Under assault for liberal bias, Politico’s traffic dives

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Internet traffic and Web search measurement tools from several sources indicate that despite massive promotion efforts on MSNBC and in other venues, is rapidly losing readers, especially outside of Washington, D.C.

Measurements of U.S. Web traffic provided to The Daily Caller by Compete, Inc. indicate that the number of total monthly visits to dropped by 31.8 percent during the 18-month period that ended on October 31.

During that same period, and perhaps not coincidentally, Politico has come under sustained criticism from many observers, including Fox News Channel anchors and several prominent radio hosts, for exhibiting liberal bias in its news stories.

Other third-party traffic measurements also indicate a recent traffic decline for Politico.

Yet a glowing review of the news outlet published Wednesday by the American Journalism Review, a project of the University of Maryland Foundation, claimed it “receives nearly 60 million pageviews per month from between 8 million and 11 million unique visitors.”

Jodi Enda, the article’s author, wrote that she relied on Politico’s “internal tracking” for those numbers.

Enda, a freelancing former Philadelphia Inquirer national correspondent who has also been published in the liberal American Prospect, Mother Jones and the Huffington Post, told The Daily Caller in a phone conversation that her “researcher” fact-checked the numbers. Enda did not, however, name that researcher.

Afterward, Politico confirmed to TheDC during a follow-up conversation that Enda contacted the publication to verify the numbers it had given her.

Enda also did not say whether she or anyone else verified Politico’s self-reported Web traffic numbers against other, independent measurements.

“Tracking numbers are all over the lot for online publications, so we used Politico’s internal numbers and attributed the information accordingly,” she emailed The Daily Caller Thursday, in response to questions about her article.

Statistics provided to TheDC by Compete — one of many independent traffic arbiters — also show that from October 2009 through October 2011, total monthly visits to dropped by more than 11.5 percent. And the average number of times each of Politico’s readers actually visited the website declined by 24.7 percent during the same two-year period.

While Compete indicates that the number of “unique” visitors to increased by 17.4 percent during the same period, the raw number of unique visitors it reported for Politico in October 2011 was just 2.96 million — a number far lower than similar measurements provided to The Daily Caller by measurement services run by Nielsen, Inc., and comScore.

Lincoln Merrihew, Compete’s Managing Director of Business Insights, told TheDC that there could be two explanations for why Politico’s readers are returning to the site less often than they used to.

“So what you can say is that [either] the site is so much better, and therefore people are able to get all the news they need in fewer visits,” said Merrihew, “or it’s become much worse, and more confusing, therefore people are getting frustrated and visiting less.”

Compete’s online measurements show that suffered an 8.6 percent decrease in unique visitors between October 2010 and October 2011. By comparison, enjoyed a 111 percent increase, and increased its unique visitor traffic by 100 percent. Other news websites had similar growth.

Compete bases its conclusions on measurements taken from a sample of 2 million U.S. web surfers.

“We stand by our numbers,” a Politico spokesman told The Daily Caller on Thursday, insisting that Politico’s own traffic measurements — collected by Omniture, an Adobe program used to measure Web traffic data — were more accurate than any third-party measurements.

It is common for traffic figures generated internally by a website’s owner to be nearly double those compiled by independent analysts. Traffic-measuring firms like Compete, Nielsen, comScore and Experian take steps to correct for factors that skew results, including the double-counting of individuals who may visit a given website from home, work, mobile phones or Internet-ready gaming consoles.

Politico’s spokesperson seemed to confirm this kind of over-counting bias, telling TheDC, “We count every single hit to our site.”

In response to questions from The Daily Caller, Politico also declined to specify the period of time during which it took the Web traffic measurements it shared with Enda. Politico would only state that those numbers were recent, and that they represented a “range” of visitor traffic.

Google claims its “Insights for Search” product reflects “how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time.” Politico receives a large portion of its traffic from Google — 16 percent, according to Alexa Internet, Inc.’s “clickstream” measurement.

According to Google, U.S. interest in Politico as a news source rose 256 percent during the past three years. But Politico’s influence appears strong only in those regions nearest to Washington, D.C.

Google measures online interest on a relative scale from zero to 100, with the top end representing the highest level of interest. On this scale, as of Dec. 1, Politico receives its strongest rating — a score of 100 — from Web surfers in the District of Columbia.

Virginia and Maryland, the states nearest to D.C., provide Politico’s second- and third-most “interested” audiences, with scores of 35 and 33, respectively. (Politico is based in Virginia.)

From there, however, the numbers drop off precipitously. New York ranks fourth with an “interest” score of 20. Massachusetts and California were tied for fifth with scores of 16. Other states in the U.S. interior, including Iowa and Utah, showed zero interest.

By contrast, Enda’s Nov. 30 American Journalism Review story claimed “only 11 percent” of Politico’s visitors “live in the Washington area.” Again, Enda attributed this statistic to Politico’s own “internal tracking.”

Other news organizations enjoy a far more consistent appeal outside the D.C. beltway.

Google measurements from 2004 to the present indicate that Bloomberg News has held a high level of appeal across the Northeast region of the United States. In order, New York scored 100, the District of Columbia scored 89, New Jersey scored 70, Connecticut scored 62 and Massachusetts scored 50.

Real Clear Politics demonstrated a high level of interest across an even broader geographic range during the same seven-year period. After its Politico-matching score of 100 from the District of Columbia and a rating of 65 from Maryland, Colorado placed third with a score of 58, New Mexico was fourth with 56, and Missouri ranked fifth with 55.

Politico’s only self-published numbers, found in its online media kit, represent the first six months of 2009. According to that press kit, the “site averaged on a monthly basis” 3.23 million unique visitors — a number larger than the October 2011 figure of 2.96 million reported by Compete.

Website traffic to political websites varies according to the shifting winds of election cycles, increasing during presidential election years and falling at other times. Andrew Lipsman, Vice President of Industry Analysis at comScore, Inc., told TheDC he thought Politico’s online traffic fits that mold.

“I think this is a site that gets more awareness with the election cycle,” Lipsman said.

comScore reported that 4.48 million U.S.-based visitors came to during October. The measurements in Politico’s media kit were generated by Nielsen Online, whose most recent statistics indicate that had 4.2 million unique visitors in September. By comparison, the liberal Huffington Post had 29.7 million unique visitors during the same month.

The Daily Caller, a much newer offering than either the Huffington Post or Politico, had 2.8 million unique visitors during September.

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