Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How Much Web Traffic Do Maryland News Sites Get?

The Washington Post. The Baltimore Sun. NBC4. WBAL. The Gazette. These are a few of the many sources Marylanders go to for news and political coverage. But no one knows the relative readership of these sources on the Internet, which is becoming the premier platform for information delivery, because they do not report their site traffic. That ends today. Now, for the first time, we reveal all!

The best way to get web traffic data is through openly accessible measuring software like Sitemeter or Statcounter. MPW and many other blogs have one or the other and make them available for public inspection. (Just click on the Sitemeter icon in our right margin to see MPW’s traffic.) We have periodically reported on visit trends for Maryland blogs that use such open reporting systems.

But almost no one in the mainstream media (MSM) regularly reports their site stats. Luckily, we have found a way to get around that problem:, a company that measures traffic and drums up business by helping site owners boost it. Compete relies on a panel of two million online users who are diversified by geography, demographics, browsers and more and allow the firm to collect their web browsing data. Then, “Compete’s experts in the fields of mathematics, statistics and the data sciences have developed a proprietary methodology to aggregate, normalize and project the data to estimate US Internet activity. Based on the daily web usage of more than 2,000,000 members in the Compete community, Compete estimates total traffic, rank and other statistics for the top 1,000,000 sites on the web for use by consumers.”

We don’t believe Compete’s methodology is perfect. Specifically, a panel of two million users won’t estimate the traffic of very small sites that well. And let’s be honest: these data are estimates, whereas Sitemeter and Statcounter generate real-time counts. Still, we believe that ballpark estimates contain some value. A site that is estimated to have two million visits per month probably has more users than one that has 100,000 visits. That level of information is better than what we have now for the MSM, which is… basically zero. Furthermore, since Compete measures all sites using the same methodology, its stats should offer apple-to-apple comparisons.

We used Compete’s database to obtain a three-month average (August-October) of site visits for over forty online news sources in Maryland. Compete defines visits this way:

Visits are initiated when a user enters a site during an internet session. As the user interacts with the site the visit is live. Visits are considered live until the user’s interaction within the entire internet session has ceased for a 30-minute period. Visits are unique to a session.

For instance, User A enters Yahoo at 9:00. User A checks their email and reviews the week's weather forecast. User A then goes to a meeting at 9:30. She returns at 10:30 and checks her Yahoo email again. Since 30 minutes lapsed between her two interactions User A is considered “one person” that made “two visits.”
This is a fairly standard definition of site visits that is also used by Sitemeter and Statcounter.

Here are’s site visit estimates for selected Maryland news sites.

A few notes:

1. We are not surprised that the four largest newspapers have the four most-visited websites. But it’s impossible to tell how much of their traffic is directed to Maryland-oriented content. The Post attracts worldwide traffic for its national and international news. The Times and the Examiner are go-to sites for national conservative commentary. All have readers in the District and Virginia. Despite all this, we won’t dispute their raw size. And isn’t it interesting that the Sun, the Times and the Examiner are all basically tied in traffic?

2. Nine of the next fourteen sites are TV stations, including two based outside the Washington and Baltimore metro areas. Television stations have an inherent potential synergy with the web through their ready access to video, but for the most part, they have not built user-friendly video archives. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to a TV site and quickly assemble a series of clips into one video of the latest stories on your topic of choice? The first TV site that figures out how to let its users customize its content access easily and quickly is going to take off.

3. Online-only news sites get some insider buzz but they have few if any readers. It’s hard to make a case that any are economically viable. According to Sitemeter, MPW averaged 57,867 site visits per month in the August-October period, far more than any of the Maryland online politics sites covered by Compete. But even if MPW maxed out on ads, we would not generate anywhere near enough money to support a full-time author. That calls into question the prospects of any of the online-only news sites with a fraction of our traffic that are expected to someday be self-supporting.