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I can’t stop reading this analysis of Gawker’s editorial strategy

We crunch the numbers from Gawker’s pageview-chasing experiment. Oh, and what time does the Super Bowl start?

In January, newly minted Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio announced an experiment: Each day for two weeks, a single staff writer would be assigned “traffic-whoring duty.” [Language alert.]

A different staff writer will be forced to break their usual routine and offer up posts they feel would garner the most traffic. While that writer struggles to find dancing cat videos and Burger King bathroom fights or any other post they feel will add those precious, precious new eyeballs, the rest of the staff will spend time on more substantive stories they may have neglected due to the rigors of scouring the internet each day to hit some imaginary quota.

It’s the New Gawker, the Gawker that values original content more than over-aggregated “gutter journalism,” or as Daulerio called it, “snappy snarky snarking snark-snark shit.” Snarky snark pays the bills, though.

Because Gawker Media publishes traffic data on all of its sites — pageviews and new visitors are right there on the story page — my boss came up with an idea: Let’s measure the impact of this experiment on traffic. I wrote a bookmarklet that helped me capture the stats from all posts written by a staff writer during the experiment, according to the schedule Daulerio posted, and then dumped it into a Google spreadsheet. (We threw out data from the second week; Daulerio did some “editorial reshuffling” — which included the departure of staffer Jim Newell — and the experiment did not proceed in the same neatly defined way as in week one.)

For our purposes, since we need terms that don’t involve “whoring,” let’s call them pageview-duty days and off-duty days.

On their assigned pageview-duty days, Gawker writers produced a cumulative 72 posts — about 14 posts per writer per day. On their off-duty days — and remember, each had four off days for every “on” day — the same writers cumulatively produced 34, or about 1.3 posts per writer per day.

A sampling of some of Gawker’s hilariously specific, SEO-rich headlines from pageview-duty mode that week (pageviews parenthetical):

I don’t think I have laughed so hard on an assignment.

Those 72 pageview-duty posts produced a combined 3,956,977 pageviews (as of the days I captured data, Friday 3/9 and Monday 3/12), a mean of 54,958 pageviews per post.

“The writers at Gawker actually seem to have fun these days. I don’t think they ever did before, not even in the halcyon days of Choire Sicha.”

The 34 off-duty posts produced 2,037,263 pageviews, a mean of 59,920 pageviews per post.

That’s higher, but only marginally so — hardly the stuff statistical significance is made of. And while you might be able to squeeze an extra five thousand pageviews out of an off-duty piece, the allure of that cheap content — I Can’t Stop Looking at This Weird Chinese Goat, 46,358 pageviews — is in its higher apparent return on the investment. Why bother working all day on a piece if something you throw together in 20 minutes will get the same attention from the world?

The argument for pageview-duty was even stronger if you look at the data from Nick Denton’s preferred metric of new visitors. Pageview-duty posts that week attracted 703,476 new visitors (people who viewed a post that had never visited Gawker before, or at least who didn’t have a cookie set). That’s 9,770 per post. Off-duty posts attracted 289,996 new visitors altogether, or 8,529 per post.

Finding the balance

The key to the balance probably doesn’t lie in raw numbers, though. A Gawker that was only weird Chinese goats would likely, over time, bore its readers. The more substantive stories serve as tentpoles for the entire site; once in a while, they’ll blow up huge, and they’re probably more appealing to the kind of brand advertisers Gawker seeks. (A sampling of current advertisers: Virgin Mobile, Samsung, Corning, Bonobos, AMC, BlackBerry. Gawker sells itself to advertisers by promoting the fact that its readers are both younger and richer than The Huffington Post’s, People’s, Slate’s, or TMZ’s.)

It also at least has the potential to lead to happier writers who know when they need to chase pageviews and when they don’t.

“Traffic sex work is exhausting, but it’s fun, and on other days it’s nice to have extra time to put the extra effort into important and newsworthy stories about which fast-food restaurants use aborted fetuses in their meals,” said Max Read, who obviously writes for Gawker, based on that quote.

Everyone talks about happiness, how happy Gawker writers are now. Chief gawker Denton, in a typically terse email, endorsed the experiment thus:

“The writers at Gawker actually seem to have fun these days. I don’t think they ever did before, not even in the halcyon days of Choire Sicha,” he told me. And indeed, Gawker has long been known for pulling in strong writing talent and burning it out.

Sicha, the former Gawker editor who cofounded The Awl, responded in an email to me: “I do think the staff is the happiest it’s been in a while — certainly happier than they were last year.” (Sicha actually had a great, longer response about Daulerio-era Gawker — it’s at the bottom of this piece.)

“There is a benefit to always mouthing off on the Internet. I just think the priorities need to shift.”

I called Daulerio to ask how the experiment had gone — but he told me it’s still going. In fact, the pageview-duty rotation is more or less the permanent workflow at Gawker now.

“The days that people are actually doing the traffic-whore days, it’s almost like a relief. There is a benefit to always mouthing off on the Internet, having fun with it. I’m not anywhere against that — I just think the priorities need to shift a little bit,” Daulerio said.

“I don’t want [the writers] to feel limited by Gawker. I don’t want them to think that if they accrue the most uniques per month that that’s going to give them a great standing at the company.”

Quality or quantity? Both.

It’s a weird moment for the quality-vs.-quantity debate. Last month, we wrote about Salon’s #winning strategy to prioritize quality over quantity. BuzzFeed, the aggregator to end all aggregators, is hiring journalists like crazy and producing original content alongside Watch Urkel’s “Dancing With The Stars” Debut. Yahoo News, known for its expert repurposing of wire copy, nabbed the NYT’s Virginia Heffernan.

Do those data points mean we’ll start seeing less What Time Does The Super Bowl Start? No. But we might see a few more like Hamilton Nolan’s 3,800-word exposé on journalism junkets in Las Vegas, too. That piece, posted during the first-week experiment on a day when Nolan wasn’t chasing eyeballs, has attracted 30,242 pageviews as of this writing. Not a slam dunk — pretty good, but still 20,000 pageviews below average for the period. That interplay of short-and-long, cheap-and-expensive, aggregated-and-original is something lots of outlets — from web-native sites to The New York Times — are trying to figure out.

Monday’s fine Deadspin piece on Joe Quigg, the Tar Heel who denied Wilt Chamberlain a national title, weighed in at 1,700 words. (Deadspin is Gawker’s sports site, which Daulerio used to edit.) Applauds one commenter:

I don’t know how many comments this series will or won’t get. But regardless, as someone who’s hung out at this place, at least periodically, a long time, I’d just like to say it’s terrific, and more, please. Well done.

So far, two comments. The other: “Seconded. More of this please.”

Some readers want more of this, but the numbers don’t back it up. Total pageviews for the Deadspin piece: 14,308. New visitors: 756.

Gawker’s attitude about pageview-chasing has evolved. Pay-per-pageview came and went. Quotas have been lifted; here’s uber Gawker-watcher Felix Salmon two years ago:

The fact is that while chasing pageviews like this worked well in the early days of the blogosphere, when Nick Denton asked his editors for at least 12 posts per day, it’s much less sustainable today — and the Gawker post quotient has been abolished, with layers of editors on top of the writers who bring the average number of posts per editorial employee per day lower still. Today, if you want to compete on who can produce the most SEO-honed content per day, you’re going to lose, and people like Demand Media are going to win.

The kind of “post-blog,” TV-inspired form that Gawker’s controversial 2011 redesign was pushing toward relies on exclusives and stories with a little more weight.

And in December, ReadItLater data showed that Gawker Media writers were among the most-saved and most-read on its platform. Presumably the articles being saved for later consumption aren’t pics of weird Chinese goats.

In the old days, it was easier to justify “eat your vegetables” journalism to skeptical editors (or shareholders). But with a pageview number staring you in the face, it’s hard not to make a judgment on a story’s potential ROI.

“I am very, very pro-original content,” Daulerio told me. “I am not a type of person who wants…everything up first. If we’re going to create a new identity with Gawker, I think it’s really gotta start with [the writers] first.”

Meanwhile, enjoy the most adorable cat video you’ll see all day.

Here’s the full text of Choire Sicha’s email to me:

AJ’s a genius and he can do no wrong. In addition, he has a formidable secret weapon in his brilliant deputy, Emma Carmichael. I do think the staff is the happiest it’s been in a while–certainly happier than they were last year.

And AJ’s definitely already seen a traffic up-tick for February, a nice rise from the early winter’s mini-plateau. But while I am definitely on board with AJ’s approach–go wild! Have a blast!–I don’t really think you can call it “traffic-whoring” if it doesn’t get any traffic. At least, not the traffic that Nick Denton cares about. In February, 2012, Gawker had just 5 stories in the top 50 stories at Gawker Media, at least judging by Denton’s favorite metric, “new unique visitors.” (That’s even though Gawker makes up about 24% of Gawker Media’s total traffic.) The site’s biggest story in February was “Chinese Twitter Says Kim Jong-Un Was Assassinated This Morning In Beijing”; after that came “The Awful Cover Letter All of Wall Street Is Laughing About”–and this was, I thought, a pretty solid classic Gawker endeavor, and very well handled. But then number three on the list was “J.Lo’s Oscar Dress: Nipple or Shadow?” (By the way, if you look at Gawker’s February traffic, it’s basically the Adrien Chen show. Who knew?)

But while some of these top stories are wily or original or reported or even exciting (The Man Behind Horse eBooks!), lots are just hot SEO or gossip sheet standbys. (“Rick Santorum Made Entirely of Gay Porn”; “Meet Whitney Houston’s Rumored Lesbian Lover.”)

Still, Gawker beat its traffic target for February by a healthy 19.06%. (The Gawker network average was +13.20%.) But then, every site in the stable beat its traffic target, save one, which had a good excuse. For all Denton’s bluster about getting sites to perform, he’s not actually that harsh a taskmaster.

The most telling thing about the instability of Gawker Media and its contrasting missions–greatness versus traffic–can be summed up quite nicely in the network’s biggest story of February. That’s Jezebel’s “This Coffin Photo of Whitney Houston’s Dead Body Is Now on Newsstands Everywhere,” with more than 324,000 new unique vistors. Now, this was a decent piece of media criticism by a really smart writer, Dodai Stewart. But you know that’s not at all why it got all those visits. And also, it did serve up a copy, at a tasty 640 pixels wide, of the criticized picture of a dead Whitney Houston.

Photo of “weird Chinese goat” by Andrew J. Cosgriff used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 20, 2014
“A lot of people check their phones before they get out of the bed in the morning, and they check social media before the news sites.”
  • CRZ

    That’s one odd lookin’ goat

  • Yasmina S

    This kind of reminds me of the BBC’s talking animals videos

  • Andrew Phelps

    The goat isn’t that weird, though, it’s just dirty.

  • Jenny Simpson

    This is interesting in its direct ruthlessness, but not unusual at all. Hell, I do this in a *small* on my blog…
    We were pretty much doing the same 10 years ago at Ananova (RIP)  - there was no editorial drive, just the aim to provide the stories people wanted to read about (we hadn’t heard of SEO either back then and used rudimentary analysis of our internal searches/page views etc.How do you think the Daily Mail got to be the world’s #1 news site? A gluttonous diet of Kardashians, TOWIE and pap pictures that would have all been spiked in the old days (and most are for the print version).

  • Jessica Clark

    This is an excellent story, Andrew, thanks!

  • Anonymous

    A GREAT story. Especially the part about the goat. Oh, and what an ass Denton is. Here’s more if you’re interested:

  • spacegod

    I started the “I Can’t Stop Staring At This Weird Chinese Goat” meme.
    No thanks. No credit. 
    No fruit basket.
    Gawker is doing a nice job.
    But they should be nice doing the job, too.

  • Anonymous

    I really enjoyed your in-depth analysis of Gawker’s content strategy.

    This is a technique that has already established itself for other content sites that rely on ad revenue, and it certainly can dip into smarmy territory. In fact, this is a similar strategy to what I employed when I worked for an eCommerce site that hired me to use content to drive traffic and increase revenue via organic search and other inbound marketing channels. 

    However, all of our content was original and created in house–it’s just that I planned for about 15% each month to be more sensational/entertaining and less informative to capture cheap and easy clicks. It’s not a technique I favor, but I justified it by the fact that our audience was mainly reaching our content via a sensationalized “news” portal that belonged to the eCommerce site’s parent company. And because the audience was already favoring “articles” on the same level of babies farting and mangy Chinese goats, content about “Dressing to look 10 pounds thinner” and “25 sexy bikinis for summer” got significantly higher traffic and ROI than the more researched, informative content about making smarter shopping purchases.

    In hindsight, I don’t think I’ll ever dare to set a similar strategy for another site purely out of integrity. After I left, the eCommerce site plunged into 100% sensationalized crap articles and seems to have stymied any hope of positioning themselves as a source for quality, trustworthy content (which was the original goal). Hopefully, Gawker won’t meet a similar fate.

  • Bradley Bailyn

    They just need to find the optimal balance between light and serious content. Maybe all serious is inefficient, but all light would likely lose the loyal audience they have which has been earned by doing what they do. A good mixture of Google Analytics and reader surveys should give some great insight in this regard.

  • Anonymous

    Um, did this writer do NO research. Look at alexa’s analysis. Gawker has been going straight down for three months! TRAFFIC DOWN 31.6%

  • Snertly

    Or if you want to spin it the other way, ten times as many postings (14 vs 1.3) brought ten percent fewer views (55K vs. 60K).

    New unique visitors is an exciting metric, but like most growth oriented numbers it works best when the product is new.  The more established you are in a field, the harder it is to sustain growth in that field.  Number of new visitors converted to repeat customers might be an even more exciting number, if you can figure out how to measure it.

  • Andrew Phelps

    OMG you’re right, I totally forgot to do research.

  • Joshua Benton

    I don’t think you’re interpreting the numbers correctly. The pageview counts are per post, not overall. So 10x the postings brought almost 10x the traffic.

  • Anonymous

    March 25th, 2012 is my birhtday of 27. I will want to hold a birthday party with my families, but I don’t know how to prepare the party. Does anyone has the rich experience to hold birthday party? I want to buy a handbag for my monther, because every my birthday she buy lots of gifts for me. This time, I want to give my monther a present. And I see a Coach Outlet Online Store sell 2012 latest Coach handbags in low price. My monther is very tired going to work everyday, and her handbag are used more than 5 years. On one occasion, I was shopping with my mother, her eye was caught by the Coach handbag, but she didn’t buy it because of the high price. Yesterday, I found that style handbag in 2012 Coach Outlet Store Online
     with 70% discounts, so I bought it without hesitation! Happy birthday to me and my families!

  • cahoots dk

    Very interesting story. I wonder how the numbers look if you add to effect “the long tail” that more serious posts tend to accumulate. 

  • Snertly

     Spin isn’t really about accurate interpretation, but you are correct.  Ten percent fewer views /per article/ would have been more correct to say.

  • Abcg333

    You should recalculate the numbers a month or two from now. It’ll be interesting to see if the higher quality stories are significantly more likely to be passed around and read in the long run.

  • writingprincess

    Traffic is one thing – conversion is another. How buying savvy are those goat-chasing headline whores will be the real question to answer about content!

  • Jacob Ford

    It’s funny the guy who runs those recently said that comments on his site would be banned because his readers are stupid and vulgar and contribute nothing.
    It’s so ironic because he appeals to the lowest common denominator and then he’s upset when his comment boards reflect that?

    I’m honestly surprised that pathetic rag is even still chuggin along! Good on him for surviving!

  • Daniel Goodman

    I love this article…that is why I am back here reading it again a couple months later. As I do, I am wondering what it would look like to check back on the stories you compared to see how they did over the longer term? Is it possible that one type nets greater initial traffic but another will bring in a different kind of traffic later on and I wonder what kind of implications that might have…any chance you guys could look into that? Would love to hear your perspective.

  • uebersetzer

    A gluttonous diet of Kardashians, TOWIE and pap pictures that would have
    all been spiked in the old days (and most are for the print version).

  • tony kaye

    Hey Andrew. You have an SEO spammer in your midsts

    He has a grudge against me for banning him on Gizmodo about 3 years ago and he uses any and all prominent site Gawker news to publish this link and jump up in SEO. Just a heads up.