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Thursday, March 12, 2009

GoogleTrends and webcomics: Why the disconnect?

Since posting about what webcomics creators were seeing on GoogleTrends, I've received several chunks of detailed reporting from established webcomics producers agreeing with those who said GoogleTrends' measurements were off on the low side, and by a great degree. Even when compared with information in Google's own Google Analytics service, which, as Google says, it does not use in its GoogleTrends formula.

This is good to know (and heartening!), but it's also what makes the matter puzzling: If it is the case that GoogleTrends is tracking the traffic of this specific genre of websites more poorly than others, what's the reason? It would seem to be a problem worth exploring. I know from my days working in interactive media at a publisher that rankings from sites like GoogleTrends and Alexa are generally not used in advertising decisions — there are far more precise, auditable measures that publishers can provide. But if there's something peculiar to the way Google interacts with webcomics sites, it would be good to know about.

I have a few theories, but I suspect there are readers out there who have more facility with the nuts and bolts. Webmasters spend a lot of effort optimizing their sites for search engines; there are probably tricks to optimize for external auditing systems, as well. (Presuming we knew how the systems were doing what they're doing — which, in Google's case, we really don't...)
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billba said...

Let me throw some more nuts and bolts into this to confuse matters. Over 50% of Unshelved's readers get the strip by email. Google could never track those. Another 25% get it by RSS feed. We don't use Feedburner so Google can't really track those very well either. And 10% get it via a direct syndication method where the current strip is embedded on pages (very popular on library intranets) around the web.

I don't even bother looking at our ranking on Alexa, for example, because it would only reflect, at best, the 15% of our readership that read the strip directly from our website.

Our readership is about 50,000 but if no one believes me then that's fine with me. I've got nothing to prove. Our sponsorships are priced based on the results - clickthroughs and leads - that we deliver to our sponsors. They don't care what I tell them, they care what they get. And fortunately for us they like what they get.

John Jackson Miller said...

I hadn't considered e-mail, but I could well imagine feeds being a tricky part of this. (How do you see publishers monetizing feeds, incidentally? I know Feedburner only added Google ads recently.)

My concern with Alexa has always been that it's tracking something else -- the habits of the Alexa toolbar users (and I am one), which are not necessarily the same as the general public. I can see quite a bit of room for sampling error in a population the size of the whole world!

Bengo said...

As I said, I was just reporting what Google Trends said, and offering speculations. One reason I didn't pursue including a title like Unshelved is because Bill has spoken publicly about making good use of alternate distribution methods. I occasionally cite Unshelved and Later Comic as having among the highest alternative distribution rates. My own blog is another example.

A useful study would be to see whether comics showing declines are promoting alternative distribution more than those who are not, because it might explain the declines.

I prefer facts to buzz, but there is a lot of talk about various established webcomics falling into decline and some are discussing it in panicked tones, publicly. Since the simplest answer is often the best answer, I think alternative distribution, like Bill describes, and more competent competition are both compelling possible explanations.

It's not really fair to ask people to release their analytic and subscription numbers, as Bill graciously does, but I do find it odd that the people most widely perceived to be slipping significantly do not offer data to counter that impression. If they were widely trusted, esteemed cartoonists, their word would be enough, but those who have dug themselves into holes by behaving badly and being caught lying have a greater challenge.

There seems to be a connection between going to great lengths to create a public image of success and finding your comic slipping. Could this be due to people putting too much effort into their celebrity, and not enough into their comic?

Jon Masterson said...

I'm not sure what "talk about various established webcomics falling into decline" Bengo is referring to. I try to follow webcomics news from a variety of sources and I've not noticed it. Citations please?

I don't fault anyone for not volunteering data to counter assumptions that aren't actually widely held. Nobody has an obligation to publicly refute every miscellaneous trumped-up rumor about them, or that's all we'd all be doing every day.

I'm interested to learn what sources, besides proven-unreliable web-based tools like Alexa or Google Trends, Bengo's reading that imply a "wide perception of slipping significantly".

John Jackson Miller said...

I'm beyond my technical depth when it comes to assessing what the various measuring tools are seeing relative to one another: It was an issue at my old publishing company that none of our several INTERNAL tracking systems agreed on how many visitors or eyeballs we were getting, and not by small differences. So I don't expect that comics producers are going to resolve an issue of reader tracking that the non-comics websites have yet to do satisfactorily, after having poured in millions of dollars and hours to do so.

We've established that everyone has their own ways of understanding their own readerships that suits their needs; the tension here is with public reporting, and potential aggregation of that reporting. This is something that the history of print comics, which is more my area, has something to say.

For most of their history, comics publishers indeed relied on third parties to demonstrate their readership to advertisers; the BPA and the Audit Bureau of Circulation are two such firms. The ABC system was already established when comics arrived on the scene, having been set up for magazines.

However, that data was seldom PUBLICLY reported, or aggregated. The first real efforts at that used Postal Statements such as you see here on the site from the 1960s; fans gathered them and aggregated them in fanzines. Publishers were not entirely thrilled to be so tracked, but it was something fans saw as a collective good: they wanted information about the health of the comics they followed.

Then we get into the recent era with the distributor sales charts -- which is followed even more closely by fans. Now, those sales charts capture most of some publishers sales, and very little of some others, that have alternative means of distribution -- a fact that those publishers have lamented all the years these estimates have been coming out. On the graphic novel side, we see the same dynamic happening with Bookscan, which, while being high-tech and widespread (tracking UPC codes in the major chains and Amazon), some publishers still have concerns, since it doesn't pick up mail-order or stores not in the system.

So on the print side, I've been in the business of conveying for years what I know to be partial data sets -- from the Postal Statements to the distributor sales -- because they each provide a piece to the puzzle, and in many cases, are all that we have. So we rely on the resources that do aggregate as much information on as many titles as possible, understanding (and denoting, in the fine print) that they're not the entire picture for everyone.

So far, I have not seen equivalent webcomic resources providing the same kind of aggregated tracking; Bengo's post gave us a chance to look at whether Google, which clearly wants the job, was saying. It may be that online distribution is too varied in format to ever provide for an apples-to-apples comparison anywhere. While that may not be of much importance to web publishers who know their own circulation, I can see such a system still being useful when it comes to alerting everyone to trends affecting all -- just as it often has in print comics. It will be important to promote the usage the best system possible -- because as print comics have shown, people are interested in the information, and will use what's available.

While I run rankings of print comics, I'm less interested in the horserace dynamic than in trying to provide snapshots of the past; horserace implies a finish line, where I think the real rooting interest of fans and publishers alike is that the horses are healthy enough to keep running forever. I can see fans having the same interest in tracking their webcomic favorites, should a system permitting that ever arise. It won't be a perfect reflection of reality either (and, from the sound of it, it may not be possible at all). But if it exists, it will be followed: Fifty years of comics fandom demonstrate that. :-)

Martin said...

The reliability and credibility of the Alexa Rankings have often been subject to differences. There are opinions that the Alexa ranking is far more credible and true for the sites below 10,0000 than that for the ones above it. Another factor that proves to be a major drawback of the Alexa rankings is that the rankings are governed by the Alexa toolbar and the Alexa toolbar users community. All the browser types are not taken into account as far as the rankings are concerned. As for example the Alexa rankings does not work in Windows Vista even though the latter has a huge user base and is highly popular.

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