This is the story about a girl that’s actually a dude who’s brought in 3.8 – 19.4 million visitors* to Village Voice Media websites by gaming Digg.

Village Voice Media appears to be running an organized reciprocal Digg campaign using staff at their network of alt-weekly newspapers across the United States. Two Digg users, Ivanb and Philostrato, are responsible for the vast majority of that traffic:

Village Voice Media Front Page Diggs By Ivanb or Philostrato by Property

Backstory

A recent article in the Minnesota Independent included an interesting look into Village Voice Media’s Minnesota property, CityPages.com’s, traffic. In that article, CityPages’ editor, Kevin Hoffman boasted about recent phenomenal success of one of CityPages.com’s blogs, The Blotter:

In October, Hoffman said, the blog garnered around 35,000 page views; by December, that number rose to around 250,000.

How does one manage to grow a blog’s traffic by 7X over two months? The subject piqued my interest.

I presumed that this was not a case of sudden organic growth based on the fact that the site has had the same author over that entire time period (Emily Kaiser) and hasn’t grown a large RSS subscriber base of loyal readers (less than 100 Google Reader subscribers).

What’s changed? CityPages’ effectiveness at getting front-paged on Digg appears to have played a significant role.

What’s Digg?

Digg.com is a social media website where people submit news stories, photos, videos and blog posts they think are remarkable and thus worth sharing. Other users view the shared content, and if they like it, vote it up by clicking a Digg button next to that story. Stories receiving the most Diggs are promoted to the front page of Digg.com, which leads to enormous spikes in traffic (20,000 – 100,000 visits within hours is quite common).

A site that is good at getting “Dugg” will boost its traffic numbers significantly through occasional floods of Digg users to the front-paged story.

CityPages.com’s Digg History

Historically (we’re talking Internet time here, so back to 2006), CityPages.com has received little traction on Digg.com. However, that has changed in recent months, as this chart of successful City Pages front page stories shows:

Citypages.com's Frontpage Diggs By Month

Coincidentally, CityPages started to see more front page Digg success around the time that City Pages web editor, Jen Boyles, joined Digg:

Digg / jbizzy / History / Submissions

Jen is an active Digg user, and personally submits a ton of CityPages.com’s stories to Digg, as you can see here (jbizzy is Jen’s username on Digg):

Search for "citypages"

If you look at the numbers to the left of each story submission, you’ll see that the ones submitted by jbizzy received few votes while stories submitted by IvanB received a TON of votes. Those are examples of stories that made it to Digg’s homepage. IvanB is a lot better than Jen at pimping CityPages’ stories on Digg.

Coincidentally, Jen Boyles’ Digg friends seem to live in cities where Village Voice Media properties are located, including Minneapolis, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston and St. Louis:

Jen Boyles' Digg Friend's Locations

Ivanb and Philostrato

Who are the influential Digg users ivanb and philostrato? I figured someone at Village Voice Media would know (Jen Boyles is a mutual friend of both of them as the screenshot below shows):

Jbizzy's Friends: Ivanb and Philostrato

Representatives from CityPages and Village Voice Media both refused to answer questions regarding their identities over the past week.

You can learn a lot about someone’s interests based on what they submit to Digg. Here is a breakdown of the top-25 web properties these two users have submitted:

Philostrato's Top-25 Submitted Properties - Jan 2008 - Jan 2009

Ivanb's Digg Submissions - Jan 2008 - Jan 2009

What kind of people read essentially every local alt-weekly owned by Village Voice Media and submits stories from those sites to Digg on a frequent basis? Clearly, people with a financial interest in seeing VVM properties get dugg. Philostrato’s profile places “her” in Houston. I say, “her” because I don’t believe someone who looks like this spends their days on Digg:

philostrato

Ivanb, on the other hand, may or may not look like this:

ivanb

Philostrato Has Balls

Just for fun, I’m going state the obvious: The Digg user Philostrato is NOT a she, but a he (pictured on the right here and left here). Philostrato is a he by the name of Keith Plocek, whose work titles are:

* Social Media Manager at Village Voice Media
* Web Editor at Houston Press

Exactly the kind of roles a person would have who obsesses over Village Voice Media’s web traffic.

Ivanb and Philostrato Are Good at What They Do

Why is Village Voice Media so reliant on these two Digg users? Because being influential on Digg takes a lot of effort and skill. Much more effort and skill than typical VVM employees have shown to date.

Digg takes a lot of variables into consideration when weighing a vote (digg) on their system. If someone only Diggs their own website’s stories, their votes will begin to carry less weight. It’s important to diversify your Diggs if you want your occasional self-diggs to carry weight. For example, Ivanb has dugg over 60,000 stories on Digg and maintains an almost 60:1 ratio between posts he diggs to posts he submits. Jbizzy, on the other hand, is running around 8:1 (and almost all of her Diggs are for other VVM properties).

Is Digging Part of the Job for Village Voice Media Employees?

CityPages Blotter writer, Emily Kaiser, appears to have been brought under Jen Boyles’ Digg wing and is now actively digging her own stories (and stories from other VVM properties) after Jen submits them. Here’s a breakdown of what Emily has dugg to date:

Citypages Diggs by Emily Kaiser

and who submitted those stories to Digg:

Citypages Diggs by Emily Kaiser

Another CityPages employees who’s playing along is Ward Rubrecht. Others may be doing so under less obvious Digg usernames. (I do appreciate Emily and Ward’s transparency. Jen Boyles used to include her name on her profile but has since switched to displaying just her Digg username).

Does any of this matter?

I believe it does, and here’s why: Village Voice Media serves up local advertiser’s ads against this type of traffic. As CityPages’ Publisher, Mark Bartel explained in the comments of a previous post, Digg strategies contribute a significant amount of traffic to their site:

Traffic from digg.com represented 8% of our traffic over the last 30 days.

It can range anywhere from 1 percent to 10 percent in a given month.

Mark stated that they plan to switch to geotargeting ads soon (showing local ads to local audiences rather than to national or international visitors who are not relevant to local advertisers), which is certainly a move is the right direction. Frankly, Digg traffic is fairly worthless for most advertisers (at least those paying on an impression basis) and for publishers (if they’re earning on a per click or conversion basis). I’ve written about this previously.

Marco Arment has also written about the poor quality of Digg traffic from an advertiser’s perspective. His comparison of his site’s typical traffic vs. traffic on days where he gets Dugg is worth studying:

What Digg traffic looks like

* 0.66% average click-through rate (CTR) on normal days
* 0.10% click-through rate from Digg traffic

Ad profits are often measured in cost (for the advertisers… profit for the site owner) per 1,000 pages viewed (CPM).

* $2.00 effective CPM on normal days
* $0.92 effective CPM from Digg traffic

That’s quite a difference. I wouldn’t want to pay the same amount
for Digg referred traffic (that leads to clicks less than 1/6th as often) as I would for more organically grown traffic.

Here’s my take on this traffic tactic

1. Digg has plenty of weaknesses. Their ranking algorithm is too easily gamed by networks by motivated users. CityPages.com’s recent Digg success – with no correlation with the quality of the content – makes that case.

2. Advertisers buying impression-based advertising from any website should ask where the site’s traffic is coming from. If Digg users are what you’re looking for, you could just as easily buy traffic directly on Digg.

3. A publisher performing well on Digg is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many long-term benefits to it, including raising awareness about an online property and link building (especially in the form of links that come from people blogging about stuff they found on Digg).

What’s your take?

Do you think the Village Voice Media advertisers who are having their ads served up against the 3.8 – 19.4 million visits generated by Ivanb and Philostrato are getting their money’s worth?

Is Digg too easily gamed by people like Ivanb and Philostrato?

Will Ivanb or Philostrato Digg this story?

* This is based on an oft-cited figure of a frontpage Digg generating between 20,000 – 100,000 visits.

** The data used for this post can be found in the multiple tabs of this Google Docs Spreadsheet.

Further Reading

For more perspectives on this, check out David Brauer, Brian Lambert, Secrets of the City, Romenesko, D Magazine, Reddit, Minnesota Independent, Cory Crow, The Stranger, Fark, or Digg.