A common boast of hyperlocal web sites is that the number of visitors they get represents a substantial proportion of the population area they cover. The metric of visits or unique visitors is put against the readership of old media to demonstrate how the dead tree part of the industry has already been surpassed by digital newcomers. New research is suggesting these claims are generally completely unfounded and the readership of hyperlocal sites is being massively overstated.
A paper published by Matthew Hindman, School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University uses meticulous research to show what people are actually spending their time online looking at. Entitled ‘Less of the Same: Local News on the Internet’, he uses the same sort of approach often used to measure TV viewing to work out readership. Using comScore panel data that tracks a quarter of a million Internet users across more than a million Web domains, he examined online local news within the top 100 US television markets.
The answer is pretty clear – whatever they are looking at generally it is not local news. His rigorous use of data shows that even fairly prominent local web sites capture a very small proportion of the online time of residents of the area and many just don’t get looked at at all. Interestingly Patch’s web sites were generally deemed to be so statistically insignificant they didn’t even warrant inclusion in the data.
Hindman convincingly shows how visits or unique visitors are a misleading guide to the actual reach of a local web site. Even if a visitor is an actual bona fide local resident rather than some search engine sourced blow by the amount of time spent on the sites tended to be very brief.
There is no real standard for visits or unique visitors but even ones that don’t structurally over record traffic like Google Analytics can give an exaggerated impression of activity on the sites. Recently, I was presented with two sites one that was created with third party blogging software and the other that was built from scratch. The first one was claiming 50% more traffic but the second one appeared to busier. It was only when we looked at the log files that we found that a huge proportion of the traffic appeared to be hack attempts attracted by the familiar code in the third party software. The custom built site was in reality far busier in terms of genuine visitors.
There will probably be those that argue that this US based research has little relevance to the U.K. but that view is clearly flawed. The US is supposed to be leading the hyperlocal movement and a quick survey of the sites failing to register much interest in their local communities are generally more professional, engaging and better put together than many of their UK counterparts. If anything the rather discouraging message of the research is likely to be even more relevant to the UK.
Hindman’s conclusion is “The central problem facing local online news sites is that their audiences are small—and proportionally much smaller than even many publishers and journalists seem to realize. Metrics such as monthly audience reach are often falsely inflated, and deceptive even when measured accurately.”
He dismisses the commonly held view that online local news traffic is difficult to monetise pointing out that it is not a revenue problem that these sites have but a readership one. The view that a viable local site can be created by some untrained, previously underemployed individual using WordPress was never particularly credible but this analysis confirms what many have long suspected – that ‘community’ sites are often widely ignored by the communities they claim to serve. Often wearing their lack of commercial success as a badge of honour, they are simply masking the fact that they have failed to attract a decent readership.
What Hindman’s research should do is force people in this nascent industry to take a more realistic look at what they do. The positive message that people can take from it is that there are pockets of commercial success in the sector both in the US and UK so, while local news sites generally don’t attract much traffic, getting enough readers to be commercially viable is not impossible and if it can be done in some areas it can be done in others. Looking across the sites that seem to be generating good revenue both sides of the pond the common theme seems to be high quality, regularly updated news content. The message the report gives is not that local online news is doomed to failure but that there are no short cuts and the decline of print does not necessarily lead to its automatic replacement by digital.