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Traffic, sensationalism, and internet fame: a rambling omni-post

This morning, PZ Myers posted an examination of the evidence relevant to the claim that bloggers stir up controversy solely or primarily to garner attention and blog traffic. This is a relatively common claim from cynics who believe, for whatever reason, that bloggers are all craven, fame-hungry, unprincipled agitators. I myself have had this accusation thrown at me from time to time, and while I don’t like it, I also don’t give it much time or energy because hey, stupids gonna stupe.

PZ also said this:

What makes a blog grow is 1) regular updates, 2) consistent themes, 3) maintaining the attention of other blogs out there, 4) cultivation of an interactive readership that adds value to your blog, and 5) time (slow steady growth is best, and it can’t by definition happen overnight). Probably also good writing, but I wouldn’t know much about that, and I’ve also seen some gloriously well-written blogs that idle along with light traffic because they ignore my top 5 suggestions.

Which is fine as his personal opinion, but it’s not much more evidence-based than the claim that they’re built by constantly courting scandal. While PZ has built a juggernaut of a blog, and followed that up by helping to build a juggernaut of a blog network, I don’t know that he can really be cited as an authority on what it is that makes a blog successful. Considering that I’ve heard him on many occasions say that the blogging game is random and fickle, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was his own observation only, and not intended as a statement of fact.

The main reason why his post rubbed me the wrong way is because of this:

Those give little bursts of attention from people who weren’t interested in your blog in the first place; they visit to see the source of all the commotion, and then they leave.

The following are all observations from my own experience only, so obviously I am subject to a whole heap of biases, but I don’t think my concerns with this statement are unwarranted.

PZ’s statement about the one-time traffic from popular aggregators or sharers is only partially true. I started this blog in February of 2010 knowing pretty much nothing about blog management and promotion, aside from what I could intuit or think my way through. My first ‘big’ post was a story about a creationist who had come to Vancouver and said creationy things. My traffic went way up from a trickle to a… slightly larger trickle. It was indeed the case that the majority of people who came to look at my one post never came back ever again, but a lot of them kept reading.

My next ‘big’ post was a similar exposé on work the Vancouver skeptics had done trying to raise consciousness about Deepak Chopra, which happened to dovetail nicely with a post that went viral for reasons I still don’t understand. Again, I observed the same pattern. Traffic went way up, came back down eventually, but never dropped to its original level. Some people stuck around, above and beyond the expected incremental growth of people just happening across my site and wanting to read more. It was a consistent pattern – every time traffic spiked, I knew I could reliably expect a resulting increase in regular readership.

I have observed a similar pattern since this blog moved to FTB:

Site traffic summary graph

Above is a summary of this site’s weekly traffic (I’d show the daily, but this graph is messy enough – the daily one is almost incomprehensible) since the launch. The first big ‘peak’ there at around W45 is my series on System Justification (I am pretty sure). The die-down afterward was the result of Christmas vacation and a break in posting. The second giant peak was my post about shuffling feet, which also went viral (this time for reasons I understand). There are a couple of peaks after then that, interestingly, do not correspond to increases in traffic. In both cases, what they do correspond to is times I was on vacation and stopped posting stuff regularly. However, after the Thunderf00t incident, we see another increase in average traffic beyond the simple one-time excitement of a sexy post.

A list of my top 20 traffic-garnering posts

The above figure is a list of my 20 most popular page loads (well, 19 if you don’t count the loading of the main page). My Thunderf00t post is there, as is another post about sexual harassment policies. Aside from those two, however, none of my top traffic-generating hits were particularly controversial (unless you count the time when I picked a fight with Jen and Greta about cats. That was was a joke, and I had no idea it was going to turn into a ‘thing’). I suppose you could count my criticism of Hemant Mehta’s bit about Alain de Botton as a post classifiable under ‘controversy’ – I wouldn’t, but I can see how a neutral observer could see it that way. It is also worth noting that the list is skewed heavily toward the past handful of months.

Based on the above data, you would be extremely hard-pressed to find evidence to support your conjecture that controversial posts drive traffic (at least my traffic). However, taking the temporal graph in concert with the cross-sectional one, I can find similarly little evidence to support PZ’s conclusion that high-traffic posts do not build a regular reader base. While I generally agree with his list of tips of how to build a successful blog (indeed, the fact that my traffic consistently dips when I stop posting and rebounds when I start again lends credence to my #1 recommendation for new bloggers – post regularly if you want to build an audience), I can’t agree with him that you can’t juice your stats by periodically throwing in something that you know is going to get a lot of attention. If you want to refute the claim that you can’t build a consistent readership based on controversy alone, you’ll need more data than I’ve seen anyone present so far.

Geez, I was going to do a whole thing on ‘internet fame’ and ‘climbing the ladder’ and other blog-related claims that get thrown at me from time to time, but I am out of space. I’ll have to make it its own post.

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Comments

  1. Andrea says

    From my personal experience, I’ve found a lot of blogs through the “controversial” posts. I then read a couple other posts to see if their writing style, as well as quality and quantity of posts make them someone I’m interested in continuing to read on a regular basis.

    I would think (again, this is purely conjecture) that there is a spike in viewers for controversial posts, and then a blogger retains a certain percentage of followers.

  2. Greta Christina says

    Crommie, that’s also been my experience. (Again, very non-evidence-based.) When you have a big spike in traffic from a big post that goes viral, the traffic does die back down again… but it often dies back down to a slightly higher level. Some people who found you for the first time from the “big spike” post will decide they like you, and stick around. So a big traffic spike does help build traffic long-term.

    I do agree with PZ’s basic premise, though — which is that “insider baseball” controversies are a shitty way to draw traffic. They tend to draw people who already know about you. In my (again not very scientific or evidence-based) observation, the posts that tend to bring the big spikes in atheist blogs are irate posts about bad things happening to atheists. Jessica Ahlquist, the American Cancer Society thing, etc.

  3. says

    I think if you’re “inside” but not well-known, you could garner some traffic by weighing in on a controversy in a big way. But as you point out, that’s going to be a game of ridiculously diminishing returns.

  4. says

    I mantain a blog about something that is incredibly obscure in an obscure niche.

    I have come to the conclusion that the best method to keep good traffic is to drink the blood of a skinned cat every 2 weeks. Then it also helps if your topic actually interests plenty of people and that you are good at talking about that topic.

    Else, you’ll be like me, 50 visitors a day, 0.03 comments in average :/

  5. mythbri says

    I was linked to both Pharyngula and The Crommunist Manifesto from Amanda Marcotte’s writing at Pandagon. I was surprised when I finally figured out that they were on the same blog network (it’s what I get for paying no attention to the sidebar).

    Crom, I came for incisive writing and I’ve stayed for the same, plus the side-splittingly funny comments you make when the mood strikes you.

  6. says

    Well thank you for the kind words. It’s always nice to hear that people like my writing.

    I was flabbergasted when PZ first linked to one of my posts back in the day. It was similarly a giddy thrill to see myself retweeted by Amanda and know that she’d read something I’d written. The novelty has still very much not worn off.

  7. Brad says

    I don’t know. Except for the one highest spike, it’s hard to tell whether or not the readership is increasing more after “big posts” than would be expected given the general background increase over time in your readership (I only mention this as a statistics geek, not as someone who knows or cares much about blog traffic).

  8. says

    I will say, in favour of PZ’s theory, that the strongest determining factor in my own traffic has been the consistency of my posting. During the winter and early Spring when I was averaging 10 posts a week, done at 9am and 1pm Eastern every weekday, with regular “lighter” weekend posts, my traffic gradually rose to a very steady, happy 5000-ish per day. Later in Spring, when for a variety of reasons my posting began gradually becoming spottier, with frequent breaks, late posts, and then eventually abandoning the regular format entirely, it began a steady and ultimately rather dramatic drop, with. I still have regular readers, and still have occasional posts that get a lot of attention, and I’ve had a number of people tell me that the actual quality of my writing has improved over time, it does seem clear to me that the main issue is reliability. If people know there will be new content up every day, or even at regular intervals, they’ll check regularly, but if they have no idea when stuff will or won’t go up, they’re only going to check sporadically, if at all.

    I’d also wager that being able to have a specific “niche”, or general set of subjects, or kind of tone, or style of writing, that isn’t interchangeable with 1000 other bloggers, is an important thing. And one of the strengths of FTB, in my opinion… few, if any, of our blogs are doing something indistinguishable from Generic Atheist Blog X-23.

  9. says

    P.S.

    I also think one of the BIG missing variables is being linked on other blogs. That’s something that often goes with “controversial” posts, but isn’t necessarily true of them, or exclusively true of them. Like the most popular posts on your own list there includes Shuffling Feet and PZ’s BIAAA, which though neither were controversial really were both referenced on at least one other blog, with larger regular traffic.

    This is also true of all my most trafficked posts. A couple of them, like “All In” and “Thoughts From A Diversity Hire” were “controversial”, but mostly they got linked a whole lot elsewhere. And the others, like “13 Myths And Misconceptions”, “Beginner’s Guide To Trans-Misogyny”, “Trans Girl’s Guide To Gotham” and “Disgusting” weren’t controversial, but they were linked or promoted by other bloggers and writers, often with bigger names than mine, like PZ, Kate Beaton, Gail Simone, The F Word, Kate Bornstein, etc.

    Other popular ones are those that have come to be used as 101s and references in certain corners of the web, like the social-justice oriented SRS (“Shit Reddit Says”, not the other meaning of that acronym) and asktransgender communities on Reddit (or, weirdest of all, my glossary being used as a citation on wikipedia). Again the reason for the increased traffic is the amount of external links.

    So when seeing how controversial posts tend to get a bit more traffic, that’s probably not because of the controversy, really, but just because they tend to be linked elsewhere as the discourse spreads.

  10. Daniel Schealler says

    Well, you’ve gone and disagreed with PZ. I expect they’ll have to kick you out of the network now.

    It was nice knowing you Crom. Hope it goes easy on you when the FtB goon squad comes to abduct you in the night.

    [/facetious]

  11. smhll says

    Some people who found you for the first time from the “big spike” post will decide they like you, and stick around. So a big traffic spike does help build traffic long-term.

    Beating the controversy drum probably wouldn’t work for a low quality blog. There has to be something for readers to stick around for.

    If some of your “spike” readers do tend to stick around, I would say that you have earned them.

  12. Ainuvande says

    I think I started reading you because Greta Christina linked to you. Or she linked to someone who linked to you. Possibly when you first joined FTB. I know the link boiled down to “try this guy, he’s new here, and good.” So really, I think getting noticed in a positive way is good for traffic. Controversial posts are one way of doing that.

    As for the I am not my ideas post, you articulated something really central to how we interact with each other as people in a very easy to understand way. And you write well. I’m willing to bet a lot of people simply linked it going “yes. This.” Sometimes things go viral because they express a truism in an easy-to-grasp way.

  13. says

    I think that the first thing I read of yours was in regards to Trayvon, but I’m not sure what it was. The funny thing is, I’m pretty sure I got referred to you by my gentleman caller, and I’ve always been the one who reads the skeptical blogs. (He is disinterested in the skeptical movement, and I can’t blame him.) I stayed because I need to start reading more quality blogs, and particularly more quality blogs that deal critically with race. I also stayed because I love your writing and I appreciate the work that you do. You’re a good ally to marginalized groups that you don’t belong to, and I want to be, too. Reading blogs like this is part of how I’d like to work at it. Thank you for your work.

  14. Jesse M. says

    Natalie Reed is right to note the importance of hyperlinks, not only because they let people access webpages, but also because search engines use them to rank search results. If controversial posts are hyperlinked more frequently than uncontroversial posts, then search engine result rankings will reflect this, which means that the capacity for website traffic growth will reflect this too, even for uncontroversial posts.

    If the reasoning in the previous paragraph holds true, and I see no reason to believe that it does not, then it would be possible to use both controversial and uncontroversial materials together as a bait-and-hook combo, where controversial posts create the temporary traffic spikes and much less temporary improvement in search engine rankings and where uncontroversial posts build readership by taking advantage of the temporary traffic spikes and less temporary increase in search engine referrals.

    The argument that uncontroversial posts do not contribute anything to building a readership strikes me as naive. In the same vein, the argument that someone who makes controversial posts does so for the purpose of building readership also strikes me as naive. I think both sides in this argument are overplaying their hand.

  15. Tanya2 says

    What a crock coming from Myers…the guy who built his blog on mean and vile comments that got people stirred up.

  16. Tanya2 says

    I call BS on Greata…the lady who is known for posing nude and writing manuals for “sex workers”.

    Oh no…she didn’t do that for attention did she?

    Moderate that..”freethinker”.

  17. says

    Yes, very true. I managed to get my blog linked to from Pharyngula, and it had nothing to do with controversy or anything (it was actually more of a joke), and of course my traffic went through the roof for a short period.

    And, consistent with Crommunist’s observations, I kept a tiny fraction of the burst permanently. I went from like two regular readers, to a transient period of having several hundred eyes, and then settled down to a couple dozen readers.

    Another side note that wasn’t covered in either Crommie’s or PZ’s thoughts: A really tremendously way to get traffic is to have a post that is useful. While my blog is primarily about atheism, politics, and sometimes cooking, a post from earlier this year rapidly became my most read, and continues to generate a slew of hits: A catalog of differences between Scrabble and Words with Friends. Yup.

    (It gives me no small amount of pleasure to picture a sheltered church-y type googling for “differences between scrabble and words with friends” and discovering to their horror that the most comprehensive source out there is a blatantly anti-theist blog called No Jesus, No Peas :D )

  18. ischemgeek says

    My guess (and this is me just talking out my behind here – all baseless conjecture) is that controversial/viral posts attract more blogosphere attention, so that more people come and see your blog because they’re curious about what all the fuss is about. Of those that come and see it are going to be some who like it and choose to stick around – people who would have probably found the place eventually, but just found it a bit sooner thanks to someone else linking you. That’s how I started reading Natalie, and I think Greta and Stephanie as well. Only a few blogs have I started reading because I was actively looking for a blog that fit a certain niche, and a lot of those, I quit reading eventually because they were either too one-note or they ceased to be relevant to me.

    I don’t remember for certain how I found this blog…. TBH, I think it was the title of the blog itself that intrigued me when I saw your banner here, so I came and read… and stuck around because I like what you write, and I really like that I can come hear and read a post and more often than not come away with stuff to think about and usually knowing more than I did before.

  19. Mad Monkey says

    I found your blog because of FtB.

    I keep reading it because you write about topics that interest me, you’re cot dang smart, you write well, and you’re funny as heck when you choose to be.

  20. Brandi says

    I haven’t kept up with Tfoot since the whole debacle of shame but I would imagine if he is keeping a blog, that any traffic he gets is most likely from whacky posts that stir up shit. I would imagine if I looked for it, most his posts would be titled “OMGZ CONSPIRACY AIMED AT ME AND LIES LIES LIES”, which I’m sure drums up at least some readers for him.

    Anyways, I did happen to find your blog via your Tfoot is a shitty writer post and really enjoyed your style of blogging, and thus check back in every other day.

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