How media sites inflate traffic stats and why it never works out

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Sites raise money and gain access based on traffic, but the numbers can be deceiving.

The beginning of 2019 has been hard on writers and creatives at a number of the web’s most recognizable sites. Between recent cuts at Buzzfeed and Vice, not to mention a number of smaller publications, estimates show at least 2,000 people lost jobs in media over the past six weeks. Some analysts are referring to these losses as a ‘bloodbath,’ and many expect more downsizing announcements in the near future.

The explanations for the cuts run the gamut from restructuring to cost-cutting. Either way, traffic most likely played a role. Everything related to online media companies boils down to traffic, especially for businesses who rely on outside investors to keep their properties afloat.

To gauge traffic, most investors and industry analysts rely on ComScore, a company dedicated to measuring media online. Faking a score in their system is practically impossible, but some forward-thinking media conglomerates have found a way to game the service’s measurements, at least in the short term, to raise their value.

As Tim Pool explains in the video above, digital media companies adjust their traffic and engagement by acquiring clickbait-heavy platforms and folding that audience into their brand. Here’s an example of the kind of articles these sites generate, which you’ve probably seen promoted at the bottom of articles on numerous media sites:

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Articles like these offer little information, but boost engagement by requiring numerous clicks to view their content in full.

Between the clicks and added traffic, media companies can boast big numbers for their community of sites without having to show the performance of individual publications. Big numbers attract big investors, and investments keep the lights on.

Believe it or not, there is nothing illegal about this approach to promotion. The numbers are legitimate. The deception lies in how sites describe what pulls in readers. Here’s an example:

Let’s say a media conglomerate buys a clickbait-heavy site to boost its numbers. The conglomerate may claim their audience turns to them for news and essays on culture when in reality their audience is driven by articles like, ’25 celebrities who had plastic surgery.’ The investors would need to sift through the data for all sites to determine whether or not the company is lying, which requires time and money most do not want to sacrifice.

Over time, however, the truth about most sites comes out. Whether through internal investigations or a drop in traffic that the conglomerate cannot explain away, investors and readers inevitably see through the deception of inflated numbers. Even if they don’t, a number of services have emerged in recent years that can separate real and fake engagement into easy to read reports that anyone can follow.

The cuts we are seeing in media right now are bound to continue unless this trend changes. The problem is that few, if any sites have found a way to generate a committed audience large enough to draw the investment capital needed to build a media empire through legitimate means. When Facebook boasts a potential audience in the billions, what incentives do investors or advertisers have to work with sites whose monthly audience lies in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions?

But there is a catch-22 to the entire affair that will inevitably need to be addressed. Facebook and similar social media platforms are the primary way people consume news and media, but those services rely on countless third-party publishers to create the content users click. Without investors and ad sales, those publishers will go under, which will leave social media giants to generate news and content on their own.

Something has to give. The only questions are, what will it be and when will it happen?

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.