When City Pages editor Kevin Hoffman told me recently that the paper’s Blotter blog saw traffic jump from 25,000 pageviews in October to 235,000 in December, he offered an explanation: While most news sites, including the Minnesota Independent, saw a traffic dip after the election, City Pages didn’t because their array of content goes beyond politics to cover food, sports, breaking news and quirky items. But the sheer jump in numbers struck local technology blogger Ed Kohler as strange. In a new blog post today, he asks, “How does one manage to grow a blog’s traffic by 7X over two months?”
Kohler’s story revolves around how Digg users (and apparently VVM employees) “Philostrato” and “IvanB“, as well as some City Pages staffers, use Digg to almost exclusively promote stories on Village Voice Media sites. My own research shows that the same users do the same thing on less well-known social bookmarking sites. For instance, here’s current activity by rget=”_blank”>Philostrato — whom Kohler identifies as VVM social media manager and Houston Press web editor Keith Plocek — on Stumbleupon and Reddit. Last summer, he seems to have given Furl a whirl, not to mention Newsvine, Twitter and Mixx, but ditched them all after about a month. (Full disclosure: Kohler and I discussed his story and shared research prior to publishing; also, I’ve dabbled with social media in the service of this site as well, although in a far less systematic way.)
Kohler created this chart to show how good Philostrato and IvanB are at getting submissions to Digg’s front page, which is a traffic goldmine for Web sites — not to mention a difficult task. One top user says it’s easy to get from 20,000 to 100,000 pageviews — or more — if your site gets front-paged on Digg.
… with the intention of artificially inflating or altering the ‘digg count’, blog count, comments, or any other Digg service, including by way of creating separate user accounts for the purpose of artificially altering Digg’s services; giving or receiving money or other remuneration in exchange for votes; or participating in any other organized effort that in any way artificially alters the results of Digg’s services; …
In addition, a terms-of-service clause meriting all-caps treatment states:
IN ADDITION, YOU HEREBY AGREE THAT YOU SHALL NOT USE THE SERVICE (INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, BY “DIGGING” ANY CONTENT) ON BEHALF OF (OR PER THE REQUEST OR INSTRUCTION OF) ANY THIRD PARTY. FURTHERMORE, YOU SHALL NOT REQUEST THAT ANY THIRD PARTY, OR PAY OR OTHERWISE ATTEMPT TO INFLUENCE ANY THIRD TO, MANIPULATE OR OTHERWISE AFFECT THE SITE IN ANY MANNER (INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, BY PAYING ANY OTHER USER TO “DIGG” ANY CONTENT).
Another issue might be whether City Pages and its VVM siblings are fairly representing their traffic to potential and existing advertisers. “Frankly, Digg traffic is fairly worthless for most advertisers (at least those paying on an impression basis) and for publishers (if they’re earning on a per click or conversion basis),” writes Kohler. Later, he adds, “Advertisers buying impression-based advertising from any website should ask where the site’s traffic is coming from. If Digg users are what you’re looking for, you could just as easily buy traffic directly on Digg.”
I’ve asked Hoffman to comment on Kohler’s story. He replied to my email, stating that, “This one is more about Web strategy than editorial content, so it’s out of my wheelhouse.” He didn’t answer my question about whether he knew that such practices about Digg and other social bookmarking sites were going on, but directed me to Bill Jensen, who’s director of new media at VVM’s Phoenix New Times. He hasn’t returned my call yet.
I’ve also left messages for a Digg representative and media experts, including some at Nielsen NetRatings, which tracks news site web traffic. I’ll post whatever they have to say.
Kohler, who surely knows that stories about Digg tend to skyrocket to the top at Digg, ends with a few questions, including whether Digg is too easily gamed. More importantly, he adds, “Will Ivanb or Philostrato Digg this story?”