Sam Hill, an editor at the technology website Digital Trends, has penned 647 articles about Wordle. Each of them follows the same basic format: Hill offers a series of clues pointing toward the solution to the New York Times’ daily puzzle, targeting the Google queries of readers who find themselves stumped over their morning coffee. Wordle is a robust, left-brained deduction game; it does not lend itself to creative hint construction or smug, crossword-ish puns. But Hill always finds a way. In a post this week, Hill writes that the answer begins with the letter H and that, contextually speaking, the mystery word is related to nouns like “speed” or “urgency.” Scroll down, and Hill gives the answer outright. (It’s HURRY. One of those vexing double-consonant solutions.) This is not the most invigorating part of Hill’s job. Nobody in the media aspires to write hundreds of bespoke Wordle guides, day after day after day. But Hill approaches his duty with monklike discipline because the traffic is just that good.
“We started doing the Wordle guides last May because someone on the SEO team recommended it. It was an immediate hit, and it became clear that we had to keep doing them,” said Hill when I called him up last week for an interview. “They told me and the rest of the gaming team that if we had the bandwidth for Wordle posts, then they should be at the top of our list, because it’s guaranteed traffic. It’s consistently getting a ton of concurrents [views] at the top bulk of the site. There are always a handful of Wordle posts in the top-read stories in the section every month. It’s really, really consistent.”
Hill is far from the only writer tasked with tapping into Wordle’s ludicrous traffic hose. Type the phrase “Wordle hints” into Google News, and you’ll quickly understand just how beholden the media—and video game media in particular—has become to this silly little New York Times vocabulary puzzle. Mashable is publishing daily Wordle hints; same with Screenrant, PC Gamer, and Newsweek. NME, a hugely important English music magazine famous for incubating Britpop and breaking the Strokes, is now home to a perpetually updated Wordle guide, as is For the Win, which is ostensibly USA Today’s sports vertical. Together, these Wordle posts coalesce into a disconcerting collage of uncanny media bleakness. The threadbare prospects of the old-school, ad-supported digital model is a zero-sum game, so if the unknowable tides of traffic have determined that the people want Wordle hints, newsrooms are more than prepared to drop their editorial directives and get to work.
“I definitely go back and forth between thinking, ‘You know what: These posts take 20 minutes a week to write and schedule, it keeps the site up, it gets traffic; I should be happy that part of my job is so easy,’ ” said Hill. “But there are other days where I’m like, ‘Is this really what I’m doing?’ But if I stop doing these posts, it would be a noticeable thing. The traffic dip would register. It would suck.”
The crisis that Hill describes has become increasingly pervasive in games media. It is generally accepted that guides—like the ones that Hill publishes—tend to drive the majority of the traffic of every website covering the culture, totally outpacing the dogged investigations or writerly features or thoughtful reviews put forth by the rest of the editorial team. “Everyone is playing games with their phone open, trying to find the most optimal way to collect a resource or get the best ending to their RPG,” says Nerium Strom, editor at Fanbyte, a games website that—you guessed it—recently eliminated all of its voice-y takes and sourced reports to go all in on walk-throughs for titles like Destiny 2, Final Fantasy XIV, and yes, Wordle.
“Guides have almost universal appeal because they often look to provide an objective answer to a common question. Lots of people are already looking for the answer to the same question—for the content of your guide, whereas reviews and opinion pieces require you to generate interest via headlines, thumbnails, and so on,” continued Strom. “Wordle has a new challenge for players every day, giving you new guides to write about it. Anyone can write a guide for Wordle, even publications that normally don’t write about games or write guides. You just need to look up the answer and write a post about it, and you can try to get a slice of the traffic.”
Strom, like Hill at Digital Trends, has written the lion’s share of the Wordle guides published to Fanbyte. Both of them have become masters of their craft. Hill tells me he has a tool that lets him peek at the upcoming slate of Wordle answers in advance, allowing him to knock out all his SEO responsibilities in one feverish, hallucinogenic Google Doc binge. “I’d lose my mind if I was doing this in real time,” he said.
But sometimes, added Hill, the Times swaps out a future Wordle answer before it hits the website, totally invalidating Hill’s walk-through. “I’ll wake up to 20 emails saying, ‘The Wordle hint is wrong.’ ” It’s nice to know that people are reading.
All of this gets back to the elephant in the chatroom. Why on earth would anyone need a Wordle hint? I am not a Wordle die-hard, but I spent plenty of time with the game in early 2022, during its pre-Times germination, and there was never a moment when the puzzle compelled me to seek out clarifying hints on the internet. That’s not because I possess an aureate code of ethics when it comes to word games—I cheat on the crossword all the time—but Wordle usually takes less than five minutes to complete, and it is functionally immune to the sort of tasteful, brain-tickling clues that orient your perspective without giving the whole thing away. (In other words, I personally don’t need or care to know that the solution starts with an H.)
Hill is just as mystified as I am. “It makes absolutely zero sense to me,” he said. “You’re just guessing a word, and you’ve been doing it for a year straight. You should be able to do it without help by now, right?” Hill speculates that his readers might be aggressively protective of their Wordle streak, which tracks how many days in a row a player has completed the puzzle. If you’re deep into 2023 with an immaculate record, you probably don’t want to crash back down to earth after failing to ascertain GUANO.
“The score-streak element makes people quietly competitive, even if they’re just competing between themselves and the game,” agreed Strom. “They feel invested in a streak they’ve maintained for weeks or months and don’t want to lose it just because they miss a single word. So, they look for hints or the answer to maintain the streak.”
Frankly, I’ve worked in the media long enough to never question what seems to be working. I survived the destabilizing pivot-to-video of the mid-2010s, when juiced, counterfeit Facebook video engagement briefly ruled the roost. (You may also remember that brief pocket of time when BuzzFeed quizzes were going to save our skin.) It is currently impossible to read about sports, in any capacity, without being accosted by the dreaded “moneylines”—as legalized sports betting has exploded. These revenue trends tend to be fleeting and flimsy, but those who are forced to harness them rarely have any better options on hand. If the numbers say that Wordle guides can keep a website’s traffic mandates afloat, we’ll all happily set aside any existential questions that reality might inspire and play along until the well is good and dry.
“Nobody has discovered a perfect alternative ad-based revenue yet, but I doubt there’s a single serious person working in this industry who doesn’t think we need something,” finished Strom. “Many of us are just trying to weather things as best we can until that happens.”
By the way, Wednesday’s Wordle answer was BESET. If I were writing clues, I’d say that it starts with a B and evokes the feeling of being at the mercy of forces you cannot comprehend or control.