Look at the bottom, not the top, of your traffic analytics to boost your website's readership

How can you increase your website’s traffic by looking at your current website readership data?

The answer to that question might seem obvious, but I warn you that too many news publishers approach this question from the wrong direction – and could be hurting their businesses as a result.

The obvious answer to the website traffic question appears to be… to look at what’s getting the most page views on your site, and to write more articles like those.

Don’t do that.

Why? Chasing traffic by trying to duplicate your most successful content ultimately narrows the focus of your website, as you try to focus on specific topics, features and tone that’s drawn visitors in the past, to the exclusion of other stories and styles. It leaves you (or your staff) feeling cynical, coming to believe that your coverage is being driving by chasing traffic instead of chasing the news. Trying to duplicate past success is reactive instead of proactive – and over the long run that too often leads to a dispirited staff producing formulaic, sterile, mechanical work that runs the risk of turning off readers and advertisers.

So how can traffic data help you to create a more popular website?

Instead of looking at what’s attracting eyeballs, flip your analysis around. Focus not on what’s working, but what isn’t.

Use your traffic data to show you what coverage to dump, and not what to duplicate. Why waste precious reporting and writing time on articles that no one’s reading, no one’s linking to and no one’s engaging with? Stop publishing content that your market’s rejected and use the resources you’d spent creating that to do something else instead.

Be careful when making those cuts, though, to be certain that you’re not eliminating something valuable due to bad analysis of your traffic data. It’s not enough to look at raw page view numbers over a limited time period. Some very valuable articles show few initial impressions, but continue to build traffic to your site over years. It’s worth the staff time to report and create those “evergreen” articles. Other types of articles might suffer due to the time of day that they’re posted on the site. Certain feature pieces that hit your homepage in the early evening due to production habits, only to disappear from the home page before the next morning’s traffic rush might draw more attention if you moved their online publication times to mid-afternoon, for example.

So be sure to take a long view when analyzing traffic data when making decisions about cuts and reassignments on your website. And consider what other factors, in addition to topic popularity, might be influencing unpopular articles and pages on your site. Are the pages consistently hitting the site at an unpopular time of day? Are the headlines not engaging? Could you put a different writer onto that beat who would command more respect, attention and engagement? Should does the audience for content want to see it in a different medium, such as a podcast or video blog instead?

You might not choose to walk away from a content topic altogether, but your focus should remain on the bottom of your traffic analytics. If something’s not hitting with the audience, work to change that. And if changing publication times, formatting or voice isn’t drawing more traffic to an area of the site, don’t be afraid to shift the focus of your reporting to something that your audience finds more important to their everyday lives. (Here’s my piece on the five most important beats for a local news website, to encourage some creative thought on what your beat mix should be.)

Like a gardener pruning the flower beds, cutting away withered elements of your publication can help encourage more growth elsewhere on the website. That’s a healthier way to pursue new traffic than endless trying to clone what’s worked best in the past. And it allows you, or your staff, to remain creative in trying to find new ways to lead your community by showing them fresh news and insight that they didn’t have but will embrace, instead of always feeling like you are reacting to that community, pandering to what was popular in the past.

Traffic data tells you what your community thinks of the work you’ve done on the past. You should respect your audience by paying attention to what they’re trying to tell you. Great news publishers lead – they don’t pander – but you can’t be a leader if no one follows you. Use your traffic data to cut what’s not working on your website, then spend those resources trying to find better ways to connect with your audience instead.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Bill Bisson says:

    …. and buried in all this information may be another idea – a bigger and more sustainable idea. Mission inertia frequently begets myopia.