Friday, May 11, 2007

Running This Blog: Addendum

This morning, when I was playing with the new Google Analytics, I realized a few things which I wanted to add to the original Running This Blog post. Instead of modifying that post, I decided I had enough material to make a new post. But read the original post first!

I'm still getting used to the new Google Analytics interface. I will say the look is much nicer (see right; if the screenshot looks funny it is because it is from my Linux machine at work). The new interface also seems to have more capabilities in terms of drilling down to specific data. For example, how many people visited today? Where were they from? What pages do people in California look at? What web sites did they come from?


The first important revelation is that my traffic from Strobist is not bounces off Technorati, it is from the backlinks on Strobist. Backlinks are a list of pages on Blog*Spot (and other places -- I'm not exactly sure what or who is responsible for tracking them) which link to a given page. So, when I looked at the sources in the new GA this morning, I could actually find out where the references came from (see the bottom of the lede above).

Turns out, by linking to Strobist, Strobist automatically linked back to me in a very relevant fashion. My most popular page over the last three weeks is AoaP: eBay Lens. If you look at the Strobist referring page (the second $10 DIY Macro page) I'm the third link down. Not too shabby. It probably helps a lot that the title of my post shows my page will be useful to them. Looking through the info on GA, I found that all of my popular pages are popular due to backlinks on Strobist. I also vaguely remember the Strobist post that mentioned the backlinks, but then promptly forgot about it until today.

I went ahead and enabled backlinks here and figured out a few things. First, it will add backlinks for your own pages. This could be useful as a secondary site-navigation method if you do a lot of self-linking to help people get around your blog (like I do). Second, it will backlink to sites not on Blog*Spot: I have had a backlink on at least one page which looked like some sort of blog post aggregator. Third, since the blog owner can delete links, I got rid of the link above because it doesn't lead anywhere useful.

Backlinks are really helpful things for a blog-owner: not only will Blogger build a list of useful links for you, you can control which links show up. It even shows a little preview of what is in the linked page if you click the triangle!

Signal to Noise Ratio

While I was pondering the deeper meaning of backlinks (you can tell I'm a computer scientist) I realized why Strobist is such a fabulous site: it has a high signal to noise ratio. But, maybe it is best to explain the signal to noise ratio (SNR) in terms of digital photography.

All digital imaging chips have a certain amount of noise which usually manifests itself as variations in color and intensity (often called image grain). Now, if you make sure to spread the pixel values of the image (signal) across the full range of possible pixel intensities, you'll have a pretty clean image. But, lets say you really underexpose... and then try to recover the lost data. Amplifying the signal (increasing contrast) to cover the full range of pixel values will also amplify the noise, giving you a grainy image even though your contrast is good.

The same signal and noise relationship occurs with ISO. If you increase ISO, you are just telling the imaging chip to be more light sensitive. But, increasing ISO also makes the chip more sensitive to noise (which is at a constant level). That is why high ISO images are grainy. Low signal to noise means grainy (noisy) images, high signal to noise means clean (smooth) images.

The signal to noise ratio relates across many disciplines, especially in my area of research, robotics. I constantly deal with noise in my sensors and software. But it also applies to web content. For instance, in a typical thread on Facebook, you probably won't find much useful content; mostly it is teenage girls chatting back and forth about their day or who looked at their boyfriend the wrong way (I'm not looking forward to my daughter growing up, can you tell?). That means a low signal (information) to noise (everything else) ratio. A reference site, like Wikipedia, has a pretty high signal to noise ratio -- a lot of information, very little useless chatter. Of course, one man's signal could be another man's noise. Ditto for women.

I've found that blogs (especially comments on blogs) and online forums often have a low signal to noise ratio. Not too many nuggets of wisdom are buried in the description of what the blogger did the previous day. Even worse, since many bloggers don't link their posts enough, you could see the tail end of an interesting idea and then search for a half an hour to find the earlier post that discusses it. A low SNR as far as I am concerned.

SNR even applies to my family; sometimes my son goes on for ten minutes about something he could sum up in two sentences. I've considered telling him that he has a low SNR but then I'd have to explain what it means!

On Strobist, Mr. Hobby edits his pages to make sure they are kept up to date and everything follows logically from previous posts and other parts of the site. In a sense, it is less of a blog and more of a web site which happens to use Blogger for editing, but the end result is a useful resource where you can quickly find the information you find useful (if off-camera lighting appeals to you).

As far as I'm concerned, increasing the SNR should be every writer's goal (web page or otherwise). So, how can you increase your SNR?

  1. Edit mercilously and try to avoid long-winded explanations (my problem).
  2. Link appropriately so people can find what they are looking for.
  3. Analyze your audience and adjust content to what they are interested in.
Pretty basic stuff, but good things to keep in mind as you work on each entry.

And did I mention that Google Analytics could help you with #3?

Later: I'm not the only one who has noticed the influence of Strobist readers spilling out to other blogs through the backlinks. I found out about Wiedebas' blog when he left a comment, and found out about Chris (who also has seen a jump in readers from Strobist) through one of Wiedebas' entries. Wiedebas also brought George Barr's Behind The Lens to my attention. I'll need to spend some time reading through their pages (and other bloggers). Or, I suppose I could actually do some work while I am at work...

I guess I forget how useful leaving comments is in terms of networking in the Blogosphere. My biggest problem is just finding time to read them.


Wiedebas said...

Something important I noticed about the bounce rate when you run a weblog. Since you use Blogger all posts end up in index.html unless someone links directly to your article.
If a regular reader visits your website they are likely to go straight to your blog page, which is / in the statistics, scroll down and read your latest articles and then leave as they've already read the stuff below.
That gives you a bounce... which in traditional terms would mean that your site is so boring that people leave, but if you're running a blog that could also mean that you've got a steady visitor.

Sean said...

Yeah, I've noticed that too. I expect it is a limitation of the script GA sticks in your page -- it is only run when the page is loaded (and sometimes when you click on exiting links).

Google Analytics does distinguish between new and returning visitors though, which helps a little bit. But it does make it really hard to see what people are interested in when they hit the main blog page.

For instance, when you hit my blog this morning (PST) I could tell because it listed a returning visitor from Belgium. The new version of GA makes it much easier to get more and more specific about specific users (first choose returning visitors, then location, then city, etc). I wish there was even more info though, but I'm sure there's lots of privacy issues with that.