More Fun Than Tea Leaves

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?

Graph. See description in the text.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. JT, Dan, and Chris left for more money at Patheos.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

More Fun Than Tea Leaves

22 thoughts on “More Fun Than Tea Leaves

  1. 2

    I guess John has latched onto the meme that after TF left FtBs was doomed to obscurity. Partly because of the massive readership he took with him and the realisation that FtBs is a den of ‘pure evil’

    There was a lot of activity around Alexa and Google web interest scores on TFs blog. Strangely TFs popularity had to be measured against the word “freethoughtblogs” not all the individual blogs… And it proved conclusively that TF *alone* is more popular than the whole of FtBs!

    .. Scepticism, who needs it?

    If you are interested web interest scores show “Pharyngula” is vastly higher. If anything this shows the amount of people searching for something they have heard of but don’t know how to find — so maybe a measure of controversy and overall background web chatter…?

    Certainly Thunders score has dropped significantly now he is not battling PZ…

  2. 3

    Iiiiiiinteresting. So based on the numbers, it looks like:

    – Loftus’ departure made no mark on the network’s traffic.
    – The Laden and Thunderf00t affairs were a net plus.
    – The loss of McCreight and Christina led to a big drop.

    Social justice issues drive traffic, apparently, while “pure” atheism doesn’t attract eyeballs. Perhapse SkepticInk should add some atheist+ bloggers to their roster, to strengthen their network?

  3. 6

    HJ, not quite right. Loftus leaving made some impression on the amount of total FtB traffic because his pageviews were part of the total pageviews. What it didn’t do is have an effect on the network as a network.

    Miriam, the week before Thanksgiving is slow? Or more likely, there wasn’t a lot of analysis involved.

  4. 7

    Traffic ranks are a very poor metric of popularity, as they don’t account for total Internet usage. If you have a site with a constant number of pageviews, its rank will gradually fall as new Internet users (mainly from the developing world) drive up the traffic of other sites.

  5. 8

    Zvan @6: Based on the numbers both you and Loftus have presented, I still don’t see evidence for a drop when Loftus left. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that nobody’s demonstrated it to me. I’ve been puddling around on Alexia’s site, and it seems the biggest hit in traffic happened when Patheos did their snatch-and-grab, and McCreight and Christina went on hiatus. My suggestions for improving site traffic are now:

    1. Get more bloggers.
    2. Talk about Atheism+/social justice more.

    I don’t think that suits Loftus’ agenda, though….

  6. 11

    To clarify my post at #8 a little bit, there are several hypotheses in play here:

    Loftus: Losing Loftus was bad for FtB’s traffic numbers.
    Me: Losing Loftus had no effect on FtB’s traffic.

    So far, given the public numbers, my hypothesis seems the most plausible.

    Loftus: Losing Thunderf00t was bad for FtB’s traffic.
    Me: The controversy over Thunderf00t and harassment policies was a net plus for FtB’s traffic, overshadowing the loss of him and Laden.

    Again, my hypothesis is the most plausible.

    Loftus: Discussing Atheism+ led to a drop in FtB’s traffic.
    Me: Losing several bloggers, some of who focused strongly on A+, led to a drop in FtB’s traffic.

    This one’s a bit trickier. Jen’s post that kicked off A+ was in mid-August, and likely accounts for the spike just before point 6 on Zvan’s graph. The major drop-off doesn’t happen until mid/late September, when several bloggers (most notably PZ) left or went on hiatus.

    Loftus’ graph is quite compressed, so the dip he noted is likely the mid/late September one, which doesn’t support his hypothesis. In contrast, in Zvan’s numbers we see a spike in traffic when A+ was dominating FtB, and a dip as it has faded. That argues against Loftus’ hypothesis, and supports mine.

    </stats geek>

  7. 13

    @Ben, Interesting how closely those correlate. Strong evidence there were lots of bewildered thunderf00t fans searching for this ‘freethough blogs’ thing that they had not heard of before.

  8. 15

    Well, as we can see from THIS graph, neither Loftus nor Thunderf00t even approach the popularity of “poop”.
    However, THIS graph shows us that “orange poop” is more popular than Thunderf00t but less popular than John Loftus. And – look there! In the first half of July, all three terms received a noticeable boost! What could that possibly mean? Does reading Loftus’ blog make your poop orange? Or does having orange poop make you more likely to want to watch Thunderf00t’s videos? What are Thunderf00t and John Loftus not telling us about their intimate relationship with orange poop? The public has a right to know!

  9. 17

    To be fair to Loftus, he shares a name with a wingnut whose fortunes appear to have risen and fallen with the War on Terror. I don’t think that’s his popularity that took such a hit.

    Damn those cupcakes. Tasty damnation and all, but still.

  10. 20

    Wait…so Loftus set up his own network, and instead of talking about his traffic, he’s obsessed with reading the vagaries of traffic at another network?

    Shouldn’t he have at least been comparing the gains of losses of his own group relative to ours?

  11. 21

    Ben @18, Myers @20:

    At the time, I didn’t want to embarrass Loftus by doing a straight comparison of “skepticink” vs. “freethoughtblogs,” as his network trended at zero. I figured that, like “freethoughtblogs” vs. “freethought blogs,” there were better search terms that would prop up his numbers.

    Uhhh.. as far as I can tell, there isn’t.

    As for the “Thunderf00t” vs. “freethoughtblogs” comparison, that’s very dishonest. It’s easy to think a tag like “freethoughtblogs” will also include searches for “PZ Myers,” “Pharyngula,” etc. It doesn’t, though, and when you manually start including them to make the comparison fairer, a very different picture emerges. TF trends as much as Greta Christina or AronRa, and I decided to be kind and leave out searches for “Pharyngula,” as it turns Myers’ lead from significant to comically large.

    Search terms for blog networks will always trend lower than the bloggers on the network, because people are attracted to the bloggers and not the network itself. The fact that “freethoughtblogs” even registers is significant, because most networks don’t, and the exceptions are not due to popularity, but content.

  12. 22

    I do think there should be some positive said about SkepicInk since it has given a certain demographic an outlet that doesn’t involve egregious use of photoshop. If only they could post about something other than just this place then it would be a good candidate for morphing the dispute into something resembling reasoned debate.

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