If you follow our old colleague John Loftus, you’ll see that he’s still keeping an eye on his old home. Most recently, he did a post on the state of our traffic over time and how he thinks that correlates with various events.
He no longer has access to our private statistics, of course, it being almost a year since he left. In their place, he’s using Alexa. Because FtB is one of the web’s highly trafficked sites, Alexa displays our traffic information over time. You can see it for yourself here.
For some reason, Loftus chose to look at how our traffic rank relative to other sites has fluctuated. This, of course, is sensitive to changes in other sites’ traffic, as is Alexa’s percent of pageviews measure. We can look like we’re doing worse when another group of sites is doing better or vice versa. For example, when a bunch of political sites are talking something like the Republican primary debates, we can have a spike of traffic the way Jason did in January and not see our rank change very much. Additionally, this is graphed logarithmically, which isn’t great for intuitive understanding of what you’re seeing.
I tend to look at the Reach % figures, which tell us what a tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s internet users visit us on a given day. In normal WordPress stats, this would be most analogous to unique visits. This produces a flatter graph than the one Loftus uses, though many of the points at which trends change are the same.
The events Loftus thought explained the important fluctuations in FtB traffic, however, are what amused me. What does he think explains our traffic patterns?
His departure, Thunderf00t’s departure, and the start of Atheism+.
The idea that it would be some sort of revelation that a network’s traffic would decline when there are fewer people blogging on it made me laugh mightily. Let’s see: If there’s less traffic, there will be…less traffic. That’s not a revelation; it’s a tautology. If traffic had not dropped when Loftus left and stopped posting new material here for people to read, that would have been a very great surprise indeed.
It also doesn’t tell you much about the health of a blog network. The point of a network is to be more than additive. It isn’t just to share operating expenses. Ideally, networks will cross-pollinate. People will come to read one writer whom they’ve already discovered and grown to like. Because that writer is on a network, it will be easier for the reader to find other writers they like, people who are offering something similar to but not duplicative of the writer who was a draw in the first place. A network is a place to form connections.
If you want to know how FtB as a network is doing, you want to look at cross-pollination. Probably the best way to do that here is to look at the stats for the main FtB page. That’s where people go to see what is on the network, to engage with the network as a whole.
So, how do those look?
This is the traffic by week on the main FtB page over the year-plus history of the network. I’ve added some horizontal rules to make it easier to track changes over time.
The bottom, orange trend line is returning visitors, based on who has cookies. Because many people really don’t like cookies, this line is almost certainly understated. The middle, blue trend line is unique visits on a daily basis. This includes both new and returning visitors, and because it’s based on cookies, is probably overstated.
The top, green trend line is page loads. As you can see, this is far and away the most volatile trend. When something exciting is going on, people are more likely to refresh to see whether there are new posts. This line will also be sensitive to how much free time people have. If they’re too busy to read FtB more than once a day, this line will be lower.
On this graph, I’ve marked off a number of events. The zero at the beginning is, of course, the launch of the network. From the start, it functioned as a network, not just a home for individual blogs.
- The second batch of bloggers is added. Traffic to the main page jumps as there get to be too many bloggers to track just using the Recent Posts on any individual blog.
- The third batch of bloggers is added. Traffic to the network as a whole will have increased dramatically at this point, but the network as a network of readers grows more slowly from here.
- Loftus leaves FtB. He does, of course, take his page views with him, but his departure has next to no effect on the network as a network. His readership has already decided during his tenure here whether the rest of the blogs on the network are for them. Given his unique niche here (a fairly religious audience), I suspect they decided we mostly weren’t. His departure doesn’t change their minds.
- The Women in Secularism conference happens. Several of us start blogging about harassment, etc. It doesn’t have much of any impact on the network as a whole.
- Thunderf00t and Greg Laden leave the network. (Can’t say why Loftus left Greg out of the picture. He had significant traffic.) Rather than cause any kind of immediate drop, it caused network traffic to go up. Why? If I had to guess, I would think the events of this period raised awareness that FtB was a network, making people curious what else was here. That is, however, just a guess. This period also saw an influx of readers who hadn’t read FtB before and just wanted to know what the fuss was about. Then SkepchickCon, with considerable FtB participation, happened at the same time. Hard to say what had what impact.
- Classes started at U of M Morris. PZ announced that his blogging would be lighter this semester, and he’s been correct about that. It affects how often his readers come to the network as a whole.
- JT, Dan, and Chris left for more money at Patheos.
- Jen announced she needed to take a break from blogging, and Greta announced that her blogging would be much decreased due to her father’s illness. Before this, JT, Dan, Jen, and Greta were all among the top bloggers for traffic here. Each of them reached an audience that was primarily theirs but for whom the rest of the network would have some appeal. This has definitely affected the health of the network.
- We started adding bloggers again. We’ll see where the network goes from here.
Long story short, there are lots of working pieces to a blog network. Individual bloggers have traffic, but they also contribute, or not, to the network as a whole. Unless you want to obsessively follow everything that happens (or are sitting in the middle of it so it all comes to you), trying to point to a change and say it had one particular cause is really an exercise in divination.