Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 14:39 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 14:39 | SYDNEY

What determines blog traffic?


Sam Roggeveen


4 February 2011 12:25

This interview with psychologist Robert Cialdini (h/t The Browser) caught my eye. Cialdini talks about the power of persuasion in reducing energy demand. Trials in the US indicate that informing consumers about how much energy they are using relative to their neighbours leads to 'significant savings':

Q. What drives people’s energy-saving behaviors' Fear of being seen as wastrels by their neighbors'

A. No, I don’t think it’s keeping up with the Joneses. I think it’s something more similar to a study I saw recently from Beijing, which illustrates the cross-cultural reach of all this: If a restaurant owner puts on the menu, “These are our most popular items,” those items immediately become 17 to 20 percent more popular. So, it’s not social pressure, it’s social evidence. It’s what we call “social proof”: If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.

This is a similar point to one I rather clumsily tried to make at the Lowy Institute's first Wednesday Lowy Lunch for 2011 (listen to the podcast here — BTW, does anyone know how I can train myself to stop unconsciously umming and aahing').

In response to a question about The Interpreter's audience size, I talked about the radical inequality of the internet, which is created by the 'social proof' Cialdini refers to. None of us makes choices in a vacuum — our choices about which websites to visit are influenced by the preferences of others, so if a site is popular, that popularity will itself attract more traffic. I'll let Clay Shirky explain:

...consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat - most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people's choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.

But people's choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice's blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.

This system creates a handful of huge winners — often early adopters but also sites that leverage existing audiences, such as those run by major news organisations — and a rump of sites that get vastly less traffic. As Shirky says, there are likely to be a number of very good blogs which, on their merits, deserve higher traffic but which find themselves part of the rump due to the effect of this power law.

The Interpreter's audience is healthy and continues to grow slowly, but I suspect our growth is inhibited by the phenomenon Shirky describes. There are other factors, of course. The extent of our Australia-specific content makes it difficult to hold on to international readers (this morning our traffic spiked due to a link from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, but my experience is that very few of those readers will add The Interpreter to their bookmarks or RSS feeds). And due to our subject matter, this site will always be a niche taste.

It's just that, in global terms, it is a very large niche, and we would like a bigger slice of it. To my mind, the most important factor in achieving that is to produce quality content.