Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Stats
Screen capture 28th January; text figures updated 30th January

 

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Benjamin Disraeli (attributed)

Do you look at your blog’s statistics, as provided by the backroom boys and girls of WordPress? (Or, rather, merely thrown up due to some clever programming?) Perhaps you think it’s as infra dig as Googling™ your name? Well, I’m a reprobate and beyond succour because not only do I check up how easy it is to find out all my details online (frighteningly so — have you tried yours?) but I also give a more than cursory glance to WP’s stats (or as 19th-century wisdom has it, the third and worst kind of lie).

Now in amongst all the figures a couple of things struck me. First, in this one month of January 2016 I have had as many views as I had in the nine months of 2012 when I first started blogging. Well, it’s good to know that I’m getting something right and reaching a wider audience.

But secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, I discover that some of that audience — many if not most probably not WP bloggers — seem to have a penchant for the occult and conspiracies. How do I suspect this? Well, have a look at some lies — ahem — viewing figures from the start of 2014 to near the end of January 2016:

2014 3,805
Procopius: The Secret History      395

2015 10,808
Procopius: The Secret History      376
Lev Grossman: The Magicians      292

2016   1,661
Lev Grossman: The Magicians      304

Here’s the thing: in 2014 a significant number of searches (just under 10% of the total views) were for a 6th-century Byzantine gossiping historian, Procopius; then in 2015 the number remained more or less stable but accounted for only about 3% of the views; while so far in 2016 Procopius is nowhere to be seen (you might expect perhaps around thirty views if the pattern continued). I have no explanation as to why the imperial couple Justinian and Theodora were so popular for those two years, but perhaps the history’s title, The Secret History, was responsible. Unless people thought Procopius wrote Donna Tartt’s first big success.

Meanwhile, another search favourite has taken over Procopius’ top spot for blog posts here: Lev Grossman’s engrossing Fillory tales, especially the first of the trilogy (The Magicians). Now the big spike for January — surpassing the whole of 2015’s searches for Fillory — can be explained by the book’s adaptation as a TV series. The fact that discussion around the series (which began on 25th January on the SyFy channel) has been decidedly mixed seems not to have punctured the interest generated way back at the start of 2015.

Of course all this could be a farrago of confabulations, based on little or no detailed analysis which, in any case, is based on no qualitative investigating. So it may all be lies, if not damned lies, cunningly masquerading as statistics; as Mark Twain (who attributed my opening quote to Disraeli) is said to have said, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” Somehow Donald Rumsfeld’s unwittingly witty “unknown unknowns” spring to mind in this context.

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21 thoughts on “Lies, damned lies, and statistics

  1. In my own experience (of my site statistics) and knowledge of SEO, I would say that the title of the post is one of the most influential aspects of each post, followed by the initial content which should follow through from the title. Having said that, I believe it is most important to enjoy what you do and not get too wound up in trying to get things right just for Google. There is a mine full of information I could go through with regard to marketing but in the end it all comes to nothing if you can’t enjoy doing what you do. And as you say (or rather, Mark Twain), stats are pliable, so I would say, always take them with some understanding and a large pinch of salt!

    1. Absolutely, Alastair, I’m doing this first and foremost for my own enjoyment, not to sell a product. I’d rather put up a synoptic literary post title that satisfies me than a bald recap such as ‘Review of Such-and-Such Title by So-and-So Author’ which might draw more views. Search Engine Optimization (what spammers mostly seem to promise to improve for me) is all very well but I’d rather have decent conversations with a handful of informed and interested readers than hordes of browsers contributing nothing useful to the dialogue.

      You’ll have guessed anyway from the tone of the post that it’s really all tongue-in-cheek, that the statistics are only of passing interest to me. While it’s vaguely satisfying to see the number of visitors to a page or post, they’re mostly just ships that pass in the night.

    2. By the way, I think I’ve worked out how it is that my Procopius post (http://wp.me/s2oNj1-secret) gets so many views: my collage of Wikipedia photos featuring the Emperor Justinian and his wife comes very high up (top three usually) in image searches for ‘Justinian and Theodora’. Tagging and captioning images may well be just as effective a way to achieve optimization as selecting a post’s title, category and tag.

  2. Reminds me of the also variously attributable quote, “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Your notes here support the qualitative side of the qualitative v quantitative research argument: if data can be massaged or spun to support any going hypothesis, they are meaningless. But congrats anyway on your high numbers! Take them to mean you have some loyal followers.

    1. Thanks for your supportive comments, Lizzie, and confirming my hopes. For some the accumulation of myriads of followers and hosts of likes from strangers seems to be a validation of their self-worth and a measure of celebrity. But I’d rather have a meaningful conversation with like-minded people, even if it sometimes means agreeing to disagree if opinions don’t always coincide.

      Just read your fascinating post about Arthur Ransome and will add some spurious comment or other on your blog presently!

  3. My top post used to be a books v film review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but then I moved the blog to self-hosting and since then my top post has been a Five Books Set in Venice one wrote years ago! Sadly it’s often the case that a TV series or film, or something universal like books set in Venice that spark the page views rather than posts about individual tomes. It can be fascinating looking at blog stats though… 🙂

    1. You’re so right, Annabel, we’d both like to think our scintillating and erudite reviews were what grabbed readers’ attention but that’s rarely the case, and your experience is similar to mine. My best post — reviewing an academic study of The Tempest — didn’t attract the hordes of admiring Shakespearean scholars that I might have been led to expect for, reblogged by hocuspocus13, most of the likers were like her lovers of the ‘magickal arts’, drawn by the references to magic in the play’s action and the tag.

      The second most popular was just prior to a house move when I intimated a hiatus in blogging was imminent; so many of the comments were good wishes, for which I was very grateful. The third highest was another review, this time of Philip Pullman’s YA novel The Broken Bridge, but the larger than normal traffic was because the redoubtable kateshrewsday had very kindly reblogged it, and her followers are legion!

      None of these three chart-topping posts would be explicable without a very close interrogation not just of the bare figures but also of the stats small print, along with a judicious examination of the text, tags and comments.

  4. This post made me laugh. Our experience is that posts with cats or dogs in them get the most hits! Like you, we fondly imagine that there’s a group of witty lateral-thinking readers out there just longing for the kind of thing we post – good luck with that, as Sarah Palin might say. But, like your individual speaking voice, a blog is you.

    1. Witty lateral-thinking readers? I think you fit that bill! Thanks for your response, confirmation that if we’re true to ourselves it follows that we can’t be false to others (to paraphrase a certain somebody with an anniversary this year).

      1. The other interesting aspect of this is the followers. We have some very unlikely people signing up as followers who are never heard of again. Presumably they do this so that we’ll follow them and thus their numbers mount, but usually we don’t. Still they don’t bother to press the Unfollow button. Their inboxes must be flooded with notices from all the blogs they’ve signed up to without really wanting to read them. We don’t apply this to you – we like the cut of your jib, ma’am, so we will reciprocate the follow and look forward to further conversations.

  5. I wrote a post way back when ( https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/follow/ ) exactly on this theme, and what you say is absolutely true. So long as nobody is harmed it doesn’t worry me too much!

    By the way, I’m intrigued, even flattered, that you assume I’m female, but I’m Christopher, not Christine! I only use Christopher for professional reasons — plus, my mother called me this, especially when I was in trouble! — so ‘Chris’ despite the ambiguity is how most people know me. 🙂

      1. My days of sweet curly hair are long gone, sadly, unless you count that on my chinny-chin-chin! Ah well, saves on shampoo and conditioner I suppose. 🙂 Thank you for the pingback!

  6. Pingback: Cute kittens, fluffy puppies and Kim Kardashian | Gert Loveday

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