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Link from Yahoo breaks traffic records at New York Times

Behold the power of Yahoo: A link at the top of the site’s front page helped send more than 9 million page views to The New York Times in the span of two hours last week, breaking records for web traffic at the newspaper. That’s per a memo sent to staffers this morning, which said the Times’ servers withstood the deluge “brilliantly.” (The piece to which Yahoo linked was a Home and Garden profile of a Connecticut home situated alongside a rail line feature on bargain housing in undesirable locales.)

But as we’ve seen with other news sites, the huge spike didn’t produce much advertising revenue — or, at least, not the copious coin you might expect from traffic at a rate of 7,300 hits per second. That’s because the Times could only serve cheap, remnant ads to its unanticipated visitors.

Deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman told me over the phone today that they might have been able to wring more revenue from the traffic if Yahoo had linked to an article in the site’s Theater or Small Business sections, where demand is much higher for expensive advertising sold by the Times.

I wrote about this quandary when The Wichita Eagle got a similar bump from the same spot on Yahoo’s homepage but only generated “a few thousand dollars” in ad revenue. There’s no easy solution here, but I still wonder if major publishers like McClatchy, which owns the Eagle, or The New York Times Co. could better prepare for selling ads against traffic spikes. One option might be forming an ad network of news sites expressly for that purpose.

On the other hand, a link from Yahoo, the web’s second-most-popular site, is a unique experience that may be impossible to anticipate. “We get lots of trafffic from Drudge and Huffington Post,” Landman said in our brief conversation, “but under no circumstances do we ever get a spike like this.” An excerpt from the memo by Landman and Denise Warren, general manager of NYTimes.com, is after the jump.

Links from other sites generate traffic to ours. Usually this happens incrementally, a little here, a little there, adding up over time. Every once in awhile, though, it comes with a rush you can almost hear, causing wild traffic spikes at the most unexpected moments.

On Thursday afternoon, Yahoo put a link in the “Featured” box at the top of their home page to this Home and Garden story. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/18/garden/18houses.html

In an instant, traffic to our site nearly tripled, breaking a couple of records: nearly 7,300 hits per second and 4.9 million page views for the hour in which the spike occurred, then 4.2 million in the following hour. That’s higher than anything we saw during the 2008 election campaigns, when the previous records were set.

It’s at moments like this when our technology is put to the test, along with the developers who build and maintain it. To their great credit, everything worked brilliantly.

UPDATE, June 28, 5:20 p.m.: I fixed my description of the Home and Garden article, which leads with a house next to a rail line but is more generally about nice homes purchased on the cheap by virtue of their unfortunate locations. Thanks to Sarah Maslin Nir, who wrote the piece, for emailing me today with that correction.

                                   
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