Thursday, September 10, 2009...11:00 am

Half-yearly blog stats geekery

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Blog Stats GeekeryIn the spirit of full disclosure and transparency, and because such things may be of interest to new and student bloggers (and hopeless WordPress geeks), here’s the first installment of what should become a regular series of half-yearly posts on the statistics behind Freelance Unbound.

First off – Freelance Unbound is not a hugely visited site. There, I’ve said it.

My biggest traffic day so far has been a smidgeon over 200 visitors. On the average weekday, I get a minimum of 50-60 visits, though this halves at the weekend (unsurprisingly, for an essentially work-based site). This tends to drift down if I don’t update regularly – ie pretty much every day. There’s a lesson there.

All this doesn’t bother me that much, though – for several reasons.

  • Blogs don’t usually get much traffic. At the Association of Journalism Education Conference, successful political blogger Guido Fawkes reckoned more than 100 daily visitors is good going, apparently. Why? Maybe because the golden age of blogging is behind us and people seem more interested in social media.
  • This is a very niche blog. In the world of journalism blogs, which in itself is pretty niche, this is one that not only navel-gazes more than most, but also tends to focus specifically on the effects of digital media on content. That pretty much slashes the audience right there (though the audience it gets is quite focused too, which is nice).
  • It’s a bit esoteric. I have posts about PHP and Drupal, though I’m not a techy talking to techies. And I have posts about Marvel Comics and vampires on TV, though this is not a science fiction blog. It’s a funny old smorgasbord.
  • I don’t market it. Although it now gets a listing in Journalism.co.uk’s Best of the J-Blogs section, and I make a bit of an effort to visit and comment on relevant sites in the same field, I really don’t spend enough time relentlessly bigging Freelance Unbound up.

Nonetheless, there’s enough going on here to be interesting from the point of web analysis.

Top posts

In fact, looking at my top two posts of all time is a bit of a case study by itself.

The biggest post I’ve had by far was one offering advice on 11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability.

I thought it might get some traffic, but it alone was responsible for the bulk of visits on my busiest day ever. But why?

The simple answer is Twitter. I now feed all the posts from the blog to my Twitter account, as well as sporadically updating with the occasional post there directly. (Yes, I know this isn’t really what you’re supposed to do with Twitter, but hey – it’s tough enough keeping up with the blog.)

In this case, the Twitter update was what drove my blog traffic. Several people with vast numbers of followers picked up on it, and the result was a healthy clickthrough to Freelance Unbound. It was an impressive example of how the right use of social media can help you draw an audience. (Twitter also seems responsible for yesterday’s spike, which saw more than 180 visitors in a relatively quiet week, mostly drawn to the post on whether media owners should ditch journalism altogether.)

On the downside, very little of that traffic stayed with me. Almost immediately, visitor numbers dropped to pretty what they had been just before this “big post”. Which is another important lesson, familiar in marketing circles. You want repeat business above all, not just people who drop in once and then never darken your door again.

Which brings us to the second biggest post – in which I asked is People Per Hour any use?.

I had a sneaking suspicion this might draw some traffic, as it’s a question I have asked myself and for which I have also searched on Google for an answer.

I came across People Per Hour last year when the bottom dropped out of my business plan and I had to start hustling for work when the recession kicked in. I thought it was an interesting idea – an online marketplace for creative and media-type work. But how reputable was it? And what were people’s experience of the site?

There wasn’t much information about, so I thought I’d stick in my twopennyworth and see if others were interested in the topic.

They were. But interestingly, the traffic has only twice been in double digits in a day. Instead, the post has seen a steady flow of visits, day in, day out, since it went live in April. There’s a good chance that it will feature in the Most Visited section in the sidebar as you read this. If not, it may well do tomorrow. And before long it may well overtake the meteoric student employability post to gain the top slot. [UPDATE: as of 16/9/09 it has.]

The lesson from this? A top tips on employability is popular, but it often needs to go viral to work. (For non web marketing geeks, that means it needs to be picked up by others and passed around their online networks).

On the other hand, pick a topic that you sense may have potential interest, and that isn’t covered to death on the internet, and you can draw in casual readers via search engines on an ongoing basis.

It’s at this point that you do start having to think about search terms when you’re writing your posts and your headlines – and it’s why journalists who shun search engine optimisation (SEO) as beneath their dignity are on a losing wicket.

Top referrers

If you want to build readership, though, gaining traffic from search engines may not be the best way forward. Instead, you’re better off plugging into the blogging community and drawing on a readership that looks at blogs reasonably regularly.

Again, my experience of pulling in traffic via referral from others has been instructive.

There are some oddities here. For a time I found a lot of visits came from a site called Alpha Inventions – a strange site whose only purpose was to aggregate a stream of posts from different blogs and show them in sequence for a few seconds each in real time as they updated. It’s a bit like Twitterfall, only once the post has been shown, it vanishes forever.

I still can’t figure out if this is the equivalent of viewing spam – so if someone has the Alpha Inventions site open in their browser and it scrolls past your blog it counts as a visit, even if the person concerned is away from their PC or looking at a different program. The inventor of the site claims not – but who knows…

In the real world, however, the clear winners in terms of pushing traffic my way, by nearly an order of magnitude, have been those lovely people at FleetStreetBlues.

It’s interesting because, although the site’s traffic is bigger than mine, by their own admission, they only have about 250 daily visitors. Crucially though, those visitors are the kind to click through to other sites – which makes the difference between a small and active audience and a large but passive one.

This is a phenomenon noted by Laura McKenna in her Apt 11D blog on what has changed in the blogging world over the past six years. Readers are burning out and not clicking through to blog links as much as they used to. It makes building readership tougher, and it’s why I’m very grateful for the support of blogs such as Knowledge Workers, Bristol Editor and Taking Out The Trash that have recommended Freelance Unbound and linked to my posts.

Bill Bennett on Knowledge Workers has been particularly kind – sending a couple of my posts to Reddit, which pushed traffic here up noticeably. Though, of course, it’s difficult to know how ‘sticky’ these readers were. Did they stick around for a while and browse the other posts? Have they been back since? I don’t know. Which is another reason to get the hell out of WordPress.com and move to self-hosted so I can get some better analytics going.

Top comments

The real life-blood of any blog is its readers – especially if the readers care enough about the blog or the subject matter to take part in the comment threads.

So far on Freelance Unbound, comments tend to be a bit – shall we say – clustered. Some posts have sparked lively debate – others nothing (though they have seen healthy traffic).

The most commented post (and the most commented topic) is about why, essentially, I argue that the old news model is dead and journalism as we know it is finished. Understandably, journalists get stirred up about this and are more likely to challenge me, or take my side, in this debate.

But it’s difficult to predict what will spark a debate. Sometimes I will post on the same topic and get no reader reaction. All I can say for sure is that I seem more likely to get more comments once one reader has responded. It seems, like the early stages of a party, no one wants to be the first to break the ice.

It also seems that readers will chip in when I ask them to. As noted, my post on People Per Hour has drawn a lot of visits over the past few months, and once I asked readers to add their own experiences of the site, it has also generated comments.

For what it’s worth, bloggers love comments. Freelance Unbound welcomes all reader comments – whether they agree with a post or not. The only proviso is that they are more or less civil in tone.

Conclusions

What do we learn from all this?

  • You can’t really predict what will work.
  • It’s important to update every day.
  • Loyal, regular readers are worth their weight in gold.
  • Blogs work best when it really is a conversation.

Stay tuned for more blog stats geekery in six months’ time…

4 Comments

  • Interesting post, although it’s probably geeky to find it interesting. Keep up the good work…

    The key is not to compare your site with other huge traffic websites or newspapers – even small numbers of regular, engaged readers is an achievement in today’s media-saturated world.

    We get to publish our daily rants, for free, and if 100 people sit down and read it, that’s pretty cool. If 100 educated, opinion-forming influential media types sit down and read it, that’s even better. Now if only we could make the damn thing pay…

  • Thanks for this post, it was really helpful. As a relatively new blogger, I’m very keen to get my stats up as I’m using the blog to a) get into the habit of writing regularly and b) to produce something tangible that I can use as a stepping stone to others things. I constantly assess which posts are getting the most traffic and from whom and on which days people are logging in, in an attempt to tailor, to some degree, my content to the interests of my followers. I find it reassuring that even big sites are not getting huge numbers of hits. However, I no longer have time to sleep….

  • I’ve been through the ‘stats-obsessed’ stage and come out the other side. I had an epiphany one day when I asked myself, “Why are you blogging?”… to which the answer was “Because I enjoy it, I like to help folks and it helps me keep up to speed with technology”.

    Truth is, I don’t care whether people are reading or not. Nice if they are – very nice – but even with zero readers I’d still be fulfilling two out of my 3 aims. Which, as the saying goes, ain’t bad.

  • Gosh, if no-one was reading mine, I’d stop and do something else. It’s all about objectives though isn’t it? I have a friend who uses blogging as an incentive to get into the habit of writing. No-one reads it and she’s as happy as a sandboy.