EJM Designs Limited Blog

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Techno-Drudge Myth-Fraud

I'm not purporting to be staging a coup, though if I were I would do it upon a humongous ottoman as it would be more comfortable. I'm not making a political issue over Matt Drudge's site content. Very simply, I have seen what I would call fraud and need to pull the aside the curtain for a moment of clarity on what numbers you may run across actually mean.

And yes, this is important. Because it's news media and because it's technology (or technology hacked). This is deceptive practice on the main stage.

What's the issue?
Every so often, Matt Drudge's The Drudge Report reports on how much traffic he's received, generally with some tasty braggadocio. The latest report (PDF) puts him just under Google News, CNN, and the Weather Channel.

The first clue that something's rotten in Denmark would be that Drudge's 1+ (sometimes a secondary "developing") page is pulling 2.14% traffic compared to CNN's many, many pages taking in only 3.15%. (NOTE: These percentages may not appear large, but it is market share of ALL news and Media websites that exist.)

This is relatively preposterous when you look at the number of potential visitable pages: 1 vs. hundreds. Is the single page site really that popular?

In a word: NO.

What's a Visit?
The report that's being touted is from Hitwise, and they state in the first paragraph: "Note - the Hitwise data featured is based on US market share of visits..."

A visit is defined as every time someone accesses the site. Sometimes it is separated into new (or unique) visitors and return visitors. In this case, every time someone accesses www.drudgereport.com, it is counted as a visit.

So what's so hinkey?
If you've ever visited The Drudge Report, if you were there for more than 3 minutes, you may have noticed that the page will reload by itself. Every time it does that, it should hold to reason that, because you are again accessing the site without clicking on another link on the site, it tags another visit. Leave it open in a tab for a couple hours while you mean to get to it? You get the picture.

(As a comparison, every time you visit CNN.com, if you click 50 different links to read those stories, it still counts as a single visit.)

Why does Drudge's site refresh automatically like that? It's a simple bit of JavaScript that goes like this:

var timer = setInterval("autoRefresh()", 1000 * 60 * 3);
function autoRefresh(){self.location.reload(true);}

This means that if you're carefully reading through the headlines and it takes you 15 minutes, you are registering 5 visits even though you've only visited the site once.

What else?
The Drudge Report website is a single page with dozens of links, almost all of which link to stories on other sites. None of the link text uses the target="_blank" anchor attribute, meaning when you click a story link, it takes you to another site. But you would like to see what other stories they have on the site, so when you are done reading that story, you click the back button. You've just logged another visit.

It is impossible to calculate the actual number of people accessing The Drudge Report in any given month without more data, like unique visitors. But the data that is being pushed as proof of popularity is deviously misleading as the pairing of the site structure auto-reload and necessity of the Back button lead to an enormous number of Visits by its very nature. Caveat Emptor.

Again, this is not a political opinion, but information based on web analytics knowledge and source code research. I visit The Drudge Report several times a week. But I know what's going on behind the scenes. I generally take a quick scan, CTRL-click the stories to open them in separate tabs, and close out of the main one.

And I just thought you should know.

Any ideas or thoughts are always welcome in the comments.

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