Using Digg, a people-powered news aggregator, to attract hits.

Media criticism.
June 30 2006 1:11 PM

Digg Me or Bury Me

Using (or is that exploiting?) a people-powered news aggregator to attract hits.

Digg.com screenshot. Click image to expand.

Slate's redesign, which launched Monday, includes a feature that some Web sites have had for years: A front-page pane that displays the most-read stories, the most blogged, and the most e-mailed. For obvious reasons, staffers are as interested in the "most" lists as readers, and so on Wednesday (June 28) our copy chief Rachael Larimore sent around e-mail asking if anybody had an idea why a two-year-old piece by tech writer Paul Boutin ("So Tired," July 13, 2004) had cracked the daily top five.

Not to take anything away from Boutin, but the piece isn't anywhere near his best. It's a light story about tired.com, a site that invites readers to send e-mail describing why they're tired.

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Josh Levin, Boutin's editor, quickly determined the origin of the story's new popularity: Digg.com, the husky and growing people-powered news aggregator. Digg has 300,000 registered users, reports Google Watch, draws 8.5 million unique visitors a month, and serves 9.5 million pages a day. Think of Digg as a Billboard Top Million, only for Web pages rather than CDs.

Here's how Digg works: Registered users submit Digg-worthy Web content—news stories, blog entries, videos, pictures, what have you—to the site by writing a synopsis and linking back to the piece. Then, other registered users "community rank" the submission with votes, aka "diggs," and the highest-ranked stories earn promotion to Digg's front page. Registered users can also "bury" stuff they don't like. Think of the registered users as thousands of unpaid editors—or filters, to use Webspeak—and regard their picks as the wisdom of the crowd, to use James Surowiecki's felicitous phrase. Nonregistered users are free to explore the site, of course, and click through to stories. Think of them as readers (or drinkers).

Digg's FAQ says submitted stories reside in the upcoming stories section for between 12 and 24 hours. The story drops from the queue if it doesn't earn enough diggs to rise to the Digg home page and is automatically jettisoned if it receives enough "bury story" demerits. It's very Darwinian.

Ordinarily, an archived piece such as Boutin's might garner a couple of hits a month for Slate, but the Digg referral produced 26,506 page views of it in one day. The user who nominated Boutin's story, "Pitfan," submitted it to Digg on Monday, June 26. It's the only submission he's ever made to Digg under that name, although he's dugg 129 pieces since registering on the site in November 2005. As I write this Friday morning, Boutin's story has earned 1,586 diggs, which makes it the 65th-most-dugg story on Digg's Technology section this week. That's not a huge number of diggs by the site's standards. The most-dugg story of the week in the Tech section is a Digg blog piece about the rollout version 3.0 of Digg, with 10,317.

The dramatic resurrection of Boutin's story inspired me to compose a piece about Digg—the column you're reading now—and to digg it under the username "ShaferAtSlate" within minutes after Slate posts it to test the referral power of Digg. If Digg can steer enough readers to an old story about a marginal Web site to make it one of Slate's top stories, what might it do for a fresh story about a powerful Web site?

Ordinarily, my columns pull anywhere between 8,000 and 40,000 page views a day, the traffic being determined by the sexiness of my subject and other variables. I credit blog discussions of my columns about blogs, New Orleans, race, and TV blondes with generating tens of thousands of additional page views. I always benefit from links from Romenesko, the top aggregator of press news and opinion, and when a "Press Box" appears on the Slate home page with a big illustration or graces the MSN home page, my average page counts can double, triple, or grow by 10X.

In my pursuit of extra hits, I've taken what I consider to be an ethical and transparent path. There's nothing inherently wrong about promoting something you wrote, especially if you promote it using your own name. If you don't digg yourself, who will? Digg's terms of service prohibit individuals from creating multiple accounts to artificially inflate a digg count, a policy I consider sensible. Inflating digg counts with multiple accounts is as sleazy as fraudulently boosting the Amazon ranking of a book you've written by purchasing them in bulk from the site. (Some authors have done just this.)

If I were a craven seeker of hits, I'd link directly to my Digg submission here. Instead, I'll offer only a modest pointer: If you want to digg or bury this piece, search for "slate.com" in Digg's search window  and scroll the results until you find it. (At present that search query returns 21 Slate stories.) The summary of my story will explain who I am and why I wrote the column and submitted it. Upon submission of my piece I'll also send e-mail to the Digg team to inform them of this experiment. If they decide this experiment violates their terms of service—which I don't think they will—they'll be free to delete my digg from the site.

In my mad quest for hits, I've given myself a leg up by writing about Digg instead of, say, puppy-dog tails. Digg users love stories about the site. At least six of Digg's top 30 stories this year are about it, and most are about technology, owing to its origin as a tech-centric site. The more techie an article, the better its chance of rising, I've observed. But Digg's tech focus is changing, with beta sections named Science, Videos, Entertainment, Gaming, and World & Business now rounding out the site.

The surge of hits Digg sent to Slate proves that Web sites with lots of stories in the bank—we've published about 33,000 stories in 10 years—could better exploit those archives. We routinely "recycle" old stories when events give them new relevance, we published a list of the most-read stories from 2005 in late December, and in our 10th anniversary celebration last week we exhumed some of our greatest hits to commercial success. If the digging of Boutin is any guide, readers are eager to trust other like-minded readers to guide them to good content. Maybe Web sites like Slate should set up Digg-like voting booths to do that. Slate's discussion forum, "The Fray," which already requires registration, could be adapted to this end.

Will my quest offend Digg users as an evil manipulation of their beloved site and prompt them to bury my submission? They tend to despise users who engage in self-promotion on the site. Or will they judge my story on its own merits?

I'll be back in a couple of days with a follow-up reporting whether I got dugg or buried.

******

Bloggers, don't try this Digg experiment at home before you read Monetize's "Can Your Site Survive a Digg?" The piece predicts that the tidal wave of hits could swamp and sink your site if you're not prepared! Send ideas for other "Press Box" Web experiments to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. EarthLink folks: Turn off your spam filters if you want me to write back.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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