How CityPages’ Ad Department is Gaming Their Restaurant Reviews

CityPages.com has integrated a relatively new feature called LikeMe where, as the name implies, they attempt to create venue recommendations for places to eat, drink, and do things based on what people “LikeMe” do. In theory, it’s a great idea for a restaurant review website or website feature.

However, here are a few things you may want to know about this particular offering from CityPages and Village Voice Media before signing up:

1. The community isn’t much of a community at this point, and without more users it doesn’t seem to be capable of making decent recommendations. That’s based on my assessment of the site’s quality during my short use of it.

2. It claims to have a database of 4,000,000 restaurants nationwide, although the directory feels much less comprehensive based on how the information is organized.

3. The kicker: A HUGE portion of the site’s reviews are written by people working in the advertising department at CityPages.

While the folks who work in ad sales are probably really (MN) nice people, what type of reviews would you expect to get from people who have a financial relationship with the businesses they’re reviewing? Exactly. Not only are constructive, occasionally negative reviews few and far between, the positive reviews seemed hedged since they don’t dare play favorites among their clients. Talk about a no-win situation. Of course, it’s not only no-win for the sales people who’ve been instructed to write the reviews. CityPages’ visitors most likely don’t realize they’re reading reviews from venues being promoted by paper’s the ad department.

For example, LikeMe user, MaggieC2 is marketing coordinator Maggie Curran. She’s written eighteen enlightening reviews to date. Here are a few examples (note: these are her full reviews, not snippets):

Loring Pasta Bar: Very cool outside/inside restaurant. I like that.
Chipotle: I eat chipotle once a week. I always get the barbacoa (spicy beef). Delicious. Chipotle, chipotle, chipotle.
Bulldog: One now open in St. Paul!

“One now open in St. Paul . . . exclamation point?” Is that a review or a promotion? Is the place is Minneapolis so bad that she’s secretly telling us to check out the St. Paul location instead? I’m confused.

Here’s IreneP, CityPages sales manager, Irene Iacovou Peterson in action:

Fine Line: A local favorite for music.
JD Hoyt’s: A great place for a steak.

In 14 reviews, IreneP couldn’t find a single negative thing to say about anywhere in town. Universally positive. Granted, she didn’t write much of anything.

CityPages Sales Operations Manager, EmilyN, Emily Neumann, is wordy by comparison with one-paragraph long “reviews”:

Stellas: STEEELLLLAAAAAAA A Street Car Named Desire..need I say more! I mean…really as if the beer being on Tap doesn’t fulfull your urge to scream this line at every turn, Stella’s permits you to yell it out all night (Much to the dismay of your co-drinkers) but hey…after a few Oyster shots…you’re not going to care…cause everyone will be your STELLLLAAAA
Punch: Punch me drunk..silly and sideways. Gosh darn this is good pizza! Plus…an orange sign..it just makes you happy!
JD Hoyt’s: Smoky, Cajun Cahrcoal Grilled food, with the service and food of a Four Star Restaurant, but a atmosphere that makes you feel like your family. Try their Pork Chops, you’ll never find anything else like them!

We’re the kind of place you look for when you travel to a new city – a friendly , shining, non-corporate place that showcases all that is good about the city that it calls home, the kind of place your cab driver might take you if you ask for the best steak or pork chop in town. Great food, staff, service, wine list and special cocktails. Our award winning entrees are prepared on our custom designed 100% hardwood burning charcoal grill, searing your order to juicy perfection

That ambitious attempt at a second paragraph by EmilyN seems inconsistent with her previous writing. Why did she suddenly start spelling things correctly, without a ton of ellipsis, and switch to first person plural?

Maybe it’s because she ripped that content directly from the About page on JD Hoyt’s website? A quick check of that copy on Google shows:

JD Hoyt's Text Stolen by Emily

Yes, she’s actually plagiarizing her reviews using the website of the place she’s reviewing.

What we have have here is yet another case of Village Voice Media gaming online communities for financial gain. (Yes, this is bigger than just CityPages.) Jonah Spangenthal-Lee summarizes the situation nicely in previous coverage at The Stranger:

The majority of Likeme’s reviews—which appear on 12 VVM websites, next to editorial content about the businesses—are written by ad representatives for VVM. The reviews, which are exclusively positive, focus on businesses that advertise in VVM papers.

Not only are the reviews glowingly positive, poorly written, and sometimes plagiarized, there is no disclosure on the site that they’re coming not from people “LikeMe” but advertising staff. People visiting CityPages.com generally don’t fit that “LikeMe” profile.

Manipulating the Community in Practice

The homepage and the front of the restaurants section of CityPages.com include LikeMe.net widgets like this one where Pizza Luce is listed as one of their, “City Pages Reader Recommendations”:

Pizza Luce Recommendations

Presumably, venues featured here are getting a lot of buzz within the LikeMe.net community on CityPages.com.

Based on what is labeled as “reader recommendations,” people may click through to find out more about, say, Pizza Luce. On CityPages’ Pizza Luce page, you’ll find this widget from LikeMe.net:

Pizza Luce Recommendations

Who are these three enthusiastic reviewers of Pizza Luce? They’re CityPages employees:

– Account Executive Katie Riddle (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Account Executive Betsy Schrag (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Graphic Designer Emily Utne (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)

Three for three on “Reader Recommendations” coming from people “LikeMe” who work for CityPages.

The “People who like Pizza Luce also like” portion of the widget should be changed to say, “People with a financial interest in Pizza Luce’s ad dollars also have a financial interest in the following companies’ ad dollars.”

Other people in the box of six “Readers” who like Pizza Luce include:

– Advertising Director, Jeff Hunsaker (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Marketing Manager Holly Hunt (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Village Voice Media’s Corporate Administrator Heather Dobbins* (who likes Pizza Luce’s money)
– Classifieds coordinator Tracie Garcia (who likes Pizza Luce’s money).

That’s seven out of seven “people LikeMe” who all have a financial interest in making Pizza Luce look good by promoting advertiser’s venues.

CityPages is pissing away the trust of their users by handing over control of their restaurant reviews to their advertising department. It’s a sad state of affairs because the site has historically done a nice job with restaurant reviews.

How to Fix This

1. If they participate, clearly label Village Voice Media and CityPages employees on the site. (But think twice about whether that’s a good idea).

2. How about having the food writers do the writing? They’re good at that sort of thing.

Hopefully, by taking a big step back, providing better disclosure, and doing a clean-up of the current content can turn this feature around from something manipulative to something valuable for CityPages.com’s readers.

Want Another CityPages Post? Pay For It

My posts regarding CityPages and Village Voice Media have been darn popular with everyone other than CityPages employees. So popular, in fact, that while talking to a friend tonight, they suggested, “Why not charge for them?”

Sure, beer was involved in this conversation, so I know they were on something, but I think they may also be onto something.

Without further adieu, here is the first Donate for The Deets post here on The Deets.

If you’d like to read yet another post about something I’ve uncovered at CityPages and Village Voice Media, cough up some coin. A net positive $50 in payments guarantees the post goes live on Thursday as planned.

Here’s the caveat: People can also pay to keep the post from going live. I call this the dueling pianos concept. The post has been proofread and described as, “Wow, that’s good stuff.”

Pick your side. Payments can be made in increments of $1 up to and beyond $50 (change the quantity to whatever you’d like after clicking the Add to Cart button).

Update: Y’all coughed up some coin in no time. The post is now live. If you like or don’t like what you read here, feel free to send me money.


Should Ed Post It?



Fine print:

1. Money received goes into Ed’s pocket. This isn’t altruism, people. It’s some kind of new form of journalism (or whatever you call this bloggity blog stuff I do).

2. The PayPal checkout page will say 3rd Party Feedback (another one of my projects). If any of you are PayPal checkout gurus who know how to customize checkout by project, give me a shout.

3. Privacy: When donating, I’ll know who you are but will not reveal your identity without your permission.

4. Props to Jeffrey McManus for writing a blog post that helped inspire this concept.

Newspaper Association of America Misrepresents My Reporting

The Newspaper Association of America did everything they could to turn a 180 on the point my article about newspaper network Village Voice Media’s gaming of Digg in a recent new summary. Seriously, this is what they wrote.

Village Voice Media Uses Digg to Increase Traffic

The Digg Effect is alive and well. Village Voice Media is reportedly aggressively submitting content to Digg.com as a means to increase traffic to VVM Web sites — and it’s working. The Deets’ Ed Kohler reported that the Digg algorithm has a lot of weaknesses in how it counts and weighs votes (as evidenced by the VVM example), and advertisers buying impression-based ads should ask where a Web site’s traffic is really coming from.

However, “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).”

Source: The Deets

It’s amazing how far the Newspaper Association of America went to downplay Village Voice Media’s gaming of traffic numbers reported to local businesses. Clearly, my article had the opposite intent of what the NAA reported (which is kind of a pathetic statement about the Newspaper Association of America). Heck, even Village Voice Media realized that the game was over and changed their policies nationwide.

It’s pathetic to see the Newspaper Association of America promoting the manipulation local advertiser’s ad impressions. Does the head of the NAA is Gary B. Pruitt, President and C.E.O. of The McClatchy agree with the NAA’s report? Does this type of behavior run all the way up to the head of McClatchy? If so, is it time to take a closer look at McClatchy’s online behavior?

PS: My promise ot not blog about anything CityPages related for a week only lasted an hour. I stumbled across this and could resist. My apologies. If you were me, could you have resisted?

Village Voice Media’s Bill Jensen Doesn’t Understand New Media

David Brauer at MinnPost picked up on a recent comment from the Director of New Media at Village Voice Media, Bill Jensen, where he tried to downplay the charges I made about Village Voice Media gaming Digg this past week:

Another VVM honcho, digital operations director Bill Jensen, dismissed Kohler’s charge that staffers game Digg’s social-networking algorithm to create powerful story-promoting identities:

“I equate it to someone complaining about us having too many boxes out on the street,” Jensen says. He says that the company and its writers and editors are simply trying to get their content out there by “going to where people are” online, and that, either way, less than 5 percent of VVM’s web traffic comes from Digg.

Here’s the real deal: Before publishing my post, I contacted Bill Jensen. CityPages’ Web Editor, Jen Boyles suggested I do this, and cc’d Bill Jensen in the email where she suggested I do this.

I then emailed Bill Jensen on January 29th at 6:12pm CST; one week before my post went live.

Below is the email I sent to Bill Jensen:

from Ed Kohler
to Bill jensen
date Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 6:12 PM
subject VVM & Digg
hide details Jan 29

Hi Bill,

As you can see below, I’m working on a story about VVM’s use of Digg to drive traffic.

Jen Boyles says she’s responsible for content and traffic trending, but it seems like she’s also very active using social media sites to drive traffic to content.

Here are a few questions for you:

Who are Digg users ivanb and philostrato? Are they employees or
contractors? Why do you think they’re so much better than other VVM
Diggers at getting stories frontpaged?

Are you expected to Digg VVM stories as part of your job?

Do bloggers like Emily Kaiser understand the role Digg plays in their
traffic gains?

What percentage of traffic to a site like CityPages Blotter comes from Digg? Kevin Hoffman has suggested the site has grown from 35,000 to 250,000 page views / month over the time that Digg frontpage success has grown. Can I assume that, say, 75% of the blotter’s pageviews are coming from Digg?

Do local advertisers understand that Digg (generally not local visitors) is being used to drive traffic to their ads?

Why has VVM decided to rely to heavily on Digg for traffic? How did this come about? How many employees are involved in digging stories for VVM? How much time are they expected to spend digging stories? Are they trained? Some are clearly better at this than others. If the strategy is sound, it seems like training would allow for even more success.

What’s your role at VVM? Are you involved in the Digg work?

This will be for a follow up to this story:
http://www.thedeets.com/2009/01/29/citypagescom-serves-local-ads-to-international-visitors/

And should go live next Thursday (Feb 5th).

Thanks for any help you can provide answering the above questions.

Ed Kohler
kohler@HaystackInANeedle.com
http://www.TheDeets.com
@edkohler on Twitter
651-592-4063

Want to Make Your Website Better?
Check out http://www.3rdPartyFeedback.com

Decide for yourself. Were those fair questions to ask the Director of New Media at Village Voice Media before writing a post about how Village Voice Media was using new media to game their website’s traffic? Personally, I think they were fair, and was surprised that someone who works in new media wouldn’t respond to a blogger asking fair questions. It’s new media, right?

Rather than respond to the questions when asked, Bill Jensen allowed my story to go viral without comment. That story went ridiculously viral.

Twelve days after receiving my email, Bill Jensen indirectly responded by talking to an industry friendly trade rag called the Association of Alternative Weeklies.

I know I said I was going to blog about CityPages only once a week, but how could I not make an exception for something as douchebaggy as this? I’ll try to hold back until 5am on the 19th for my next post on this topic.

CityPages Photo Klepto Problem

Village Voice Media’s Minneapolis / St Paul Property online property, CityPages.com, appears to employ a series of photography kleptomaniacs starting at the top with the paper’s editor, Kevin Hoffman.

Every once in a while, photographers in the Twin Cities will erupt in outrage over the user of their images without permission (aka stealing) by the CityPages.

For example, here’s a comment left last month on CP by a local professional photographer who stumbled across one of her photos being used in a blog post about Cafe Latte:

Sarah says:
Hannah,

By using my photo to illustrate this article, you are violating its creative commons license. You need to at least link back to the flickr page from which you took the photo. A link to flickr.com is insufficient. Moreover, use by this blog is a likely a commerical use, which is prohibited by the terms of the CC license. I’d appreciate if you would fix these problems.

Thank you.

Posted On: Thursday, Jan. 22 2009 @ 11:46AM

Sarah was clearly not happy with the unauthorized use of her photo. What was CityPages’ response when confronted about their blatant theft of Sarah’s property? They pulled the image.

That made me wonder whether the paper has a “steal first, ask for permission/pull the photo if/when people complain” policy. I also wondered whether this kleptomania problem goes largely undetected since photographers from around the country probably aren’t reading what’s left of Minneapolis’ primary alt-weekly. I decided to take a closer look.

Rather than focus on the behavior of someone lower on the corporate flow chart, I decided to focus at the top with CityPages Editor, Kevin Hoffman. He does a lot of writing for the website and often includes images with his stories. Here’s what I found:

Kevin Hoffman's Non-Cited Photo of Rex Sorgatz

January 14th, 2009, Kevin Hoffman used this photo of Rex Sorgatz in a post. Hoffman included a “via” link but the link goes to the photo’s .jpg URL rather than the photographer’s website or Flickr site. It also doesn’t mention who the photographer is. Scott Beale / Laughing Squid took this shot, which I found out from Gawker who did give credit to Scott. Scott explains exactly how he’d like to be cited during free reuse of his work on Flickr photo pages.

Kevin Hoffman's Non-Cited Photo of Rex Sorgatz

January 14th, 2009, Hoffman blogged about Rex twice in the same day, used the same photo twice, and failed to cite the photographer, Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, either time.

Salmonela Image in CityPages

January 8, 2009 , Kevin Hoffman used the above graphic without citation. This one should say, “(Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH)” as Arizona State University, Kenyon College and the Science Museum in London all did when they used the image on their sites.

Citypages Brilliant

January 28, 2008: Kevin Hoffman appears to have borrowed this photo – without citation – from Ebaumsworld.com.

Wild Citypages

January 7, 2009: Kevin Hoffman used this photo from a Minnesota Wild game . . . without citation. The logo is kind of a giveaway that he didn’t take it.

Another Laughing Squid Photo on CityPages.com

February 3, 2009 : Kevin Hoffman uses another photo from Scott Beale / Laughing Squid’s Flickr account without citation. Another blog, Wonderland, used the same photo in October 2008 with the following citation:

Image: Zombies Invade San Francisco!, a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic licensed photo from Laughing Squid‘s Flickr stream
Op Ed Columnist Clipart

February 1, 2009: Kevin Hoffman lifted this 10 year old piece of clip-art from Debbie Twyman and Craig Whitney . On their website, they state:

We created these materials – – please respect our ownership of them.
This and all other pages on this World Wide Web site are copyright © 1999 by Debbie Twyman and Craig Whitney. Permission for non-commercial use of materials on this site may be obtained by contacting the owners via email at school, or via snail mail to them at NKCHS, 620 East 23rd Avenue, North Kansas City, MO 64116.

That seems pretty clear.

Andrew Zimmern Travel Channel

January 28, 2008: Based on the dimensions of this photo, Kevin Hoffman snagged this from a blogger who snagged it from somewhere else. Had Kevin clicked one page deeper in his Google Images search, he would have found that this image belongs to the Travel Channel, as the Weird Eats blog mentioned when they used the same photo.

AP Photo on CityPages

March 4, 2008: Kevin Hoffman appears to have lazily searched for a photo of a fat kid. The one he decided to rip off was originally shot by the AP, as The Guardian notes in their use of the same photo in 2007.

Pulitzer Prize Image from Washington Post

April 7, 2008: Kevin Hoffman uses an image of the Pulitzer Prize from the Washington Post. Kind of funny to see an newspaper editor stealing a Pulitzer Prize, eh?

Censorship on CityPages

May 6, 2008 : Kevin Hoffman needs an image to go with a post he’s writing about censorship. The first result on Google Images is the above image. Only two more clicks and he could have figured out that this is a piece by Eric Drooker. Or, did Kevin know that and still not link to Drooker?

Is This a Trend?

I looked through 53 posts to find 11 clear examples of non-cited photos (the actual number of offending images was probably higher but these were the most obvious). Some of the above examples are creative commons labeled where the photographers don’t expect to be paid but do expect to be recognized for their work. Others are the property of paid wire services.

CityPages Rotting From the Head

But is it just the head? I spot checked a few other writers on the site:

Mark Perceval-Maxwell Painting on CityPages

February 5, 2009: Matt Snyders uses this altered image from artist Mark Perceval-Maxwell without citation. It appears to be reusable under Creative Commons 2.5 which states:

Attribution.
You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor”

Cameron Beckman Getty Images Photo on CityPages

Feb 7, 2009: Judd Spicer snags the first photo found on Google Images for Cameron Beckman. To the right of the photo on the first site this image can be found on through Google Images, it clearly states, “Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images ” but there is no citation on CityPages. Getty is in the business of selling images, so they may have some questions about this use of their photograph.

Starbucks Bloomberg News

February 6, 2009: Emily Kaiser appears to have snagged this Bloomberg News photo from a BusinessWeek article. Chances are pretty good that BusinessWeek paid Bloomberg for use of the photo. Did Emily?

Lately, Emily has taken to adding citations, including one for this photo of Rahm Emmanuel and Barack Obama. Notice that she put “Photo courtesy of the LA Times” below the photo:

Rahm and Barry AP Photo on Citypages

Courtesy? Do you think the LA Times is in the business of giving complimentary photos to other media sites? I don’t either.

Had Emily clicked through to the LA Times’ site, she would have found out that she was lifting an Associated Press photo by Alex Brandon. Giving credit to who you’re stealing from is a nice nod, but may not cut it with the people who paid photographers to go out into the real world to capture the news.

Emily Kaiser's use of AP Photo on CityPages

In this example, Emily Kaiser gives the Boston Globe credit for an Associated Press photo taken by Don Ryan.

AP Photo on the Boston Globe used by Emily Kaiser on CityPages

How do I know this? Because the Boston Globe cited their source (and paid them too, I’m sure).

Emily Kaiser also borrows from her in-town rival, the StarTribune, who sent staff photographer Carlos Gonzalez down to Macy’s to shoot this shot :

StarTribune Photo Used by Emily Kaiser

The CityPages’ Bradley Campbell used this photo of Ringo Starr in a recent post:

Bradley Campbell's Use of Ringo Starr from Electronic Artists

Campbell credits a blog in India with this shot. However, it actually belongs to Electric Artists.

Systemic Photography Kleptomania

For the ultimate case in jaw-dropping hypocrisy on this topic, look no further than this three paragraph blog post (I’m republishing the whole thing under hilarious fair use) by CityPages Editor, Kevin Hoffman. Be sure to take in the 3rd paragraph about phoning it in:

CityPages Kevin Hoffman's Jaw-Dropping Hypocrisy

While writing about “visual plagiarism” Hoffman fails to credit the photographer, Flickr user silivaON, who’s photo he ripped.

Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that EVERY person working at CityPages is using a “steal first, ask for permission/pull the photo if/when people complain” policy when it comes to respecting intellectual property rights. There are still some great people at the paper. But I am willing to state that this appears to be an accepted practice that’s carried out at even the highest editorial levels at the paper. To me, this behavior is extraordinarily disrespectful to professional photographers, amateur photographers, and artists and the companies that finance their work.

Clearly, CityPages sees the value in the work being done by these people. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t steal it to enhance their stories.

What CityPages doesn’t seem to want to accept is that media is hard work. You have to come up with ideas, talk to people, write stuff, and legally gather acceptible art to accompany the writing. On the photography side, if they wanted to be better citizens, they could property cite certian creative commons licensed photos for free, ask photographers and artists whether they can reused their work for free, pay only a couple dollars an image for stock photography through sites like istockphoto.com, or hire/contract with photographers for original art.

Usurping Reaction

Based on previous responses to posts I’ve written about CityPages and Village Voice Media, I’m pre-loading a few responses to expected reactions:

1. Everybody does this. (No, they don’t. And even if they did, it wouldn’t make it right.)

2. We don’t do this [anonymous commenter]. (AKA, they’ve now changed their policy and are trying to get retroactive credit for doing so).

3. This post is such a waste of time [anonymous commenter]. (Thanks for reading.)

4. What’s your motivation? (I like to see people’s hard work treated with the respect it deserves.)

5. Why are you picking on Emily? (I’ve never met Emily. I hear she’s a nice person. But her actions as a journalist during her tenure at CityPages are underwhelming. I think she would do much better in a less diseased work environment.)

6. Are you going to keep doing these CityPages posts? (Probably for at least another week.)

Finding Swiped Photos on CityPages

If you want to spot check an author’s use of images, try a search like this on Google to narrow down to their stories.

When you find stories with images, go over to images.google.com and search for obvious terms someone would type into the search box to find that image. Usually, I could find the original source of the swiped photo on the first of second page of results.

Feel free to post more examples in the comments.

How Village Voice Media Uses Digg to Game Their Traffic Numbers

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.

CityPages.com Serves Local Ads to International Visitors

When a local advertiser buys an ad in a local newspaper, they do so because they want to reach a local audience. That seems pretty clear. The local business has chosen to advertise in a local newspaper, magazine, or other printed media because they know it will be distributed within their community to people they hope to reach.

Now, do the same rules apply online? Does advertising on the website of a local media company allow you to reach a local audience? The answer: IT DEPENDS.

For example, I asked a few friends around the country to send me screen shots of what CityPages.com looks like when viewed from their computers. (Thanks!) Here is what they saw:

People in Cleveland see ads for W.A. Frost (a 12 hour drive for dinner) and Hamline University.

Cleveland CityPages

People visiting from Boulder, CO see ads for Bedlam Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra. Megabus doesn’t go to or from Colorado:

Boulder CityPages

And I grabbed this shot while in Vancouver, BC earlier this week that includes ads for the State Theater and Megabus:

CityPages.com Viewed from Vancouver, BC

An interesting thing happens when local newspapers and magazines go online: their reach expands well beyond their local market. In many ways, that’s good thing. But local advertisers need to be aware of how this can effect the performance of their ads.

Business that depend upon people physically visiting their place of business suddenly find themselves running national and international ad campaigns while assuming they’re reaching the same demographics as the site’s print edition.

In some cases, local businesses probably would be interested in advertising to people outside the Twin Cities, but they’d probably want to pay a different rate for that type of traffic since the ROI would surely differ.

Local advertisers need to start asking questions about the geotargeting of their ads. Are their ads being displayed solely to people in their community? Or, are local advertisers paying for ad impressions served to people well beyond their geographic target markets?

Ad serving technology that allows for geotargeting of ad impressions has been available for years. I’m not sure if CityPages doesn’t have this technology in place or if they’re simply not choosing to use it.

I asked CityPages about their ad serving technology and use. Here are a few questions they did not respond to after previously being very responsive to questions regarding web traffic:

– What percentage of your website’s visits come from Minnesota? This can be found in Google Analytics by clicking Visitors > Map Overlay (the log the total) > United States (then log Minnesota’s total). Divide the Minnesota number by the total.

– Do you think your local online advertisers realize their ads are being shown to a national/international audience?

– Are they paying on a CPM basis for these ads? Is the rate the same regardless of where the visitor to the site resides?

– Do you have the ability to focus the geographic reach of ads? For example, could you set W.A. Frost’s ads to serve to just people in MN or the Twin Cities (I know the technology exists, but don’t know if you’re ad platform supports doing this)?

– Do you quote your site-wide traffic numbers to local advertisers, or do you quote them a reach that’s relevant to their business (metro, statewide, etc)?

– Does VVM [Village Voice Media] do any ad serving reciprocity between properties? For example, someone from Phoenix visiting CityPages.com could see ads that are local to Phoenix that have been sold by the Phoenix team.

I think the questions are fair and should be asked by anyone in the business of making online ad buys for local businesses.

How big of a problem is this?

CityPages’ Kevin Hoffman told me via email that “more than 50 percent of our traffic is local.” From a local advertiser’s standpoint, that would mean that less than 50% of their ad impressions are likely being served to people who are not local. How much less? Good question.

Traffic Quality

The tactics used by CityPages to drive traffic to their site will be the topic of a future post. For example, a CityPages blog called The Blotter (mentioned here when it’s author, Emily Kaiser, over-generously borrowed from this site), is rarely linked up in the local blogosphere and has less than 100 subscribers according to Google Reader, somehow managed to grow from 35,000 to 250,000 page views per month in just two months. If the site isn’t getting linked up locally, and hasn’t build a large subscriber base, where’s the traffic coming from? Tune in next Thursday to find out.

Local Media Money

Local media sites face an interesting predicament. Generally, you can charge a higher rate for ads you sell directly vs. what’s available through ad networks. So if local media sites only serve local ads locally, they’d likely see a significant drop in ad revenue potential over a large portion of their ad inventory. But serving higher CPM local ads to non-local businesses surely isn’t the right answer. Done enough, it will either lead to local businesses giving up on online advertising due to poor performance, or CPM deflation to get pricing in line with the value of an average ad viewer.

Summary: If you’re an online ad buyer for local businesses, make sure that you know to where the people are who are going to see the ads you’re buying.

Distilling CityPages for James Norton’s Work

Chow.com has a discussion (via Colin) about how to find James Norton’s weekly columns on CityPages.com.

HuaGung pointed out that you can find Mr. Norton’s articles under the articles by author section of Advanced Search.

Then someone mentioned that it would be sweet if they could subscribe to Jim’s columns. To do that, subscribe to this URL using your favorite RSS reader.

If you’d like to set up similar RSS feeds for other CityPages authors, go here.

CityPages Article Author RSS Feed

Set the fields to look like they do above. Update the Set Input variable to your favorite author’s archive page, then grab the custom RSS feed URL and add it to your RSS reader.

Twin Cities Eater

James Norton publishes both articles and blog posts on CityPages. The blog posts appear on Twin Cities Eater. If you want to subscribe to Jim’s work there as well, add this URL to your favorite reader.

That distills the Twin Cities Eater blog down to just Jim’s posts.

And if you have a different favorite blogger on Twin Cities Eater, you can filter this multi-author blog down to just their posts by inputting their name into the author field here, then subscribing to the custom URL generated.

If you’re rather receive Jim’s content via email than RSS, there are plenty of ways to convert the feeds to emails to yourself.

CityPages’ Subscriber Stats in Google Reader

Within Google Reader, if you click Discover > Browse and then search for “citypages” you’ll probably see something like this:

CityPages Feeds in Google Reader

Here’s what I see in the above screen shot:

1. CityPages main articles feed has twice as many subscribers as this hobby of mine (449 vs 216). You can help pad my stats by subscribing here.

2. Paul Demko, who hasn’t been with CityPages since April, has an orphan feed with quite a few people wondering what happened to him.

3. The Blotter’s feed, very ironically, includes a copyright notice in the description. With 56 subscribers, I get the impression that people prefer reading their news at its original source.

4. The Sports feed seems to be running out of steam. Only 5 posts in October and none so far in November? Purple Pride?

What did I miss?

Edits to Erik Paulsen’s Wikipedia Page

On October 11th, I posted a story here about the probationary status of 3rd District Republican candidate Erik Paulsen’s Wikipedia entry.

Three days later, Emily Kaiser wrote the same story for CityPages, used my screenshot, and did not cite or link to the source of her story. UPDATE: Emily added a link an hour after I originally posted this. She included the following line in her story:

We decided to check out the page for ourselves. Frankly, nothing on it is obviously political or factually incorrect. While it does read like a terrible resume, it doesn’t make any obscene claims.

To which I say, “Well duh, Emily.” Doncha think someone may have gotten around to editing it during those three days?

Here is a screenshot of the edits to Paulsen’s Wikipedia entry that happened between when I broke this story and when Emily Kaiser did a horrible job of stealing it:

Edits to Erik Paulsen's Wikipedia Page

See the stuff in red? Those are changes. That’s what you should have written about, Emily. Here’s what would have been a good story: Write about what I found (with a citation and link) and then build upon that by taking a look at what’s changed.

Had you done that, you may have avoided this idiotic comment by W00t:

Get a clue citypages. Wikipedia didn’t shake its finger at Paulsen, some partisan hack opposing him did. Apparently they didn’t deem it “advertising” because the warning has since been removed and only the “this person is running for office” notice is still up.
Posted by: W00t at October 14, 2008 4:50 PM

You see, W00t is coming to the wrong conclusion – based on poor reporting – about why Wikipedia no longer considers Paulsen’s entry to be a blatant advertisement.

For further ranting about this marginal effort by Emily, check out this thread on MNspeak.