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Why did traffic on rise?

The NY Times recently posted a press release about last month’s record-breaking traffic to their web site. In the release, they cite content as the main driver for the growth (“the journalism and voice of continued to attract an audience interested in a wide range of subjects…”), both month over month and year over year:

Pageviews for the National section of experienced a 96% increase year over year, due to reader interest in the news surrounding Terri Schiavo. Also, pageviews for the Travel section increased 238% year over year, as a result of the site’s coverage on a number of topics of interest including Paris restaurants and Maureen Dowd’s article about visiting Cancun, Mexico, entitled “Girls Gone Mild.” The Real Estate section grew 22% year over year, with several articles on a potential real estate market bubble. College basketball, baseball’s spring training and the steroids debate fueled growth of the Sports section with pageviews up 12% year over year.

Having some experience building and running content-based web sites, I’m skeptical the specific content offered by the NY Times is the whole story here. (This is a bit like Amazon saying their sales increased mostly because the quality of the books offered went up.)

Across the board, more Americans are getting their news online (25% in 2002 up to 29% in 2004) and Internet usage in other countries is growing as well.

RSS is mentioned in the release and is a small factor, with only 1% of their traffic coming directly from RSS feeds, but the vast array of blogs acting as entry points to Times’ content has to be having an impact. By some counts, the number of blogs is doubling every few months and the NY Times, despite their content being behind a registration wall and their links expiring after a few days (unless you know the secret code), is a favorite source that bloggers link to. During the 2004 Presidental campaign, the Times was the #1 most cited media source and was cited equally by both sides of the political aisle.

Design and user experience changes to the site might also be a factor. The NY Times has not radically redesigned their site recently, but like most large media sites, they tweak little things here and there all the time. Redesigns can dramatically increase (or decrease) traffic, but those small changes can as well. A quick change in the location of the “mail this article to a friend” link could result in 30% more mailings, which may translate into 20 million more hits down the line. Making RSS feeds more widely available, even though they only account for 1% of the site’s traffic directly, puts information into the hands of bloggers and may account for more indirect traffic than direct (I visit an article once through the Times’ RSS, but if I then link to it on my site, they’ll maybe get 2000 hits). Moving headlines around or tweaking the font size of the article summaries could result in more or less clickthroughs from the front page. Etc, etc.

(And there’s also business and marketing to consider. Did they make any deals to drive traffic? Did their marketing expenditures increase over the past year? Are they advertising the site any more in the print publication than they used to?)

The Times talking about their content being the sole driving force behind the increased usage of their web site certainly bolsters the NY Times brand (and this is a press release after all and PR is typically about promotion and not information), but I would be interested to know how much other factors contributed to the rise in traffic.