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Posted by Claire Cahill on 30 August 2012

Why you should consider removing sharing buttons

Remove the sharing buttons? Are you mad? But that's exactly what designer Oliver Reichenstein has said we should do in his article Sweep the Sleaze, and it's sparked quite a debate among the web design community.

Screengrab of sharing counters at the bottom of a page

Knee-jerk reaction is an outright no. Why would you remove something which easily allows users to share your content?  However, continue reading on and what he's saying starts to make sense.

Content is king

If your content is good, people will want to share it. And if they want to share it they will do so - regardless of whether there is a share button to hand. Equally, if it’s bad, they won’t - and shoving a share button in their face won’t convince them otherwise.

By removing the buttons you avoid "passive liking"; by pushing users to copy and paste the link into a new update, you encourage them to endorse your content in a more human way. Or as Reichenstein puts it, “You don’t want a cheap thumbs up, you want your readers to talk about your content with their own voice.”

One site which has already put this into practice is online web design magazine Smashing Magazine, who removed all but twitter sharing links on their articles.

Screengrab of a text link 'Share on Twitter'

They state that when they removed the Facebook 'like' button, people started sharing articles on their wall instead - providing better coverage for them; a wall post has more prominence than a like. It also actually resulted in higher traffic from Facebook.

We removed FB buttons and traffic from Facebook increased. Reason: instead of "liking" articles, readers share it on their timeleine.

- @smashingmag

Buttons are heavy

Sharing buttons can have a negative effect on page load times - which is particularly an issue with responsive designs being displayed on mobile devices.

In tests carried out by ZURBlog, sharing button widgets added 2.3 seconds to the page load and nearly 250k in bandwidth - not inconsiderable over a 3G connection.

One way around this is to use a text link rather than images and javascript counters to save server requests. The single ‘Share on Twitter’ link used by Smashing Magazine has done just this.

Cleaner design

Removing the buttons also leads to less cluttered and more efficient design. Indeed, as the buttons have become commonplace, it is possible that people block them out in the same way they might with banner ads.

So what should we do?

It's a compelling argument - yet it still feels wrong to mass-remove all buttons. Surely it's a case of time and place - there won't be a one fits all solution.

There is some debate about removing buttons on mobile as users use them to avoid fiddly copying and pasting. Twitter in particular will often need URL shortening - though this can be avoided by providing a shortened URL like .net magazine does.

Screengrab of a 'copy URL' button functionality

In any case, this is becoming less of an issue as mobile operating systems integrate closer with the social networks. For example, on the iPhone you can already Tweet or email a webpage at the touch of a button, and Facebook integration is lined up for the next iOS.

Screenshot of built in sharing on iOS devices

As with everything, it's a case of doing the right things for the right reasons. To start with, consider if the page itself is worthy of being shared. A news story or content page is likely to have higher value than a navigational links page. Don’t clutter pages up with buttons if they don’t need to be shared in the first place.

Then consider the user. Who are they and how are they likely to interact with social media? If they are already active social media users, the chances of them deciding to share an article then changing their mind because they can't see a 'share' button seem very slim. In fact, some ‘web-savvy’ users appear to choose to actively avoid them, wary of auto-tweeting and lack of control. On the other hand, providing a visual clue at the right moment for less familiar users might be just what they need to prompt them to share.

Research from Nieman Journalism Lab tracked how many people tweeted from a variety of news sites using the Tweet button. They drew two key observations:

  1.  Tech sites seem to be less reliant on the Tweet Button, as a percentage — as one might expect from sites with a social media-savvy audience.
  2. Sites with a clear ideological profile … are among the heaviest beneficiaries of the Tweet Button.

And lastly, prioritise channels. Focus on where you want your company or brand to be talked about. LinkedIn may be the most valuable network for a business-orientated site whereas you may want to point e-commerce consumers towards Facebook. Don’t just throw everything you can at a page in the hope that something works, it will only serve to clutter the user journey.

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