From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 30, 2006*: Still running it up the flagpole

In general, I don't take much of an interest in web site statistics, or at least in my own. Whatever it is on the web that people are reading, I can rather confidently write that it's not something by me. I figure I've done my job by posting something, and if readers don't want to read what I've written, well, I'm not overly surprised, and for that reason, not overly distressed.

Do I really mean that? Can someone who goes to the trouble of posting ten years of writing to a web site (and quite a few years to other sites as well) honestly say that the question of the size of his readership truly doesn't concern him? Maybe what I really mean to say here is that I simply prefer not to know. It might also be a well calculated attempt to further hone my online persona as someone who doesn't seek any retribution for what he contributes to the vast reaches of cyberspace (a persona which is almost tangibly distinct from that I present in face-to-face situations).

My personal sites, and my desire, or lack of it, to know whether anyone is aware of the fact that I'm howling at the moon, however, operate on a different plane than the sites that I'm responsible for in my various work capacities. Though with my personal sites I can allow myself to say "I enjoy doing this so I'll simply keep at it", my work related sites don't work that way. They have to justify their investment in time and money. What's more, on the whole they don't only want to put the word "out there" but to verify that someone is hearing it, if for no other reason than if they learn that people aren't listening, then they can change their tune and perhaps better get their message out. Never having been someone who knows how to successfully distinguish between work and pleasure, public and private, and the like, I've allowed my personal preferences free reign in my professional arena as well, blatantly disregarding the statistical reports that tell me about the readership of those non-personal sites.

It was in this capacity (and when explicitly requested to do so) that I had the opportunity to view the statistics for a couple of the sites for which I have a professional connection. Though I tried to tell myself that I really wasn't interested, it was a fascinating experience. The amount of data was overwhelming, the variety of the items to be checked was close to endless, and their possible interpretations were ... well, it could have made for a very interesting (though certainly different) profession.

And the truth is that this really is a profession, and though I don't have any hard data on this, most probably one that pays very well. We might call it the flip side of search engine optimization (and for all I know, considering that much of what I've read about the topic comes from sites that also deal with optimizing, performed by the same people). On the one hand we have people who are busy getting their sites to the top of a search engine's results, or getting their advertisements to the top of the list of ads that appear when we search for a particular term. That's the hand that's either pulling or pushing us to view a particular site. But once we're there, the other hand has to see to it that it holds on to us, keeps us on the site for an extended period of time. After all, sites don't want readers only because they're absorbing the information to be found on them. They also, and perhaps primarily, want to make a sale, or to convince advertisers considering advertising on that site that somebody is really visiting.

Numerous sites exist that offer us an extensive analysis of a web site, going well beyond a breakdown of the number of visits to the site on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Obviously, the more extensive of these cost a good deal of money, though from my experience with a free site, I find it hard to imagine what's left to pay for. The detailed analysis that these free services offer suggest either that there's truly no reason to put out money for this information, or that the possibilities for a more in depth analysis are almost endless. I guess that what happens is that, considering that a record can be kept about just about everything, all we really have to do is ask. Do we want to know which pages of our site were visited most on particular days of the week with users from a particular country? No problem. Maybe we want the order of pages viewed on our site, cross-indexed with the referring pages and the different browsers in use? Perhaps a bit more of a problem, but still probably doable. With the amount it's possible to get free, is there any reason to think that someone would pay to get more? Obviously, and even logically, the answer is yes. We are, after all, dealing with a business.

Databases seem to abhor a vacuum. If it's possible to mine data, then it's almost a crime not to. And this means that the information being gathered, not only the statistics of the use of a site, but just about every click that ever takes place, is being recorded. This could be a substantial source for paranoia, but it seems to me that that's taking things a bit too far. Yes, this information can be processed rather quickly, but I doubt that there's much reason to do so. Since a simple cookie tells The New York Times who I am each time I access an article on that site, the databases of the Times should have no problem taking things one step further, identifying me as one of those people who seems constantly to be trying to find back doors to accessing articles I don't subscribe to. On the other hand, perhaps if they review the statistical analysis of the use of their site, they may discover that more than a handful of non-paying users want access to a certain type of article, and thus decide to make those items (the ones I want, of course) public.

The handwriting seems to be on the wall. Today, Rheingold's virtual community is populated less and less with those who seek contact, and more and more with predators who never honestly considered behaving like good neighbors. Those of us who view cyberspace via the glasses of a decade ago not only find ourselves to be anachronisms in this new reality, but can't help getting the feeling that we've lost an important battle. That's true on numerous fronts, so it's not surprising that the gathering and analyzing of web-use statistics is only one more of these. Perhaps it's this sense of loss, of defeat, that causes me to feel almost as though I'm visiting enemy territory, or at least setting foot on unfriendly turf, when I plunge into a statistical analysis of a web site and its use. But even as I acknowledge that this is no longer the same internet that I first met over a decade ago, I also have to admit that it's me who has been standing still while those vast changes have been taking place. The problem is that I seem to like it the old way and don't feel much of an urge to adapt. No need to bring me statistical proof that nobody is reading this. I already know that.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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