Four years on…

by Gareth on April 24, 2011

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the first post at Hot Topic — four years since the blog’s birth, and as my mum would say, hasn’t time flown? This birthday post is number 1,080, and it will be read by many, many more people than those first brief paragraphs announcing the book and blog. I’m not one for tootling my own trumpet (at least, not loudly), so I won’t be making great claims about how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved, but I will take this opportunity to muse a little on what I’ve learned. A lot, but not perhaps enough… ;-)

I spent many years working in magazine publishing, and one of the key metrics for any magazine is the size and character of its readership. I approach blogging in much the same way that I used to approach running a magazine: I’m aiming to build readership, trying to inform and entertain, and at the same time do some good. The major difference is that magazines should make money. Hot Topic doesn’t[1. We cover our hosting and associated costs with income from affiliate arrangements with the book sellers in the sidebar -- mostly Fishpond and the Book Depository -- but that's about all.] — it’s a labour of love. With that in mind, here’s a look at how Hot Topic‘s readership has developed:

Fouryears

This data comes from my Statcounter account. In April 2007, the first full week produced the princely total of 343 unique visitors. These days, a bad week comes in well over 3,000. Ken Perrott at Open Parachute maintains a NZ blog ranking: Hot Topic was #13 in March (if you add in the figures for people who read HT at Sciblogs, we’d jump a place or two).

The graph shows how Hot Topic‘s readership has built over time, and some of the key events. The first big spike was my little run-in with The Listener in April 2008. The editor of that magazine took exception to some robust (but fair) criticism, and threatened legal action. I caved in at the first opportunity, and allowed the NZ blogosphere to reflect on the issue. You could say Hot Topic won a moral victory, and although the offending article is no longer available here, it’s pretty easy to find

A little over a year later, my review of Ian Wishart’s climate change opus Air Con triggered a robust exchange of views that ran back and forth over several weeks. Wishart’s frothing at the mouth responses to my dissection of his understanding of the science of climate were nothing if not entertaining.

The Treadgold/CSC attack on NIWA’s compilation of the NZ temperature record in November 2009 provided the impetus for the next spike in readership. I thought it was important to get a reply on the record as soon as possible, and that has proved to be the most popular post on the site. A few months later, potty peer Christopher Monckton’s threatened legal action against John Abraham prompted me to invite comments in Abraham’s support. We received over 1,000, and that post is the second most popular to date.

Other milestones: Bryan Walker joined HT as my co-blogger back in November 2008, and has built a considerable body of work. His book reviews have become an important feature of the site — I like to claim that we offer the most comprehensive collection of climate book reviews on the web — but his views on all aspects of the climate debate command respect for their quiet moral authority. Thanks Bryan.

In September 2009, Hot Topic joined the new Sciblogs network for its launch: flattered to be invited, I remain in awe of the material produced by my fellow “Sciblings”. The NZ science community owes them a great deal for their unpaid work.

Over the last few months I’ve had fun working on The Climate Show with Glenn Williams and John Cook. It’s great to be able to chat to like-minded and knowledgeable people, and provide what I hope is proving to be an interesting and valuable perspective on climate issues.

Back to the graph: it goes up. Readership has been increasing steadily (except for the last few weeks — if I were to apply sceptical statistics™ I might claim that the last three weeks have wiped out all the readership gains of the last year!) — but I do expect the unique visitors metric to plateau at some point. Hot Topic is a New Zealand-focussed blog, and I suspect that by now most New Zealanders interested in climate issues and active on the web will have found us. That’s confirmed by information from another stats service I use (Woopra): over the first few months of this year, 49% of visits have come from New Zealand, 15% from the USA, 10% from Australia, 7% from the UK and 5% from Canada. Unless there’s a large reservoir of potential NZ readers we haven’t reached, it looks very much like future growth can only come from overseas visitors. HT has become a part (if only a small part) of the international climate blogosphere, and readership here will therefore tend to reflect activity on that wider stage. When we cover material of global interest (Don Easterbrook, say, or the fate of the Arctic sea ice), visitor numbers will rise.

The trick (not Mike’s Nature trick 8-) ) will be to maintain good coverage of NZ issues — science, policy and politics — and at same the time cover stories with a wider appeal. In one sense, that’s easy. Climate is a truly global issue, and the fascinating new science that’s being done is of global interest — as indeed are political and policy developments wherever they happen. That’s what I’ll be aiming for over the coming year, but do please let Bryan and I know if you think we’re getting the balance wrong.

At some point however, my desire to provide a comprehensive service runs foul of the need to make a living. Blogging doesn’t pay the bills. Would that it did — at least, enough to justify the time I spend hacking at this keyboard. But then where else would an ageing journalist be? After all, climate change and how we deal with it (or not) is the big story of the coming century. I hope you’ll stick with us for the ride.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Cowan April 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Happy anniversary, Gareth! Thank you for an interesting and varied site. I particularly appreciate the Hot Tweets column as a jumping off point to the latest news and views. I found your website about 3 hours after I found (and bought) your book. It’s good to have a New Zealand viewpoint on climate science.

It’s now 32 years since I first studied climate change at Victoria University, and I am dis-heartened that so much opportunity to deal with the problem has been lost. But, at least, your website keeps the issue in the public eye. Thanks again.

Gareth April 25, 2011 at 8:54 am

And thanks for the kind words, Carol.

RW April 25, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Heartily seconded.

CTG April 25, 2011 at 9:12 am

Keep up the good work, Gareth. It is disheartening to see there are still so many people actively working to prevent the actions we need to take to protect our children’s future. We need to make sure the message continues to be heard, and hope that our politicians will eventually learn to listen to the scientists instead of the corporates.

Thomas April 25, 2011 at 9:45 am

Seems that the decline in the past weeks coincides with the new “must log in to post a comment” policy.

I often come across blogs elsewhere where I want to leave a brief comment and would be back perhaps to check on the discussion but if I come into a “must create an account” area I normally decline to participate casually.
So I think your blog has gained in substance since the obvious trolls have stayed a bit away and perhaps that is reflected in the numbers.

Quality over Quantity I’d say!

So well done.

Gareth April 25, 2011 at 10:37 am

I don’t think the comment policy has had much impact on reader numbers — though it has, as you note, reduced the comment noise a fair bit. The low points on the graph are generally associated with Christmas and Easter, and the last dot on the graph is an incomplete week, so makes it look a bit worse than it really is. I suspect some of the variability is down to vagaries in search engines — people seeing HT in a search result and following the link, but not finding what they were looking for. One of the most popular posts is the Flat Earth one — that gets a lot of hits from Google image search results for Discworld images, one of which I used in the post. They’re passers-by, rather than readers. But some may return, and turn into regulars. It’s the equivalent of selling magazines at railway stations and airports: the proportion of people passing the magazine stand interested in your title may be very small, but the sheer numbers mean that you can get good sales (in London, the main bookstall on Waterloo station used to sell more magazines of all kinds than any other shop in the Britain). One way to measure how many passers-by a site is getting is to look at how long visitors spend on the site. For HT over the last month, 46% of visits last less than a minute. Most of those are probably just passing through, but some will be regulars checking to see if there are new posts or comments. On the other hand, 37% lasted up to 5 minutes, and 12% up to 10 minutes, with the balance spending more than 10 minutes per visit on the site. Those are real readers.

cyclone April 27, 2011 at 11:17 am

I too would guess the login policy has resulted in some of the decline or perhaps the shortness of some visits.
How does the tracking system handle the situation when people navigate away to some other site, say Real Climate via a link within a comment?

Gareth April 27, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I can see them following the link, and if they don’t return to the site within a specified period (a few minutes, I think), then they’re recorded as having left. If they return, it’s a new visit.

robint April 25, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Thanks, Gareth, for a site that is not only informative and educational, but also entertaining. Journalism’s loss has been our gain….

Gareth April 25, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Actually, Rob, I regard what I’m doing here as just as much journalism as when I was writing a column for the Daily Mail in the early ’80s. Different medium, different approach, but still communicating news and ideas.

The principal difference is that blogging is (or can or should be) more of a direct conversation with readers. At the very least, you get direct feedback on what you write – something that didn’t happen in traditional media until very recently.

Bob Bingham April 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Congratulations on the web site. You do the hard work of finding out what’s going on and there is always some new item of interest.

Keith Hunter April 25, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Hello Gareth: Congratulations on the 4 years. Well done. You are doing a very good job in presenting the truth about climate change and I am happy to keep supporting your efforts.

Sincerely, Keith Hunter

Gareth April 25, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Thanks Keith. Appreciated.

Macro April 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Adding my sincere thanks to you for your excellent contribution to what must be one of the most serious problems facing humanity today.

Temporarily increasing the the hits from Aussie by 1.Sunning myself in Perth. :) where we have had about 1 mm of rain in the past 4 weeks.
.

John D April 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Adding my sincere thanks to you for your excellent contribution to what must be one of the most serious problems facing humanity today.

After the collapse of the world economy, Islamofachism, escalating violence and social unrest, exponentially increasing food and fuel prices (all observed phenomena, unlike the somewhat tenuous and increasing irrelevant topic of human induced climate change(*))

(*) Unless your funding/career depends on it, of course, or your are a politician playing games at UN sponsored gab-fests.

Gareth April 26, 2011 at 9:29 am

If those matters are so important to you, why don’t you bugger off to blogs that deal with them, and pester them instead?

[Note: Since Jan 1, the entity known as John D has made 1,657 "unique visits" to Hot Topic, making him our most diligent reader. That's 300 visits more than Bryan, 400 more than the next most devoted reader (Johnmacmot), and a full 1,400 more than our #4 visitor (dappledwater). You might think he'd have learned something...]

Macro April 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Obviously John D takes Climate Science very seriously! Pity he has such a distorted understanding!

Johnmacmot April 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Bloody hell! How’d I manage that performance!

John D April 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Wow, those personal “unique visitor” stats are pretty impressive. Thanks for sharing Gareth.

So as a little tender moment, I’d like to congratulate you on your 4th birthday and for enduring a curmudgeon such as myself, who, by those stats, clearly has “issues”.

By the way, I am on permanent moderation, so it is with some gratitude that I am not permanently banned. This, actually, is something that I respect about our dear Gareth…

As they say, good on ya mate…

Dappledwater April 27, 2011 at 10:53 pm
retsilla April 26, 2011 at 10:40 am

Maybe John you are missing the link that some of these factors you have mentioned are inter-related with climate change. Food prices are going up in some places due to crop failures (for example the very reduced grain harvest in Russia). Failures which are probably due in part to changes in climate in the growing area. This then impacts on social unrest etc.

Mike Palin April 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm

John D-
You are willfully ignorant of mainstream science on anthropogenic climate change. My offer still stands, Put-up or shut-up.

John D April 26, 2011 at 8:09 pm

Mike,
I am not being “wilfully ignorant” of anything, hard as that may be for you to accept. Naturally, being of the “sceptic” persuasion, I tend towards those viewpoints and biases. I accept that I, along with most of the rest of us, build my opinions to some extent on dogma and Weltanschauung

Maybe you can recommend a good book presenting the case for AGW, distilling the main points. I am a bit world-weary of chasing a gazzilion papers and blog posts.

If you can recommend this, I will promise to read it, understand and get back to you (in the meantime, keep out of your hair)

Deal?

CTG April 26, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Er, Hot Topic?

Gareth April 26, 2011 at 9:27 pm
Mike Palin April 26, 2011 at 9:54 pm

I only accept my science from the horse’s mouth:
Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat – and How to Counter It by Broecker & Kunzig, 2008.

It’s not hard to keep out my hair nowadays, I don’t have much left.

_R2D2 April 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

Interesting history for those of us who come on board mid-way through. I particularly like the comedy on the interpretation of your readership graph and the interpretation of temperature records.

That recent dip is probably a reason for slight concern. It is likely more to do with a few slow news weeks in climate circles rather than anything that can be blamed on the authors of this blog.

Looking at that graph you are kinda left with a difficult choice, when you cover controversial topics, views spike, lately not much has been going on, interest has waned. If you want views to go up again you need some controversial stories! Don Henley’s ‘Dirty Laundry’ could be used as the song – blog title connection! (a theme of the blog I like)

You could perhaps cover some of the goings on in Australia? This debate seems to be very bizarre. The Government is selling a carbon tax more on what it wont do than what it will, yet the public is still against the proposal. The implications for New Zealand with our ETS review are clear.

Gareth April 26, 2011 at 10:43 am

There must be some truth to the idea that when climate issues are either prominent in the national political debate, or making international news, HT’s readership will increase — but the figures show a fairly steady rise, although overlaid with some quite dramatic variability — which has itself increased as readership has risen.

I won’t be deliberately looking for controversy, however tempting it might be to chase the “spikes”. But I certainly intend to continue being robust when dealing with nonsense from cranks or politicians, and who knows where that might lead!

As for Australia: they’ve got their own blogosphere and some very talented people trying to keep the debate honest. If I had to choose between Abbot and Hide as a target, I’d take Hide every time. (The prospect that Don Brash might inherit ACT’s climate policy fills me with delight!).

robint April 26, 2011 at 10:40 am

In that case, John D’s either a software personality, an obsessive-compulsive with time on his hands, or a PR stooge who’s paid by the hour…

Gosman April 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Congrats on getting to your four year anniversary and also for the increase in unique visits over that time.

lprent April 27, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Pretty damn good. I get less time to read here these days because I have been forced to start using the car rather than the bus (bloody hard reading blogs whilst driving). But this is still one of the few sites that I expend time reading the posts and sometimes even the comments.

Keep up the good work, and I will keep coming over and re-airing the occasional post at The Standard and sending people over this way…

Must be nearly time for our 4 year anniversary as well – august.

CTG May 1, 2011 at 7:55 am

I’ve been having a read through those early posts – most of the ones from 2007 are still corrupted, and a few later ones. Definitely looks like some character encoding issue.

Some of the early exchanges, especially with Ken Ring, were hilarious. I didn’t realise how long Doug Mackie has been asking the NZC”S”C what they think of Beck :-)

My favourite, though, was a cracker from Ken Ring, in which he opined that global warming was invented by Margaret Thatcher as a way to destroy the coal unions. No, Ken, AGW is a left-wing plot, didn’t you know? Lol.

Neven May 1, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Congratulations, Gareth! And thanks. You helped me a lot to get my blog underway.

joe.fone May 3, 2011 at 10:05 am

Here’s something funny-but-true to mark your fourth birthday:

http://tinyurl.com/3r966ng

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