Adam T. Vaccaro

Occasional musings on journalism and media

Posts Tagged ‘new media

The Hit Counter: A New Dawn

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Remember this guy?

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Why, it’s the page view counter (perhaps best known by its colloquial name, the hit counter)! A staple along the early roadways of the World Wide Web, this beacon let weary Internet travelers know how many souls had set digital foot in the area before them. The hit counter was generally placed on a home or landing page and looked like a car odometer, keeping track of the number of times the page had been accessed.

When Web 2.0 came to be last decade and “interaction” and “engagement” became the buzzwords by which we judged a web property’s success, the hit counter fell to far less prominence. Instead, comment counts and later social media shares shares became the important gauges.

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Of course, proprietors still cared how many folks were reading their content. But much, much more sophisticated data analysis products had already been available on the backend to publishers. And around the turn of the millennium various products made this data cheaply and widely available, culminating in the release of market leader Google Analytics. And like the toys in Toy Story 3, the hit counter was displaced.

But wait! Something’s happening at some of the more popular new media companies out there. The hit counter has come a’roarin’ back!

Look, here it is at BuzzFeed:

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And here, at Gawker:

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And, for good measure, here it is at Business Insider:

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So, it would appear as though the hit counter is back in style. After all, these three sites are hip and trendy and all that jazz, and have some level of say, at least for the time being, in where digital media will go.

This new generation of page counts doesn’t look like the old one. First, these are used on individual pieces of content, not on homepages like we saw in the late ’90s.

Also: they look different, probably to their benefit. That fire icon is suggests something very different than the old odometer-based counter I introduced up top. The odometer suggests, “Hey, this is how many miles are on this page thus far.” It makes it look old. A page that’s been viewed a lot comes off looking like a car with 150,000 miles on it. The fire (and I’m not really intending this pun but I see it coming and I’m going to walk right into it) is much hotter. It means, “This story is blowing up.” And, I’d suggest, that’s a whole lot more attractive to readers (and thus advertisers).

I haven’t done a study and intensive Google searching suggests no one else has either. So I’m not speaking as an analyst, just as a consumer. But something interesting I’ve noticed about myself: when I see something has more views, I’m more compelled to click. I want to be in on the joke, or to know what people are talking about. It’s the same as a blockbuster movie I might not have had interest in seeing. But suddenly it has a chance of setting some sort of revenue record? Well, damn! I want in on that too!

I’ve also noticed that when a publisher announces over social media that some of their content has gone viral, urging me to click on their link (not sure what the scientific measure for viral-ness is, but I tend to take their word for it), I’m all the more likely to click, with the thinking again being that I want to get in on whatever it is that’s blowing up the web. BuzzFeed does this a lot. Here’s what that looks like:

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So, hit counters. I’m wondering if the strategy here is to attract readers to click on or share a page by showing them that however many other people have as well. (Gawker’s properties and Business Insider show each piece of content’s views on the home page, but you can’t see BuzzFeed’s until you click on the given article, so maybe not.)

I reached out to BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Gawker to ask about why they are using these new generation hit counters. Only Business Insider CEO and editor Henry Blodget responded. He didn’t have a ton to say, except that readers seem to enjoy the numbers and they help make the site look “more lively and fun.” He also added:

They’re also helpful to our writers and editors, who use metrics like these to make sure they’re producing work that our readers like.

(Of course, analytics software does that with much more depth, but requires a little more time to delve into the numbers, and is more useful for understanding how and why people are clicking. So I can buy that it’s beneficial to the publisher to see right there on the site what’s getting read the most in realtime.)

No philosophizing or psychologizing from Blodget about the value of letting the audience know about an article’s popularity to influence them to click on it as well. Maybe it never crossed their mind. And I haven’t done the social science or surveying or anything like that to show that there even is such an effect.

But speaking simply as a reader and a consumer, I can say the new generation of the hit counter does have that effect on me. If I see something’s got the Internet’s attention then I want it to capture mine as well.

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Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

January 20, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Commentary

Tagged with , ,