Archive for October, 2013

Chartbeat Data Scientist Josh Schwartz spoke a few weeks ago at DataGotham about his series of lab studies on how users read content – and how that research drives insights across our network.

You can now watch his talk in this blog post or on YouTube and get the scoop on what we’re cooking up these days in the Chartbeat Data Science Lab.

Got a question for Josh? You can reach him here.

Publishers of all sizes and focus have days when it is absolutely critical to know not the just the magnitude of their audience but also the quality of their audience’s connection to their content.  But Daily Racing Form is an extreme example: Several times a year after a big race like the Kentucky Derby, the site experiences enormous traffic spikes for a few distinct hours. As such, they have a particularly acute need for knowing the exact seconds during which specific pieces of content are most strongly attracting and keeping their audience reading or watching.

Why? This is the highly-engaging content that makes people more likely to subscribe or purchase premium content.  Daily Racing Form use Chartbeat Publishing and the Video Dashboard to know what pages or videos to promote and optimize for their audience minute-to-minute in those critical hours that drive their yearly top line numbers.

Our infographic below explains how the Daily Racing Form uses data to capture their audience during critical moments. Get the full animated experience here:


video dashboard infographic


I wish every article contained the epic Oliver Stone-like phrase “This is the Chartbeat era”, as author Josh Sternberg utters in this Digiday piece that went live yesterday. But that shield-thumping sentence aside, this Digiday piece gets into interesting new territory in its dissection of  publishers embracing post-pageview mentalities when it comes to paying writers.

We talk a lot about the need for new, quality-focused metrics here at Chartbeat. Our CEO Tony talks about it. So does Josh, our data scientist. But it’s always great to get new voices into that conversation – voices that pose new questions or present distinct angles as Digiday does here.

Digiday’s examination of the new ways publishers are measuring editorial success and rewarding strong journalistic performance reveals the exciting direction in which many top sites are heading: “Publications like Complex and Forbes are trying to come up with performance criteria for writers that guard against abuses yet still reward writers for attracting audiences and moving the business forward.”

Of course, Complex and Forbes are by no means alone in their quest for better metrics. And while I think we’re asking the right questions, we’re still a ways away from having all the answers we need. We think our Engaged Time metric starts to push us in the right direction in measuring the un-gameable attention of a site’s audience, but we all know there’s no single silver-bullet metric that will solve all our problems — so we’ll keep working until we’ve found all the right ones.

In the meantime, it’s cool to see topics being explored more in depth. Hope you’ll check out the article and let us know what you think.



In just a few hours, Chartteam members Tony, Lauryn, Ben, Adam, and Joe are heading down to Atlanta to party with Ludacris… err I mean to be a part of the Online New Association’s annual conference this week. This is one of our favorite events of the year and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the best and brightest folks in online media.

If you’re attending ONA13, join us for our discussion “New data in the newsroom: Why time is the only real measure of quality content” in the Midway at 12:45pm on Friday.

We’ll also be demoing new products and talking all things data in the Midway from tomorrow to Saturday, so please come by and say hi!

This post marks the second entry in our series on Understanding your Traffic Sources. In Part 1, I introduced the metrics through which we’d be looking at traffic and talked about the split of traffic into direct, social, external, and search. Today, we’ll be talking through what’s probably the most mismeasured segment of your audience: direct traffic.

Defining “direct”

When we say “direct traffic”, we’re referring to those visitors who come to your site’s homepage deliberately, as opposed than those who come to your site via a link to a particular news story.

Typically, people measure direct traffic by looking at the HTTP referrer for each page view: when you visit a page, your browser usually records the referrer that sent you to the page; if no referrer is recorded then it should mean that you either typed in the name of the page or visited via a bookmark.

There’s a bit of subtlety to that story — many sites that use HTTPS (email sites and some apps are notable examples) don’t send HTTP referrers and are frequently misclassified as direct. The phenomenon of external traffic masquerading as direct has been termed “dark social” and discussed often on the web (e.g. Alexis Madrigal’s defining piece for The Atlantic and Lauryn’s post on the Chartbeat blog). In short, it’s very unlikely that a person would truly come directly to a news article, that they’d actually have typed in the URL for that particular article, and it’s much more likely that this traffic is coming from a source that doesn’t send HTTP referrer information.

So, a certain amount of traffic is often over-attributed as direct when it’s actually coming from external traffic sources. But what about cases where traffic is misattributed the other way, where direct traffic is classified as external?

I’d argue that this is the case with what’s often called branded search, but is better termed direct search. Look at search data in your favorite analytics dashboard and you’ll likely see that all of your top search terms are words related to your domain. If someone searches “Chartbeat” and clicks on a link to our homepage, I’d argue that that’s essentially equivalent in spirit to them typing into a browser — that person intended to visit our site. Indeed, we see that visitors who come to a site’s homepage via a search for the site’s name exhibit very similar browsing behaviors to those who are traditionally measured as direct, and in fact these visitors are highly likely to come back “truly” direct the next time they visit.


Direct traffic’s quality

Since direct visitors typically land on home pages and section front pages — pages that link to other content rather than providing content themselves — it doesn’t make sense to look at engagement on the landing pages themselves because these landing pages are not designed to produce engagement. Rather, it makes more sense to ask how deeply people read upon arrival and how often they come back. From both of these perspectives, direct traffic far outperforms the norm: on a typical site, we see that visitors who come directly come 3-4 times per week and view 9 articles across the week — a drastic difference compared to the average visitor, who visits 1-2 times per week and views 2-3 pages.


In that sense, we don’t need to think about whether direct visitors are coming back or whether they’re reading stories, we want to think about how frequently they’re coming back and how deeply they’re reading. This is, perhaps, best expressed in terms of the number of daily direct visitors versus the number of weekly or monthly direct visitors — we’d like to push this ratio as high as possible, so those who come directly are doing so every day.

How much should you get?

If direct traffic represents your most loyal audience, it’s natural to ask how much direct traffic you should hope to get. The answer, unfortunately, is that there’s a very wide spread. The figure below shows the breakdown of how much direct traffic sites get.

On average, about 50% of visitors to a site come as direct traffic, but the distribution has an interesting bimodal shape — there is a set of sites for which about 30% of visitors come direct and another set for which the direct rate is about 75%.


If your site is in the former camp, increasing the fraction of direct traffic should be a top priority. That means outreaching to the sources whose readers are most likely to convert to direct (see here for a figure analyzing this statistic across the web), increasing the branding on your site to make sure that side-door traffic knows what site they’re on, and publishing more content to encourage visitors to come back more frequently.

A caveat and conclusions

The picture that we’ve presented of direct traffic so far is a positive one — direct visitors visit often and account for a disproportionately high amount of the total content consumption on a site. There’s one caveat, though, which is that direct traffic is almost by definition composed of people who are not new to your site. Those sites with the highest direct traffic have the lowest rates of new visitors. If that issue rings close to home, the first place to look for new visitors is the social web, which will be the topic of the next post in this series. I hope you’ll stay tuned.