsen NetView as well.  Based on that, the most visited site among the Top Twenty is People.com with 10.186 million visitors in June. Time.com is next with 7.653 unique visitors followed by AARP with 6.666 million, Newsweek.com with 6.475, SportsIllustrated.com with 4.9 million, TVGuide.com with 4.885 million, AAA with 3.412 million, BHG.com with 3.258 million, NationalGeographic.com with 2.633 million, RD.com with 2.146 million, Taste of Homes with 2.1 million, WomansDay with 1.792 million, GoodHousekeeping with 1.287 million, Cosmopolitan with 1.169 million, Playboy with 1.157 million, and Prevention with 1.015 million. The rest of the publications had below a million unique visitors in June.

1)  AARP Bulletin and AARP Magazine. Circulations: 24,374,121 and 24,121,461. Compete audience for Bulletin: June 2009: 800,945, June 2008: 405,645. Compete audience for magazine: June 2009: 453,023. June 2008: 230,978. Both sites have visitor levels substantially below the magazines which may be because they are part of the overall AARP.org website. The AAPR Bulletin is an extremely simple site with easy navigation. A great deal of the content is taken from the print bulletin, since this is highly relevant to the audience, that make sense. The site also points readers to a number of stories from outside websites which is very useful and shows that the editors understand the limitations of their own ability to cover a broad range of subjects related to people over 50 years old. The site has an excellent “Ask The Experts” section to give readers access to advice that the site’s writers would not readily supply. Section headings are clearly marked across the top of the homepage. The multimedia and video section is prominently displayed in the middle of the front page, showcasing an advantage of an element of the internet that cannot be offered in print. The section for comments is inviting and easy to use. It is not useful that this site contains a large amount of content that has nothing to do with AARP members or their direct interests. Recent examples include headlines highlighting GM’s bankruptcy and the decision of Illinois Senator Burris not to run for re-election. This is content people are going to get somewhere else. The site has very little advertising. (Grade: B+)

The AARP Magazine site is much less compelling than the AARP Bulletin site. The lay-out is choppy and very hard to follow. Navigation runs down the left rail of the homepage, but the headings, like “Daily Diversions” are confusing since they have little connection to the content found under these headlines. The multimedia section is poorly marked and primitive by most website standards. The home page uses a number of typefaces which appear to have been picked randomly and are hard to read. Inside pages are poorly illustrated and the text of articles often runs well below the headlines, which is disorienting. There is a section called “Voices” highlighted on the home page, which appears to be a series of columns, but it takes some time to figure that out. The site does have online message boards, a good idea, but they are hard to find. As the website for the “World’s Largest Circulation Magazine” this is a letdown.  Modest amount of advertising. (Grade: D)

2)  Reader’s Digest. Circulation: 8,307,292. Compete audience: 1,851,326 (1,080,558) The design is simple and clean with navigation that runs across the top of the homepage and is easy to use.  The editors intelligently keep this navigation bar at the top of most internal pages. The main story is front and center at the top of the homepage, and it is well illustrated and boldly designed. A section called “Today’s Digest” is in the upper left of the home page and is a good way to draw visitors into the site. There is a list of the site’s bloggers and their expertise directly under Today’s Digest creating another way to engage the visitor. The use of social media is highlighted on the homepage.  Multimedia and video content are rarely used which is a lost opportunity. The clean design is taken inside to most sections with “features”, “must read” articles, and “most popular” sections easy to find. Most of the internal section pages are identical to one another which makes navigating the site easy and intuitive. “Comments” sections are harder to find. The lack of multimedia extends throughout the site. The tools to follow the site on social networks is in a separate section, not easily connected to other sections, which is a mistake.  It should be integrated throughout. There is a substantial amount of premium advertising (Grade: B-)

3)  Better Homes and Gardens. Circulation: 7,655,501. Compete: 2,855,517 (2,271,085) BHG.com is another example of the online version of a major magazine with an audience well below its print version. This may be a factor of the average age of its readers, but it is certainly a troubling sign. Magazines that cannot come close to matching Internet audiences to paid print circulations are unlikely to be significant contributors to the overall revenues for their brands. Better Homes and Gardens does several things right from the start. It has a “My BHG” option so that visitors can become members and customize what they want from the website. The homepage slide show of major features is large and well-illustrated. Underneath those features is a guide to the site’s major sections which includes giving the reader access to a variety of content from home decorating to recipes and gardening. Each section is a remarkable bonanza of features.  The site falls down in the area of interactivity. Video features are almost hidden. Since the site has a small audience, aggressive promotion of social network features, message boards, and comments sections would give BHG.com a better chance to add readers. The editors have not taken advantage of this opportunity. The site carries a modest amount of premium advertising (Grade: B-).

4)  National Geographic. Circulation: 5,060,172. Compete: 3,027,173 (2,370,951) The site is very well designed to bring readers to sections beyond the home page and makes state of the art use of multimedia features, especially video. The slide show of major features at the top of the homepage is unusually attractive. It includes a great deal beyond normal feature stories, highlighting puzzles, video, and photo essays. Navigation down the left side of the home page is clear. It is used on most internal pages to keep it easy for the reader to move from section to section. Most subjects have “most viewed” stories to pull the reader further in to view more pages. Graphics are extraordinarily well done on almost every main page for the large sections. Unfortunately, the most interactive features are children’s games and quizzes. Links to services like Digg are buried and connections to social networks are lacking. The site is well designed but hardly web 2.0 ready. The site carries a fair amount of premium advertising (Grade: B-).

5)   Good Housekeeping. Circulation: 4,676,815. Compete: 1,115,591 (636,291) The site’s homepage is awkwardly designed and hard to follow which does a great deal of damage to the visitor’s experience from the start. Overall, this is one of the worst sites in the survey. The upper left of the front page has a typical slideshow of content. To its immediate right is a list of what the reader has searched on Google related to Good Housekeeping. This list starts with a subscription to the print magazine which stays there if the visitor does not do any searching. It is an unnecessary commercial distraction. Below the main headlines are a few sections on exercise and recipes but these are mixed in with promotions including “We’re Giving Away $100,000 in Grocery Prizes”  and “Win Free Stuff”.  Good Housekeeping is as much a promotion site for contests not related to its magazine content as it is a destination for readers. The rest of the homepage is set up with navigation for internal sections and some video. The relentless confusion continues on internal pages. The section on Style has photos that are so poorly cropped that they are over-layered on top of text. The Good Housekeeping “searched on Google” floats to almost every section. Type on the internal pages is often small and so are photos.  Many pages have large open areas with no text, photos, or illustrations. There is a way to get some of the content onto mobile devices but use  of Web 2.0 features is near zero (Grade: D-)

6) Family Circle. Circulation: 3,906,135. Compete: 352,677 (418,297) The home page is boring. Navigation is fairly simple, but the organization of the articles appears random. Floating near the top of the page is a “Follow Us On Twitter” button which sits all by itself and is not connected to any section of the magazine or any other social network destinations. There is a very clever section high on the right side of the front page that allows readers to get specific information on topics of interest via e-mail. A family trying to conceive a child gets different information than a woman who is pregnant. This section unfortunately loses all its potential, since it has been mixed in with contests to win prizes. If this information section had been separated from commercial promotions, it would have been impressive. There is an excellent interactive program on the site that gives the readers an option to send the editors questions about nutrition, stories about family life, and observations about hometowns. The content of the magazine lends itself to this and the effort is a good way to take it online. The inside sections have a lot of information, but are poorly laid out with too many topics and too much type spread into relative small spaces. The TV and community links are high up on the right, making them hard to find, but at least Family Circle is making an effort to do something other than simply move the magazine online without any internet-based enhancements. The site has a fairly substantial amount of advertising. (Grade: C+)

7)   Woman’s Day. Circulation: 3,897,370. Compete 1,277,124 (1,124,106) The homepage is well designed, clean, and easy to follow. However, some of the most important items are hidden on the upper left side of the page. These include links to games, blogs, and coupons. The top stories slide show is attractive and has headlines likely to pull readers in. High on the page is a Daily WD section which should engage the visitor who comes to the site frequently looking for new content.  Woman’s Day does an extremely good job of keeping fresh stories on the front page. Most of the lower part of it is devoted to “The Latest”, a series of stories posted over the last two days. It is an excellent way for a magazine that does not come out frequently to keep readers engaged online. The navigation at the top of the home page is especially well done. Menu items have drop down bars to show the visitor what is in each section. The interior pages are designed to match the home page so there is a familiarity which makes the site easy to use. Most stories have comments sections but the website is low on multimedia features and social network features. (Grade: B-)

8)  Ladies’ Home Journal. Circulation: 3,842,434. Compete: 402,641 (474,463) LHJ.com has an extremely well-designed home page. The slide show of major stories at the top left is nicely designed. The editors do a good job of engaging the visitor right away with a section at the top of the page called “Everybody’s Talking About”. Immediate below that is the ever popular “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, a mix of stories about infidelity and conflict in relationships.  Below these sections are lists of “Tools and Resources”, “Most Popular Stories”, and “Most Searched” sections of the site. All of these are well developed methods for getting the reader inside the website. The main inside sections are simple and have a number of slide shows. Most of these pages also have search functions to help the reader find other interactive tools on the website. The search feature works well. LHJ has community and video sections but they are set up separately from the other parts of the website, which is a mistake. The site is a little light on premium ads but uses Google AdSense well. The print magazine, founded in 1883, is doing an impressive job of becoming a first rate content website for 21st century ladies. (Grade: B)

9)   American Automobile Association. AAA WestWays. Circulation: 3,831,563. Compete: 421,267 (308,086) AAAVia. Circulation: 2,846,846. Compete: 42,156 (44,859) AAA Going Places. Circulation: 2,554,147. Compete: 3,329 (3,429). AAA Living. Circulation: 2,445,145. Compete: 337,224 (354,229). The audience figures for these magazines do not mean much because they are all affiliated with the AAA.com site, which has almost 3.8 million visitors. It is best to take these as a single site because they are all basically sections of the parent organization’s web presence. These sites are most accurately viewed as travel and service sites and not magazines at all, at least not online. They are set up to help motorists by state, and they are not nearly as useful to the general public as they are to AAA members. These sites are great for people who need directions, although Mapquest can do that, or for readers who need travel reservations, although a number of e-commerce sites are probably better. (Grade: NR).

10)   People. Circulation: 3,746,426. Compete.com: 3,903,782 (10,857,292). It is not entirely clear why People.com has lost so much of its audience in the last year, but it has been hemorrhaging visitors.  The site is what one would expect from the country’s largest celebrity magazine. The design is slick and navigation intuitive. The stories are led by current gossip and a large photo section for tracking stars. The video section is prominent and well-populated. Many inside section pages look like blogs which run stories in chronological sequence like successful gossip sites TMZ and Gawker. This may be a good idea because it seems to be a common format for online voyeurs. The site has a rolling list of the most popular topics on the site. It also has a list of the most” buzzed about celebrities”, based on the activity of visitors looking for these subjects on People.com. The site is set up to maximize page views by keeping visitors occupied. Access to tools that allow users to put stories on social sites seems to be an after thought, which is surprising given the subject matter. (Grade: B).

11)   Game Informer Magazine. Circulation: 3,508,267. Compete: 191,126 (154,126) Gameinformer.com is not like any of the other websites on this list. It is as much a cult site as a magazine site. The content is dominated by reviews and previews of games. It has a large amount of code that gamers can download to play on their favorite consoles. Several of the site’s forums have hundreds of thousands of posts. The homepage is dominated by news from the gaming industry and upcoming features from the magazine. A lot of the website is behind a wall which cannot be accessed by people who are not paid subscribers to the magazine. Given the demographic of heavy video game users, it is surprising that the site has so few social media connections (Grade: C-)

12)   Time. Circulation: 3,266,323. Compete: 4,840,870 (10,305,778) Time.com has lost a large portion of its online audience, like its stable-mate at Time, Inc., People.  This significant decrease in readership possibly reflects a flaw in the Compete measurement service because the drop is unprecedented. The navigation of the homepage is crisp and the design is uncluttered. The feature story is well-identified and well-illustrated. There is a list of “Must Read” stories down the upper left portion of the home page. The navigation at the top is clear. Video and “Best and Worst” lists, a staple of many sites, are separate sections. The titles of the subsections within many of the main parts of the site are poorly identified. Under “Politics” there are headings for “The Page” and “Swampland.” There is obviously no way from a reader’s point of view to understand what these sections are about. While the site is easy to use on the home page, it becomes more difficult to navigate in many of the internal pages. This again has to do with sections that have names that mean little or nothing to the reader. Time.com does an especially good job with social network options. Most social navigation is at at the top of each major story.  Most stories have, off to the right, the “Most Read” and “Most E-mailed” articles intended to keep readers engaged. A lot of the “Latest Headline” stories are from the AP, which is too bad given the size of the Time editorial staff (Grade: B+).

13)   Prevention. Circulation: 3,335,348. Compete: 1,208,947 (1,083,507) Prevention.com  overwhelms the reader with  too much material crowded onto its homepage.  This makes it difficult for the visitor to see what is available at the rest of the site. The upper part of the front page is clean enough. It also has some extremely well-done sections for engaging the reader. This includes a mechanism for tracking health .  It also has a robust community site with a very visible link to Facebook. The sections further down on the home pages are hard to follow.  The internal headlines closely resemble Google ad links, and the text is tiny. The ad to the right of these could easily be confused with editorial content. The reader is understandably confused about what is promotional and what is editorial content. Below the sections on the front page are a list of “Sponsored Features”. What does that mean? The disorganized layout continues inside with most sections showing a selection of small links to topics at the top of the page and a jumble of features and ads down below. The site has a lot of advertising. (Grade: D+)

14)   TV Guide. Circulation: 3,266,323. Compete: 5,223,800 (3,569,185). This is the best magazine site 24/7 Wall St. It is a nearly perfect combination of the best of the print version and contains features that strengthen the product online. The design of the site is almost flawless. The columns on the homepage are clear. Latest news, photos, and video run straight across the top. The search feature allows users to navigate the site or the site’s video which is both useful and innovative. Access from the site to Twitter is pushed aggressively from the top of the homepage. TVGuide.com also offers recaps of shows which is an extremely useful service and one that can only be done realistically online. TV listings are on a slide bar at the bottom of the home page. These listings can be blown up full-screen and sorted by type of show and network. The inside sections have an extremely simple layout which looks inexpensive but is remarkably functional. The blogs cover the shows that are likely to be the most widely followed like “American Idol”  The video section offers the opportunity for visitors to watch entire shows from a number of TV series and also has a number of videos which are exclusive to TV Guide.   (Grade: A-) Update: TVGuide.com, which was launched in beta in March is now the official website of the magazine. It has a Compete visitor base of 90,503.

15)   Sports Illustrated. Circulation: 3,239,968. Compete: 3,707,979 (7,931,447) The center of the front page contains a large video, clean and very well done. Latest news features are to the immediate right. SI.com puts a section called “Truth & Rumors” at the center of the home page, a good way to pull people into the site. Major writers are given a prominent spot on the page, probably too prominent unless these columnists are very widely known. The photo and video sections at the bottom of the homepage are average in design and quality, which is a shame given the visual nature of sports. The navigation across the top is hard to understand unless the visitor goes to the site regularly. The section,  “Extra Mustard”, is an odd collection of pop culture and sports. No first time visitor would know that from the title. The “Fannation”, which allows people to track individual teams, is an outstanding idea for encouraging visitors to return  to the site. The “Fantasy” section has nearly nothing to do with fantasy sports as most people understand them. That is a bit of a letdown. The inside sections on individual sports have all the data and stats a reader could ask for. The type tends to be small and the pages cramped. The site has a very modest amount of premium advertising (Grade: B-)

16)   Taste of Home. 3,200,261. Compete: 1,681,807 (1,050,681) This is about as “plain vanilla” as a content site can be, which is not all bad. The slideshow for recipes at the top of the page is simple and straightforward. The design moves off track in the “Top Recipes” section which has text links which look primitive and resemble Google advertising. Featured recipes are given a prominent position on the homepage, which is smart, based on the reader’s interest. The site takes advantage of the opportunity to build a community as well as any site on the list. The community section is divided into Forums, Groups, Members, Blogs, and Contests. The inside pages are practical. Recipes and cooking instructions are easy to find. The demonstration and instructional videos are easy to use which should keep visitors returning. (Grade: B).

17)   Cosmopolitan. Circulation: 2,932,272. Compete: 1,182,808 (559,370) The homepage is clean and designed carefully to get readers inside the website. The upper part of the page has a standard slide show and “New Stuff” section. Immediately below those, Cosmo plays to its strength with features on Advice, Hair & Beauty, and Style & Celebs. The editors then go for the pelvis with “Sex Positions of the Day” and blogs on hot men and the bedroom. None of this will win design awards but it is clear to the visitor what the site has to offer. The editors make intelligent use of quizzes. The site makes one big mistake on the homepage which is to put the “More from Cosmo” so close to the bottom. The navigation is well-done.  Across the top of each page there is a drop down navigation bar so that the reader can easily find where she would like to go next. Inside pages are crisp. There is not much in terms of access to Web 2.0 features and social network functions. (Grade: B+).

18)   Southern Living. Circulation: 2,818,517. Compete: 508,379 (285,786). The website is as beautiful as the magazine is, but does almost nothing with the Internet to give the visitor more than she would get with the print edition. All of the photos are handsome and the design is uncluttered and open. The navigation across the top is a standard drop-down format which takes the reader to inside pages that are as crisp as the home page. The “home section” does make use of video and 360 degree viewing of properties. Pages in the fitness section that would benefit from illustrations have none. The community section of the site is an after-thought run at the far right of the navigation bar. The section itself is mundane and unimaginative. (Grade: D)

19)   Newsweek. Circulation: 2,720,034. Compete: 1,581,957 (2,028,597) The site’s home page is extremely confusing. The upper navigation takes the reader to the major sections of the site, but under that are links to blogs which have names which have no meaning to the reader—“The Gaggle”, “Pop Vox”, “The Human Condition”. The upper part of the homepage is devoted to a standard slide show. There are several columnist pieces and “Daily Scope” on the lower part of the homepage which appears to be the most recent features, although that is not made clear. There is a simple multi-media section at the center of the front page and next to that a section called “In The Know” which appears to be links to outside articles from around the internet. Newsweek.com is one of the few sites where the reader has an easier time navigating the site  on the inside pages and sections. Almost all of the major design elements are text and the use of illustrations and video are typically pushed to the bottom of the pages. Newsweek.com does do a good job of highlighting comments and getting readers to become involved in stories. Stories still appear to be put next to one another in random order using this mechanism. While the editors have provided very good content, they have completely undercut  that with the design flaws and attempts to brand sections which need no branding (Grade: D).

20)   Playboy. Circulation: 2,658,885. Compete: 1,436,664 (1,806,427) It should come as no surprise that Playboy’s website is visually well done. The home page is dominated by pictures and videos of women. Below that main viewing window for multimedia features are a set of sections called “Today Inside.”  Some of these are well designed to engage the reader. One section allows visitors to download free MP3s. The entertainment section has a sophisticated guide for everything from books to DVDs, to music. These sections are well done but nearly hide the navigation back to the main site, which is a mistake. A lot of the most interesting and lascivious content at the site is behind a pay wall. There may be some evidence that online readers will pay for content, but naked women are probably in a different category than world news. Internal pages are well designed and easy to navigate but the site makes no attempt at using social media to connect readers or their interests (Grade: C)


24/7 Wall St. has had commercial relationships with Time and Newsweek.

Douglas A. McIntyre