Disclaimer: This blog is not about Linux or Apple, but rather the sensationalist nature of blogging that encourages low-value content. The irony, eh?
I’ve been blogging for O’Reilly for nearly a year now, and learnt an interesting lesson early on. I’d collated some interesting ideas for my first few blogs and duly wrote them up, put them online, and was quite happy with the one or two thousand readers for each.
Then, on my fifth entry, I’d run out of steam a bit. In order to maintain some momentum with the regularity of my blogging, I wrote a — somewhat naive — off-the-cuff blog which postulated that some Computer Science degrees weren’t suitable for the commercial world.
Nearly 40,000 views and an inbox overflowing with hate-mail later, I’d learnt a valuable lesson. It wasn’t to think before you write, to check facts, or to share worthwhile content with the world. It’s that if you want high traffic — the Holy Grail for most web sites — then write something controversial. Don’t bother with in-depth research or well-considered arguments — just find a couple of topics which people care passionately about, and drive those people crazy. It’s the future.
Which makes me wonder why traffic, and popularity, are so important on the web? It’s one of the only semi-meaningful measurements available to us, but popularity isn’t everything. Some of the big players on the web even rely on the concept of ‘popularity’ for major aspects of functionality:
- Google uses ‘link popularity’ as one of its underpinning mechanisms. This doesn’t help when a blogger writes something controversial on a topic you’re trying to research. The resultant blogosphere noise, in it’s typical tsunami response to such a posting, will sometimes drown the results pages for any searches on that topic. To be fair, Google have done their best to ensure this doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
- Similarly, Digg relies on the (explicitly user specified) popularity of suggested news items to show you what’s “worthwhile”. With that said, they also seem to have managed — so far — to avoid the majority of the Slashdot-eque ‘X vs Y’ and ‘Why Z sucks’ stories appearing on the home page.
It’s been common knowledge that popularity doesn’t equate with value in the ‘offline’ world for some time. Anyone who’s dared look at (let alone listen to) the music charts, or seen newspaper circulation figures knows that quality doesn’t have much of an influence on ranking.
As an example, in the UK, we have Heat magazine, with circulation of 575,267 per issue (source: abc.org.uk). For people who don’t know, it’s a magazine for young adults who are too lazy to read, and is full of rehashed photographs of strangely sized people (I think they’re called ‘celebrities’). Private Eye, the most popular satirical/investigative current-affairs magazine, has less than half this figure at 204,847.
Which makes me even more confused as to why some public and private sector organisations are now allocating web funding to their departments (or projects) based on traffic. This sounds like a dangerous path to follow.
Similarly, a common goal for website redevelopments that I read is a desire to increase the number of “page views per visitor”. Some refer to this as the “stickiness” factor, but the same result can be achieved by making your information much harder to find. I’d much prefer someone on my site to find what they’re looking for in one click, rather than four.
Of course, there’s an exception to every rule: Linux is neither popular nor valuable.
Now, where’s my traffic?