The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Quality vs. Quantity?

In a similar vein as the last two posts, I couldn’t help noticing news of a change in blog rankings that may favor session length over page views.

Nielsen/NetRatings has changed the way it rates Web sites and in the process has upended the rankings of the top online destinations, vaulting AOL and Yahoo over rival Google.

The research service announced yesterday it would measure popularity by how long users linger on sites, not by how many pages they view, a move that could affect how online advertising works.

This new measure will report the total time spent for all visitors and provide a better understanding of users’ total engagement of Web pages and volume of traffic, Nielsen said.

For the past several years blogs have been ranked either by page views or unique visits, with the blogs generating the highest amount of either or both ending up as the top ranked blogs. There are a number of implications worth examining,

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The most important implication is summed up by Pete Cashmore over at Mashable.

On Tuesday, Nielsen/NetRatings will announce that it will no longer rank top sites on the web by pageviews: instead, it will measure the time spent on a site. “Total minutes”” (of all users spent on the site) is the new Holy Grail. That’s great, you would think, since sites that generate more pageviews than they need to (eg. MySpace) will drop in the rankings, while those that engage users for long periods (Yahoo) will see a boost in stats.

I don’t know how many times I’ve linked to Dave Pollard’s post about the attention curve of blogging, but it came to mind again as I read about the change at Nielsen/NetRatings.

…I confirmed the statistic I had read elsewhere, that the average reader hangs around for under 90 seconds per page view. But a quick look at some A-list bloggers showed their average readers hang around for only 40 seconds per page view. So last night I dug into the SiteMeter data in a little more detail. I discovered that the attention deficit I had noted for A-listers is even worse than I thought: There is an inverse relationship among A-listers between number of page views and average time spent per page view.

…What this suggests is that online advertisers looking for a bargain might be better off investing in a bundle of B-list bloggers, those 2,000 bloggers who each get 1/4 the reader attention of the average A-lister, an average of 60 hours/day of attentive eyeballs.

It also suggests that Shirky’s Power Law tends to exaggerate the importance and influence of the A-listers, whose aggregate reader attention is only 25,000 hours per day compared to the 120,000 hours per day of B-listers and 230,000 hours per day of C-listers. In fact, the attention curve above isn’t a Power curve at all — just a simple logarithmic curve with — you guessed it — a long and unexpectedly powerful tail.

That would be the “long tail” of the “power curve.” It’s interesting to consider. Blogs at the top of the curve are “must read” sites that lots of people visit, but not a lot of them actually engage. Kind of like Rob said in his comment on “the myth of a flat blogosphere.”

I’m not sure this long tail situation is really a problem. In fact, it seems like a huge strength. While it’s true that I read Kos and Crooks and Liars, I read them almost like a I read the newspaper. I glance had headlines and only click through on articles that I’m interested in. Then I come here, or go to Slacktivist, or the He-Man blog, and while away the hours. It’s true that fewer people read them (although Slacktivist is now mentioned on the Wikipedia page for the Left Behind books, so that might have changed), but they sit there in my favorites toolbar, right next to Kos and my mom’s blog. People focusing on how many hits and links Atrios and Kos get are, I think, missing the true strength of blogs.

That kind of confirms my theory about what I call the “must read” blogs; that is, the ones that people start reading initially because so many people already read them, and according to Clay Shirky “people base their decisions on what other people are doing.”

The power law is dominant because of a quirk of human behavior: When we are asked to decide among a dizzying array of options, we do not act like dispassionate decision-makers, weighing each option on its own merits. Movie producers pick stars who have already been employed by other producers. Investors give money to entrepreneurs who are already loaded with cash. Popularity breeds popularity.

“It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing,” Shirky says. “It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces.”

Power laws are arguably part of the very nature of links. To explain why, Shirky poses a thought experiment: Imagine that 1,000 people were all picking their favorite ten blogs and posting lists of those links. Alice, the first person, would read a few, pick some favorites, and put up a list of links pointing to them. The next person, Bob, is thus incrementally more likely to pick Alice’s favorites and include some of them on his own list. The third person, Carmen, is affected by the choices of the first two, and so on. This repeats until a feedback loop emerges. Those few sites lucky enough to acquire the first linkages grow rapidly off their early success, acquiring more and more visitors in a cascade of popularity. So even if the content among competitors is basically equal, there will still be a tiny few that rise up to form an elite.

My theory is that people may flock to “must read” blogs, but they spend less time there and are less likely to engage. If you’ve ever read the comments on some of these blogs, you can understand why. It doesn’t take much to look at a post that already has a couple hundred comments and realize that yours is going to wind up near the bottom and isn’t likely to be read, because most people won’t spend the time to read down that far.

Besides, if you take the time to read, it soon becomes clear that most of the comments on such posts, after the first 50 or so, usually devolve into crosstalk and inside jokes between the readers who are also regular commenters. And that’s, you’ll recall, is around 1%.

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).

9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.

1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

Blogs have even worse participation inequality than is evident in the 90-9-1 rule that characterizes most online communities. With blogs, the rule is more like 95-5-0.1.

…Downsides of Participation Inequality

…Signal-to-noise ratio. Discussion groups drown in flames and low-quality postings, making it hard to identify the gems. Many users stop reading comments because they don’t have time to wade through the swamp of postings from people with little to say.

And that 95% of blog readers mentioned above are probably “in and out” of “must read” blogs as quickly as Rob indicated. But that may also mean that if they go anywhere else in the blogosphere, if they read more than one or two blogs regularly (because it’s likely that the “must reads” will be covering much of the same stuff) it’s likely that they’re headed to spaces that are less crowded and less cacophonous; where they are more likely to be heard, to hear what others have to say, and to engage in dicussion. In other words, they may stop by “must read” blogs first, but they’re headed for what I call “destination blogs,” where there’s less of a crowd and less noise, but where they find discussions more targeted to their interests than on “must read” blogs that may trend towards being “generalists” in the interest of maintaining broad appeal. (What I call “a mile wide, and an inch deep).

(That may mean the statistic that 1% of progressive blogs get 99% of the traffic is somewhat deceptive, because some portion of those 99% of readers are probably also reading blogs further down the “long tail,” and perhaps spending more time with those blogs than the 1%.)

It’s the difference between the “short head” and what Dave Sifry called “the Magic Middle” in an earlier State of the Blogosphere report.

This realm of publishing, which I call “The Magic Middle” of the attention curve, highlights some of the most interesting and influential bloggers and publishers that are often writing about topics that are topical or niche, like Chocolate and Zucchini on food, Wi-fi Net News on Wireless networking, TechCrunch on Internet Companies, Blogging Baby on parenting, Yarn Harlot on knitting, or Stereogum on music – these are blogs that are interesting, topical, and influential, and in some cases are radically changing the economics of trade publishing.

At Technorati, we define this to be the bloggers who have from 20-1000 other people linking to them. As the chart above shows, there are about 155,000 people who fit in this group. And what is so interesting to me is how interesting, exciting, informative, and witty these blogs often are. I’ve noticed that often these blogs are more topical or focused on a niche area, like gardening, knitting, nanotech, mp3s or journalism and a great way to find them has been through Blog Finder.

That makes me wonder if Nielsen’s shift might help shift attention away from where the most people are going in the blogosphere and toward the places where people spend most of their time. The advantage for advertisers is obvious, to me at least. While focusing further down the “long tail” may mean fewer eyeballs on your advertisement, in terms of page views of impressions, it may mean reading more targeted audiences and having their attention for a longer time. That may translate into more meaningful engagement, if having the attention of fewer people for a longer time increases the likelihood of click-thrus, and makes them more likely to see a variety of advertisements. It’s also likely that those bloggers will have more time and ability to respond to inquiries, etc. In other words, you’re more likely to get someone like me to reply to your email than, say, Kos.

As a blogger, I consider myself comfortably in the “magic middle,” though Technorati’s authority ranking puts me somewhere in near the bottom of the “very high authority” category. This blog isn’t and will probably never be “a full fledged professional enterprise” or “behave like our friends in the mainstream media” (at least, I hope not on that last one). I think what we’re seeing is the evolution Clay Shirky predicted in his famous paper on “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.”

At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean “media we’ve gotten used to.”) The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.

Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can’t be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.

In between blogs-as-mainstream-media and blogs-as-dinner-conversation will be Blogging Classic, blogs published by one or a few people, for a moderately-sized audience, with whom the authors have a relatively engaged relationship. Because of the continuing growth of the weblog world, more blogs in the future will follow this pattern than today. However, these blogs will be in the minority for both traffic (dwarfed by the mainstream media blogs) and overall number of blogs (outnumbered by the conversational blogs.)

I’ll be quite happy if I’ve managed to settle into a niche somewhere in the last category, “Blogging Classic.” The reason is because I’m not sure I ever want to have so large an readership that I can’t engage with readers, have conversations, and build relationships. I never want to be an aggregator or a broadcast outlet, mostly because it would bore me to tears. I think the challenge will be how sustainable the “Blogging Classic” model is for most people, because it’s unlikely that blogs in that category will ever build large enough readerships to supply those bloggers with a living. And the price of having an audience that big may be that you lose the time and ability to engage with that audience.

If “audience size can’t be the only metric for success,” then maybe it’s time to consider the quality of engagement over the quantity of page views.

If nothing else, it’s worth a shot, and I’m glad Nielsen’s taking it.

One Comment

  1. I spend quite a lot of time reading your blog (partly because your posts are so long!), but I read it through an RSS feed on my livejournal so I never see any advertising on your page (sshhh… don’t tell your advertisers… I did fill out that survey a few weeks ago, though).

    I wonder how that affects things?

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