TCS Daily

A Post-Election Blog Funk?

By N. Z. Bear - January 11, 2005 12:00 AM

The election is over, and all across the blogosphere, political bloggers have been wrestling with an existential question: with the next national election two years away, whatever will we write about? And more importantly: is anyone going to stick around to read it?


The short answer to the latter question is that, not surprisingly, traffic at the major political blogs is down significantly from the frenzied peaks that were achieved around Election Day. But there are signs that the bottom has been reached and that traffic is stabilizing at reasonably healthy levels suggesting that political bloggers won't be going out of business anytime soon.

My weblog, The Truth Laid Bear, includes the Blogosphere Ecosystem, which provides rankings based on which blogs receive the most links from other blogs. Another feature of the Ecosystem is the Traffic page, which aggregates traffic statistics in the form of "Average Daily Visits" as measured by the SiteMeter traffic counter.

Figure 1 shows the traffic statistics for three of the top political blogs -- Daily Kos, Instapundit, and Power Line from late October through mid December of 2004. All three benefited greatly from the swell in interest in political blogs prior to the election -- and all three have clearly seen a decline since. Daily Kos peaked at around 630,000 visits a day and dropped to 281,000 (a 55% decline); Instapundit peaked at 313,000 and declined to 146,000 (down 53%) and Power Line fell to a "mere" 47,000 visits a day from a peak of 195,000 (a 76% decline).


Figure 1: Average Daily Visits for Daily Kos, Instapundit, and Power Line, October-December 2004


All is not lost, however, because in the months prior to the election, the top political blogs showed a huge growth in traffic from the early part of the year. Figure 2 shows the Average Daily Visits per month for 2004 for Daily Kos and Instapundit.


Figure 2: 2004 Average Daily Visits for Instapundit and Daily Kos

Both blogs had around 100,000 visits a day for the first six months of the year, and both remained comfortably above of that number in mid-December. So, although the fall off has been significant, their post-election traffic levels still seem to be noticeably above those recorded in the early and middle part of 2004.

This result appears to be consistent across many of the top political blogs. Figure 3 shows a more detailed review of Average Daily Visits for ten of the highest traffic political weblogs. Comparing their December Average Daily Visits to their January - June averages shows that all ten are still at or above their traffic levels for the first half of the year, before the pre-election surge began in earnest. The amount varies: from Eschaton, which is essentially down to almost its January-June average (up 5%) to blogs like Captain's Quarters and MyDD, which found their audiences exploding during 2004 and are now up 500% and 929%, respectively.


Figure 3: 2004 Average Daily Visits by Month for Ten Top Political Weblogs

It is impossible to predict with certainty whether there will be continued erosion over the coming weeks and months. But the flattening of the curve shown for the past several weeks in Figure 1 seems to suggest that perhaps, a stable plateau is being reached.


Any discussion of weblog traffic statistics would be incomplete without some significant disclaimers. First, it is critical to understand just what the numbers presented above actually mean: in particular the definition of "Average Daily Visits." SiteMeter, the underlying source for the data I present here, defines a "visit" as follows:

"a series of page views by one person with no more than 30 minutes in between page views."

The idea is that a "visit" is meant to represent a single person coming to a weblog, browsing around for a bit, and then leaving. The Average Daily Visits statistics that I present here, therefore, represent a rolling average of the daily visits received by each weblog.

A key trap to avoid when discussing "daily visits" is the error that it is the same thing as "daily visitors". Reading Figure 2 to say that "200,000 readers visited Instapundit in November" is simply wrong, because although we know how many visits were tracked, we don't actually know anything about how many individual people generated those visits. It could be that one hundred people visited 2,000 times -- or that 2,000 people each visited one hundred times. There's no way to tell from the data. (For a classic example of big media falling into this trap, see this post describing an eventually successful attempt to convince The New York Times to correct exactly this error in a story they ran on Daily Kos).

Beyond matters of definition, it should also be noted that not everyone in the weblog world believes that SiteMeter data are perfect, or even the best counter available. Some bloggers scoff at SiteMeter, claiming that the results it provides undercount the actual traffic they see by measuring traffic more directly from their server logs. These complaints may or may not be true: I frankly don't know.

But more to the point, neither does anybody else. Debates over SiteMeter reveal a more significant underlying problem in the blogosphere, which is that there are absolutely no established standards for measuring traffic, and (to my knowledge) there have been no studies done to rigorously measure the accuracy of SiteMeter or any other of the many popular weblog traffic counters.

This is a real problem, and one that will only grow in importance as weblogs continue to take their place alongside traditional media as a source of information and entertainment. Blogging is no longer exclusively a hobby done for the sheer pleasure of it: for some, it's a business, with real money coming in from real advertisers -- who want to know exactly what real traffic they're paying for. And accurate measurements of traffic are important for other than financial reasons: a new blogger can bootstrap himself into a position of greater visibility and influence by demonstrating credibility based upon their audience levels -- if the metrics are available, and more to the point, believable.

For now, though, we make do with what we have. And while questions may exist around whether SiteMeter provides perfectly accurate absolute measures of traffic, it seems reasonably safe to use SiteMeter data for the relative comparisons that I have provided here.

The blogs I used as examples here seem typical of the traffic pattern seen in the past several months among the current top echelon of political weblogs, but of course for other blogs, "your mileage may vary", so extrapolating these results to that of the blogosphere as a whole should be done only with extreme caution. For those with a broader interest, TTLB's Details pages for individual weblogs now include a traffic history graph showing similar information to that in Figure 1 above. So if you are curious about how your favorite blogs have fared in the post-election environment, drop on by.


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