Posting Web Content on a Variable-Ratio Schedule

By Nicholas Scribner
January 25, 2021

In the winter of 2006-7, when I was applying to college, I wanted to study journalism or psychology. The small liberal arts college I attended, Bard College in Upstate New York, didn't have a journalism program, so I became a psychology major. I soon switched to English, though journalism and psychology remained interests of mine. I enjoyed the few courses I took in these subjects at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where I ended up finally getting my bachelor's degree in 2019. As matter of fact, I did better in these courses than any other courses I took at the university (including English).

It may come as no surprise that I have not studied any textbooks more thoroughly than my journalism and psychology textbooks (there aren't exactly English textbooks, after all). One concept from my psychology textbooks, the variable-ratio reinforcement schedule in operant conditioning, always resonated with me. According to Wikipedia, this "[r]einforcement occurs after a variable number of responses have been emitted since the previous reinforcement. This schedule typically yields a very high, persistent rate of response." Indeed, it is the most effective partial reinforcement schedule. The quintessential example is gambling (think slot machines or the lottery), but it's also seen in the lab with rats pushing a lever for food. Much like the gambler who spends hours at a slot machine, the rat will push a lever persistently to get these unpredictable rewards. (As an aside, I recently read that slot machines are designed to pay out small- to medium-sized sums of money every so often that excite the player enough to keep playing but not enough to want to cash out. The jackpots, of course, will likely never occur.)

So what does this have to do with posting online? Well, like I said, this concept has always resonated with me. I have applied it to many everyday situations. In particular, I have often thought about how posting to social media or, better yet, personal websites can utilize this concept. I think it's a way to keep an audience engaged with one's online postings. Indeed, I think it's better to post on this variable-ratio schedule than, say, a fixed-interval schedule (where a post would occur after a set period of time).

This blog is now an example of this concept. Each of my first three posts were three days apart from each other, but now I'm posting this article just one day after my last post. Additionally, like the slot machine that pays out varying amounts of money, I think online posts should vary in the quality and quantity of the content.

Now before jumping to the conclusion that I have a sinister motive to get people hooked on this blog, I should say I am not that evil. But the goal of every website is to accumulate hits, and this site is no different. If I were a public relations consultant, I might instead say I'm trying to keep this website fresh.

That's all fine and good, but what do the SEO experts have to say about this technique?

That's a good question, and I'm not really sure. I have just recently started reading SEO blog posts again for one reason or another. In particular, I can suggest the article "How Many Words Should Blog Posts and Web Pages Have for SEO?" The article recommends posting "several shorter pieces each month or week, along with one or two longer ones." It also states that "if you have nothing of value to say, wait to create an article or blog post until you do." This is an important point, and it ties in with the idea of posting on a variable-ratio schedule, since some days or weeks one might have a lot to say compared to other times. Taking this into account, one doesn't necessarily need to plot when to schedule posts, since one may naturally create content on a variable-ratio schedule.

In conclusion, I think posting on social media or blogs on a variable-ratio schedule can be a good way to keep visitors coming back. I've also found that people who post when they're inspired, rather than on some kind of fixed schedule, are more interesting. No one wants to seem sterile or mechanical online. But don't take this guideline as fact and think it must be followed dogmatically. If one follows this advice too rigidly, the effect would be no different than doing the opposite.

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