‘The origin of the pageview’ and 5 ways newsrooms use data now
“Chasing pageviews,” has become shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the digital publishing industry. Gimmicky slideshows, listicles and content farming have all been lampooned as the tactics of publishers angling for traffic at all costs.
But editors in charge of driving growth at publications with well-articulated missions understand it’s not a white hat/black hat duel at dusk. “No one gets into journalism to write a private diary,” said Owen Thomas, editor-in-chief at ReadWrite. “You want your words to be read.”
Page views and uniques may fit well within a sales deck –”What makes journalism possible is the business of publishing,” Thomas said–but in the newsroom, more nuanced examination helps editors increase that traffic with integrity.
Below, ReadWrite’s Thomas, Janel Laban, executive editor of Apartment Therapy and Faith Durand, executive editor of The Kitchn, talk about how they approach data to improve their coverage, grow their brand and increase traffic.
Adopt new tools, constantly
“I was a webmaster in 1995 and looking through raw server logs,” said Thomas. The currency of the time was a “hit,” which registered any time a server was contacted for any type of object. “Hits were garbage.” Each page might register 10 or 20 hits, Thomas said.
“We were really flying blind, generating reports for advertisers based on the number of times an image was downloaded,” Thomas said. Thomas and his peers soon learned how to distill that data. “That was the origin of the page view.”
At Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, Laban and Duran say their ability to parse data has gotten more nuanced as tools have developed, particularly within the past four years. Early on, the site used only Google Analytics, which was free and fine for tracking traffic, but not super user friendly.
“I would use really hacky ways of grouping my content in Google to figure out, as an editor, what was performing. Now there are others like Parse.ly that are much better suited to letting you group and tag your content.” Duran can look at the performance by author or a sub set of topic, including the elements of her most successful recipe posts.
Recognize that there is no one perfect metric
While the industry has moved from click to pageview to attention metrics, Laban and Duran caution that there is no silver bullet metric. Instead, they measure a variety of events, including page views, but also commenting, slideshow views, and in the case of The Kitchn, printing a recipe. “We want to see how engaged people are in the article beyond just getting that initial click,” said Laban, “making sure they feel like they’re part of the community.”
Thomas is more interested in when stories get cited in publication and the nature of those citations. He’s less interested in comments. “I don’t look at comments qualitatively because that only tells you whether there was an argument or not.
Look at your data in cycles and benchmark
When Laban learned Apartment Therapy was moving to real-time analytics, she ran out and bought a monitor just for data tracking. Her enthusiasm for real-time notwithstanding, Laban says her habit is to examine data in daily, weekly and monthly cycles.
Daily, Laban checks her numbers against the previous day to make sure she’s on track to meet her traffic goals. Weekly, she looks at top posts and shares those figures with the edit staff, which use it to help plan upcoming coverage. Monthly, she uses data to assess more broadly. “Over time, looking at numbers shows us our evergreen content, the writers who are performing really well and helps us to better budget.”
Bend to the data…
“I use data in a lot of ways to help determine what the edges of our content are,” said Laban. A 2012 post, “10 Simple Things To Make You Happier At Home,” started out as an editorial lark with a huge spike in traffic, but a deeper data dive showed it has become one of the site’s most popular evergreen pieces. That sparked further “thinking and feeling” pieces.
The site has added more cleaning and and organization posts too. “Decorating and design is always going to be the base of what we do, but we’ve really expanded into these two areas and the data drove us there.”
…But don’t break
While some editors espouse sharing metrics with writers, Laban says she holds back that info. “A writer doesn’t necessarily have all the pieces to really understand where their posts fit in.” Not all coverage is meant to drive numbers, but are instead part of an well-rounded editorial plan.
Durand said her site has always been very service-oriented, but has lately moved into party-planning. “Sometimes you want to go beyond that. I want to make sure people are recognizing that the brand itself grows and not just our hard, cold traffic.
There are certain kind of posts that might not get traffic, but that’s okay because it is telling the story of the brand in a distinct way.”