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July 30, 2009, 10:25 a.m.

Measuring reader engagement by how often they copy and paste

Recent posts by Patricia Handschiegel, Amy Gahran, Dana Chinn, and Bill Grueskin have driven home a crucial point about online journalism: Traffic and page views are nice, but engaged readers and loyal audiences are more important. Here, I’d like to point out a new tool that builds on that notion.

Even on the infinitely measurable web, gauging engagement remains a tricky and largely elusive task. One popular measure is the bounce rate, or percentage of visitors who leave after seeing one page. The Huffington Post, despite its surging popularity, has said the site’s bounce rate is too high, which hurts the value of its advertising. Another metric is return readership. Talking Points Memo boasts that 60 percent of readers, in a TPM survey, said they visit the site more than once a day.

But those are imperfect measures, and tracking engagement within a website is even more difficult. This month, I’ve been playing with new software, already in use on some major news sites, that offers a partial solution by tracking an unusual metric: how many times users copy text and images from each page — and what they’re copying.

The software — well, really, it’s a feat of JavaScript — is called Tracer, and it’s the product of Tynt, a young, Canadian startup with $3.9 million in funding. For users, Tracer’s functionality is apparent when you copy and paste any significant chunk of text from a website that’s using the service. For instance, today Politico reports:

With his mashup of news, music and video called “Auto-Tune the News,” Michael Gregory is taking political satire into the digital era.

Read more:

That link isn’t my doing, and it’s certainly not in Politico’s story. It’s the handiwork of Tracer, which quietly inserted itself between the article and my attempt to copy it. The code that’s appended to the end of the link, if I choose to preserve it, enables the tracking of copied text and any referral traffic it may produce. You can imagine why that would appeal to publishers, and though Tracer only launched on March 1, clients already include Politico, the New York Daily News, Hearst Corp., Time Inc., The Wall Street Journal, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Part of Tynt’s pitch is the following:

The automatically added link back ensures you get credit for content that you have created. You can’t stop users from copying from your site but you can improve the chances of getting credit for your content.

Read more:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution No Derivatives

Damn, that “read more” link again! In truth, it’s annoying, if not a dealbreaker, to find unwanted text attached to what you’ve copied. And the referral traffic from such links is, by all accounts, modest. But I’m much more impressed by Tracer’s backend, which allows publishers to see which pages — and, even better, which parts of those pages — are most frequently copied. In a creepy twist, Tracer also counts how many times text is highlighted on a page, even if the user never reaches for the ⌘ and C keys. (Or ctrl and C for PC types.)

I’m not sure precisely what that’s measuring, but it feels like engagement. Readers who are moved to copy a passage are likely sharing that content with friends — in an email as much as a blog. (I first discovered the “read more” link some weeks ago when a friend quoted a New York Daily News article in Gchat. “whoa,” I wrote. “that is weird! i could probably wring a post out of that. thank you!”) Dayton Foster, Tynt’s chief operating officer, told me that on news sites, widely viewed content like stories about Michael Jackson aren’t copied as much as less popular but more focused articles. “Niche stuff that’s really good quality will get copied the most,” he said. “Sports is a really great example.”

The venture capitalist and former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki is an adviser to Tynt, so I was able to try out the Tracer dashboard for his blog, which revealed that some posts, like “The Art of Executive Summary” and “The Art of Schmoozing,” have copy rates disproportionate to their page views. To me, that indicates material that readers found particularly useful, even if the post itself wasn’t as popular as others. In this heat map, which is my favorite Tracer feature, you can see the sentence in Kawasaki’s post on PowerPoint that readers found most important and confirm that lists do better than anything else on the Internet:

Here’s a cloud of the most commonly copied words on Kawasaki’s blog since he installed Tracer:

Anyone with a mild addiction to web analytics will love this stuff, as it reveals new data about how readers engage with content. I’m not as clear on how publishers might adjust to the information. When I spoke to Scott Cohen, executive editor of the Daily News online, he said the main benefit of Tracer was the ability to track links in sources such as email that might not show up in traditional analytics software. When a story on the anniversary of Woodstock enjoyed a second wave of traffic, Cohen said, he used Tracer to see where it was coming from and decided, as a result, to feature the piece again on the lifestyle page of the Daily News site.

“It had a wonderful, viral pop that was coming in all directions,” Cohen told me, “and people were copying it all over the place, it turned out.”

POSTED     July 30, 2009, 10:25 a.m.
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