// 27.Aug.2009

A Window into the Archives (Part 1)

Back when I rebooted the Urban Mainframe and made my big switch to WordPress, I registered with wordpress.com and started recording traffic data for this site — looking for an ego boost, like you do. I also installed the WordPress.com Popular Posts plug-in and it is this which drives the "What's Popular Here?" widget in the sidebar.

I had hoped that the Popular Posts widget would drive some traffic to some of my older posts and indeed it did, but with an unexpected consequence.

The Popular Posts widget works by querying the WordPress.com stats for a user-defined number of those posts that have recorded the highest volume of traffic. That's all well and good but what I've found is that once a post makes it onto the widget, it then gets a disproportionate number of click-throughs simply because it's easily accessible and promoted as popular. It's self-perpetuating. On this website then, we've now got five posts that enjoy so much traffic that they are now permanently featured as popular and there seems to be little chance of other posts usurping them. The only movement on the widget now is the slight shuffling of positions of those five posts — and the rare anomaly, which we'll look at later.

Let's look at some pretty graphs.

Access Statistics for: DWotW #2

The graph above illustrates perfectly how a post fortifies its position on the "Popular Posts" widget once it's made it there. You can clearly see the steady, virtually linear climb in page-views this post enjoys as one that has been promoted onto the sidebar.

Compare with the following:

Access Statistics for: Fixing WYSIWYG Web Editors

This graph is much more representative of the traffic pattern that the majority of posts experience. There is a spike of activity upon initial publication, then just a handful of hits per day — provided mainly by the major search engines. Note the huge disparity in total views (although you should also note that the first example has a four-month advantage over this one).

We can see that "popular post" status makes a substantial impact on those posts that achieve it. However, an occassional anomaly can upset the status quo:

This graph shows us what happens when there is a deviation from the norm. This particular post was pretty well received from the moment it was published, yet it was unable to break through to the sidebar. Then, unusually for one of my posts, it was submitted to the stumbleupon.com website (thank you, whoever you are). We can clearly see the resulting spike in traffic. The post made it on to the sidebar and has remained there ever since. Look at the visitor count. Notice also the relatively recent publish date. Compare with the previous graph.

So what can we conclude from this data?

  • we can see a clear benefit in promoting a given post
  • advertising a post as "popular" is self-reinforcing
  • being linked-to from a high-profile site can generate considerable traffic (the Slashdot Effect)

Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Hey, I'm glad you asked!

After reviewing these access reports and pondering my conclusions, I had an itch… "How," I wondered, "do I change the rules here? How do I expose more of my content to my visitors? How can I draw attention to some of my older, but still worthwhile material, in a way that's not overly aggressive?"

I decided to open a window into the archives.

I've created a little sidebar function that selects, at random, a post from the weblog and advertises it. The module acquires the URI and title from that post and extracts the first image it finds therein. The image is resized to the appropriate dimensions and the title of the post is overlayed upon it with a semi-transparent background. The code is designed to ignore some posts that I don't want to promote (those that aren't relevant outside of their publish date) and will not promote the same post that is currently being displayed (it won't link back to the same page).

NOTE: I'm running the WP Super Cache plugin on this site so, whilst my code produces a random post-promotion on each page view, you won't see a new promotion on each refresh as the caching mechanism intercepts those requests. Pages in the cache have a maximum lifetime of one-hour. However, pages are flushed from the cache early if they are modified or with each new comment posted to them.

My theory is that, by promoting these older posts in this stylised manner, I can push more traffic to them. I can introduce visitors to content they might otherwise miss and, if this works as well as I hope, I can impact on the "Popular Posts" widget and distribute traffic a little more evenly through the site.

Time will tell.

Last Revision: September 9th, 2009 at 11:10
Short URL: http://wp.me/phEOu-w4 (Tweet This!)

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