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


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

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


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


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 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.’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.

100 thoughts on “How Village Voice Media Uses Digg to Game Their Traffic Numbers”

  1. That’s some brilliant analysis, dude. Seriously, we need more detailed, thoughtful articles like this. If we lived in the world that I have in my head, this would be a front page story in the Twin Cities Reader 🙂

    Thanks for a great post…

  2. I am of two minds. One, a pageview is a pageview, and if they’re getting legitimate pageviews, even if from digg, it’s not entirely disingenuous. It depends a lot on how they represent that to the advertisers. My guess is not quite as clear as you describe here.

    In my experience, digg (and reddit, and stumbleupon) users tend to be the type that don’t sit around and browse a site. They visit the thing that was linked up, then close the tab. Unless they’re totally blown away by something, they don’t stick around. Speaking from my personal browsing habbits, If I get to a linked story, and the first couple sentences don’t interest me, it’s closed. I don’t even look at those ads. Furthermore, I’m betting your typical digg user is far more likely to have ad blocking software installed than your average visitor who types in I wonder what those stats are.

    IMHO, digg is too easily gamed, the s/n ratio there is too high, and the stuff people link is too predictable. Wow, another list of 10 things, or 7 things I totally didn’t know, etc, etc. I find reddit to be a lot better choice for genuinely interesting content that’s not been tailor made for the site.

    You’re definitely not making friends over at City Pages with this one. Good investigative work.

  3. For the time being, everything online lives and dies by page views and scamming Digg, which VVM is obviously doing, brings in the views. I can vouch for the amount of traffic brought in specifically from StumbleUpon but self-submission or a networking scheme like VVM is doing is flat out dishonest to Digg readers and to advertisers whose impression count is being burned through by web users who will click anything that has been Dugg. The page views generated aren’t quality views because they (most likely) aren’t coming from the same area which advertisers are targeting and until VVM starts network serving their ads via geo-targeting, they’ll only lose advertisers who are sick of pissing away marketing dollars and getting no return.

    Nice work Ed, you’re doing a great job weeding out the shady media practices in the Twin Cities.

  4. Great Scott! Ed, this is awesome.

    While it’s totally sleazy for CP to game Digg and con their advertisers, it’s just not a good time to be playing this game. Advertisers are getting tighter and tighter with the purse strings (I think the last stat I read had online advertising falling some 50% this quarter) and they’ll be watching ever more closely.

    In this kind of advertising climate CP and VVM is playing a dangerous, dangerous game.

  5. Great job with this post, Ed. Love all the data you compiled here.

    Your analysis certainly points to the idea that VVM is gaming Digg. So, if there is anything wrong here is it simply the lack of disclosure by VVM? Or, do you know if Digg were to find out about this would they would shut down Ivanb and Philostrato profiles?

    Also, I would be interested in knowing more about the quality of Digg traffic. City Pages / VVM has a strong national sales network in Ruxton, so getting non-local traffic should be easily monetized. But you appear to be saying that Digg traffic does little for advertising on a page that has been dugg. My gut agrees with you. Maybe that’s another post? Or maybe you’ve already written about it.

    My disclosures: I was the web director up until Dec 2006. I am now working at I have balls, too, but I never considered planting a digg poster. I’m an old-fashioned organic growth kind of a web dude.

  6. I think “gaming” is a loaded phrase, Ed. Clearly VVM employees are not the only ones submitting their own content on Digg. The only accusation seems to be just that. It’s not as if they’re registering a bunch of bogus Digg accounts and digging every story from every account; there are actual human beings behind Philostrato and Ivanb. If VVM stories are getting fronted on Digg and people are subsequently digging them up, more power to VVM.

  7. First off… IMHO online display advertising based on CPM or pageviews is weak sauce.

    It is interesting to see a mainstream media company engaging in successfully in social media, kudos to them. The transparency is lacking but it still shows engagement past the “put a digg button” on the story angle most media takes.

    BTW Ed nice data set/post.

  8. Ed, all of VVM geo-targets their on line ads. As such, a guy in Houston will see an ad for his city on the New York site. So there. Now what happens to all this imperical data you have displayed above? In short, VVM postings on digg help their local advertising base. And they have a national agency to sell the national impressions. Your story is well written so it makes people believe all kinds of silly accusations. But just because you blog on it, it doesnt make it true.

  9. One who:

    In his first piece, Ed showed screenshots from other cities showing non-Twin Cities users getting Twin Cities ads. Also, in the comments to his original piece, City Pages publisher Mark Bartel said they planned to “start” geotargeting soon – indicating they haven’t yet.

    Ed didn’t just make up his assertion. Unlike you, he supported it. More and compelling evidence for your point is welcome, but needed.

  10. VVM geotargeting = FAIL.

    unless of course Alladins cleaning & maintenance in houston is willing to make outcalls to the Twin Cites for big enough jobs.

  11. You may want to read over the Terms of Service on Digg. It is NOT against the terms of service to submit your own content, as long as the community likes it and it’s not blatant spam. So, if what you say is true… then they have done nothing unethical.

    From my perspective, all you did with this post is confirm what a great job Village Voice has done in transitioning over to Web 2.0. If you don’t realize the potential behind sites like digg, stumbleupon and twitter, then you’re gonna fall behind in the times. Wouldn’t you want 19.4 Million Visitors?

    And if you really think this is horrible, then you should also look into the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Boston Globe, and Dallas News… because they all have people actively submitting to these sites. I’m sure there’s a few others as well.

  12. James, don’t you think this has more to do with local advertising than Digg?

    And doesn’t “everyone else is doing it” seem like a pretty weak justification?

  13. Just because it isn’t against the terms of service doesn’t mean it is acceptable behavior. Digg users generally frown upon this kind of thing.

  14. Everyone who is in Yelp, MySpace or Facebook is gaming. If you’ve submitted a review, you’re gaming the system. If you’ve recommended a review or Googled a restaurant, you’re gaming the system.

    When there are systems that count the number of times an ad has been clicked, an item has been searched, a restaurant has been reviewed — all of these systems are points-driven system, just like Pac-Man or Pong. The more points you have, the more likely you are to win.

    The hotels already figured this out. You should apply your excellent analytical skills to reviews on TripAdvisor: a neg (negative review) comes in, and “boom” the hotel responds, rarely as the hotel, but more frequently as a pseudonym. These reviews have a certain style – not quite gushing, but certainly upbeat and positive, and never referencing any other reviews.

    If anything, as James (above) points out, Village Voice 2.0 has done an amazing job: it’s not just the web product, but the people who “get it” and are driving the system.

    Other media and retail entities should take note.

  15. Or, do you know if Digg were to find out about this would they would shut down Ivanb and Philostrato profiles?

    What VVM appears to be doing is setting up a Digg ring within their company. These rings violate the terms of service of Digg, Stumble and any other social media site as they are a manipulation of traffic.

  16. ivanb’s photo looks like a close-up frame of Kurt Cobain from Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit” video.

  17. @James
    While it is fine to submit your own content, what VVM appears to have done is set up a Digg ring in which employees of the company are Digging posts in order to inflate their numbers and get them to the front page of Digg. That is a clear violation of the terms of service.

    with the intention of artificially inflating or altering the ‘digg count’, blog count, comments, or any other Digg service, including by way of creating separate user accounts for the purpose of artificially altering Digg’s services; giving or receiving money or other remuneration in exchange for votes; or participating in any other organized effort that in any way artificially alters the results of Digg’s services;

  18. Ed… I see absolutely nothing wrong with what VVM is doing, if they are in fact doing this. Which is still in the air. So i’m not issuing any sort of justification.

    While you put together a great post about how these two people are “gaming” digg… The fact of the matter, is that they are doing what every corporation and online newspaper strives to do. Bring people onto their site. Sites like digg and stumbleupon were created for people to share interesting content.

    I think it’s extremely smart for VVM to be exploring every avenue they can to get visitors, and subscribers to their sites. Why wouldn’t you exhaust every opportunity in order to be successful?

    And when it comes to advertising, any smart company would do their research into what kind of traffic is coming in, and how solid that traffic will be over the course of their partnership. But from the perspective of an advertiser, wouldn’t you want 10 Million people to see your ads?

    Ed…. If I said to you today, I can get you 10 Million visitors to this blog, over the course of three months…. you’re honestly gonna sit there and say “No, I’m not interested”. ?

  19. wouldn’t you want 10 Million people to see your ads?

    If 9 million of them can’t ever patronize my business but I’m paying for all 10 million visitors, no I would not want them to see my ads.

  20. @ Matt Gamble …. Two people submitting from various sites… is hardly a “ring”. It’s more like a straight line.

  21. @james You’re missing the point. Digg exists to find actual interesting content that may be otherwise lost, creating an organic, evolving, relevant hierarchy of that content.

    They are essentially spamming it with content that is not interesting (Seriously, the blotter?), and already has it’s own outlet.

  22. @ James

    Whether it’s a ring of 50 employees or 2 of them, it doesn’t negate the fact that the TOS are clearly being violated. But that wasn’t Ed’s original point. It’s about the local advertising dollars going down the toilet because a huge % of eyeballs falling on those ads don’t give a toot about your business.

  23. I think this comes back to why building a revenue model based on display advertising is shaky at best.

    I come down on both sides, I think its great that VVM is expermimenting with this stuff, I also think the Ed is doing a great service by educating local advertisers about the pitfalls of advertising online based solely on CPM or pageviews.

    I doubt that DIGG, or Stumbled traffic is going to drive many carpet cleaning appointments to Aladdins Cleaning and Maintenance in Houston?

    Soon enough all online marketers will be savvy enough to demand results and keep track of ROI till then kudos to Ed for giving a heads up.

    BTW Dugg.

  24. It looks to me like Ed has exposed TWO flaws in VMM’s web2.0 strategy. The first is the one that Ed points out, that local advertisers are getting screwed. Geotargeting certainly fixes that, and if VMM adopts it across the board, then hooray – advertisers are getting a TON of views and VMM starts minting money because of this pass the link strategy on digg.

    Until… Digg puts the kibosh on it. Which, as justin notes, digg users do not like the idea of digg being gamed. And now that the cat is out of the bag, digg is likely to figure out who is colluding and drag their posts into a very deep pit. (If online poker sites can figure out which players are colluding, and Ed can figure out, digg will be there soon!). Once that happens, the bottom drops out of VMM’s strategy in a flash and their site’s traffic will crash harder than our economy.

    To me, this is at best a short-term strategy for spiking growth that could put VMM’s online properties into a tail-spin soon.

  25. As a journalist and a regular Digg user, I see nothing wrong with any of this. Regardless if these people are getting reciprocal diggs it usually takes more than that to get a story to the front page, and even if you do push a story to the front page it will sometimes get buried off it if it isn’t good content. There are no rules on Digg against submitting and promoting your own content and I’ve done it plenty of times. It’s actually pretty encouraging to me that Village Voice is employing people who are actively engaging with the social media community rather than just taking the spam digg tactics which almost never work.

  26. @justin – I may be missing the point… but you’re behind on the times.

    If the content wasn’t interesting, then why did it bring in sooooo much traffic? Even after it hit the Front Page of digg, if it wasn’t interesting, then it would’ve been buried down…. But they weren’t. They brought in tons of people. What’s not-interesting to you, may be incredibly interesting to others.

    And also… If it’s so unethical, then why does every major newspaper do this? For pete’s sake… Time mag has an official Digg account that they use to shout around stories submitted from TIME…

    Look it up, Digg profile name – TimeDotCom.

  27. @james

    It brings in so much traffic because there are tons of people who don’t know any better and just visit digg to see what’s going on. Once a story hits the front page, it often has critical mass to keep going no matter how good or bad the content is. It is 10x more about the headline than the content. Digg users are the sheeple of the social news world. Digg has become a breeding ground for this kind of manipulation because it’s a victim of it’s own success.

    You’re still falling into the trap of thinking it’s OK because everyone is doing it. It’s one thing if Time is submitting their own stories. They have that right. What is wrong is if they got everyone in their office to digg their own stories. That is a TOS violation, digg actively tries to detect it, and it is clearly against what people want to see on digg. That is what VVM is doing.

  28. Fascinating analysis – but – think of all the ways reader numbers are bumped in the print world.

  29. “ok…” are you suggesting that online media should stoop to offline media’s standards?

    I think we can do better. Hope. Change. Yadda yadda…

  30. A great investigation. I second the earlier comment about TripAdvisor. What it all shows is that business is deep into the social networking system, paying people to game the system as if they were disinterested parties. Remember how the GOP scrubbed Sarah Palin’s bio on Wikipedia just before McCain announced his choice? Money and power corrupts and there is money to be made and power to be had on the web. Anyone who thinks these are just neutral or balanced communities is about five years behind the time. Nearly every business has someone who officially or unofficially has the job of pumping up websites for the corporate good.

  31. @Ed — You’re still avoiding the question I asked.

    If I could guarantee you 10 Million Visitors over the course of 3 Months, you’re honestly gonna tell me that you wouldn’t be interested?

    Email me your answer if you dont’ want to publish it on here… or even if you don’t want to publish this comment.

  32. @James, I’m sorry if you felt neglected. Here’s my take: Not all batches of 10 million visitors are the same. As Marco’s stats show, a Digg visitor may be worth 1/2 to 1/6th what a typical user to a site is worth.

    But the bigger issue is the choice of advertising served up against that marginal traffic. I can’t, with a clear conscience, tell a local business that 10 million people saw their ad. There aren’t 10 million people in Minneapolis (or the entire state of Minnesota) so that would be disingenuous. Agreed?

    So, if it was me, I’d serve up national remnant advertising on a CPM basis, or ads on a cost per click or conversion basis. That way, I would feel confident that the advertisers are relatively well matched with the traffic. Or, I could detect that the visitors are being referred from Digg and create a special mix of relevant ads just for them.

  33. Excellent posting.

    For the internet advertising incapable…think of it like stealing free Cable TV signals, it is almost cute when it is just one guy living down the block who happened to tap into a line; but it is entirely different when it is a national company with 15 locations who are doing this ‘game’ as an adopted business practice. Maybe gaming isn’t the right word, maybe it is fraud.

  34. Cable operators don’t think it’s *cute* nor plausible that one guy “just happens” to tap into a cable line. That is signal theft, and worse, non-professional wiring jobs lead to signal egress which interferes with the high-speed data services of legitimate, paying customers.

    Likewise, small businesses don’t think it’s cute when crappy things get said about their business. If you want to use strong words like “fraud” then I’d argue that small businesses feel that Digg actively contributes to “libel”. Since its inception, Digg has been primarily a tech resource catering to a Techcrunch-type audience. As a result, the Digg community has not been particularly friendly to the needs or concerns of small businesses since its inception on issues ranging from online retail to sales tax. Small business owners feel helpless about what is being said about them and Digg has done little to bring them into the conversation in a meaningful way.

    If there’s a vendor who has a solution to help a small business owner do something about it, then small businesses can and will vote with their dollars and help support this business practice in any way they can. This will persist even if Digg shuts down accounts for what it believes are TOS violations.

  35. Ed,

    Great article.

    I think many publish and promote their own content on Digg and other social networks. That’s the name of the game in a lot of ways. Be where it matters, and often we have to start with ourselves to be there. I’m somewhat alarmed to learn that the system is manipulated so easily by so few numbers.

    Thought or pondering then:
    How can I do what they do to get similar results. The old “If they can do it why can’t I” routine.

    Good on them for being able to do that. Sounds like some backlash will occur because of it based on the comments. Falsely creating results is nothing more than fraud. I would argue that an advertiser affected by a business that intentionally creates false traffic to influence their revenue stream is defrauding their users and clients.

  36. I can tell you for a fact that VVM is encouraging (rather strongly) their web editors and other inside the company to use Digg. At one point, they were apparently hiring an outside person with some Digg “juice” to submit things.

    But as they’ve brought in new staff, one primary requirement has been a solid understanding of Digg and other social media. In fact, I can almost guarantee that when CityPages hired Jen and Emily, they had had the Digg discussion with them.

    The problem with this isn’t that it’s screwing the local advertisers (which it certainly is). It’s that if VVM spent as much time working on online content as they did on driving traffic, the numbers would come without all the hard pimping work.

  37. Ed,

    This is an outstanding investigative piece.

    It really demonstrates that the short-term gains are almost never worth the long-term losses. What is going to happen when their advertisers find out they are paying for inflated numbers?

    While it might not be ‘wrong’ for a publication to submit their own stuff now and again (it won’t live beyond a few friends or fans if it isn’t very good), it seems to me that using a fake account (or two or three or more) crosses the line. It’s blatant astroturf. The best way to stop astroturf is by doing exactly what you did.


  38. The local businesses would be getting the short end of the stick if the only measurement of value was click-through traffic, which is the assumption made by the author and many commenters.

    CTR is the preferred measurement metric of online and larger retailers. But for businesses that advertise in yellow pages, VVM and CityPages, impressions that lead to walk-in traffic are even more important than CTR. Smaller businesses rarely get business as a result of clicking on a banner ad. They get their business from people that do online research, and go to a destination as a result.

    Anecdotal discussions conducted by local media research companies like Borrell and Kelsey suggest that walk-in traffic generated by online impressions in sites like Yelp and Digg have been significant.

    At the same time, to say that the VVW/CityPages business would improve more dramatically if there were investments on improving online content rather than traffic generation is flat out not true. Leading sites like Huffington Post (and indeed, most blogs) improve traffic, pageviews, revenue, etc. by focusing on the incoming traffic rather than online content. In fact, these sites do exactly the opposite when they scrape content from newspapers and other sites.

  39. Brian, I think the nosedive in click through rates from Digg referral traffic says something about the level of engagement visitors have with the ads. Clearly, a click is only one measure of an ad’s value, but if you’re suggesting that an impression view from a Digg referrals is worth the same as from a typical visitor, I’m not buying it.

  40. Ed, I’m not making that argument. My position is local advertisers don’t really understand or care about CTRs and impressions with the same vigor of the typical Digg community member. I’m not saying they don’t think it’s important, but it’s my impression that most online marketers really don’t understand smaller businesses, and by extension VVM, whose primary advertisers are small businesses. (I don’t work for Google or Digg or any of the companies mentioned herein, but I have worked with search AND local advertisers for the better part of 20 years.)

    IMHO working with Digg is a little bit like crack cocaine. Digg/Google/etc. are constantly fine-tuning their application and therefore any marketing approach is going to have stronger results on the beginning of the campaign and tail off as time goes on. It’s important for media companies to have dedicated people who are able to adapt to the rapidly evolving landscape, and for these people to participate in conversations like this to generate results for their small business advertisers without angering the Digg community, etc.

  41. Brian, adapting to new forms of traffic gaming is a never ending battle. Creating valuable content that people will seek out on a regular basis, subscribe to, etc., is another strategy that media sites occasionally use.

  42. Question about the .10% versus .66% statistic: if the overall number of visitors is higher on a “Digg” day, couldn’t it mean that more people are clicking through on a “Digg” day than on what you call a “normal” day, in which case percentages are irrelevant? For example, if traffic increases by 10x on “Digg” day then the overall number of click-throughs is higher than on a “normal” day. Your article seems to suggest that an overall increase in traffic as a result of having a Digg placement is a bad thing.

    Also, assuming Marco’s numbers are identical to CityPages’ is irresponsible. I’m sure we could find another site where the opposite is true.

  43. My understanding is that IF one of the web guys really, really likes a story…he’ll see if someone in the chain with a digg account also likes it enough to digg it. At the VVM paper where I work, this has only happened probably three times since the summer. So the diggs are an exception, not a rule. The VVM people with established digg accounts have emphasized that they don’t want to jeopardize their hard-earned digg cred by posting crap.

  44. J. Murph, here’s a link from the story to a post I’ve previously written where I saw similar results to what Marco describes. I don’t believe Marco is saying that his top-line revenue is lower. He’s just saying that the quality of the traffic is lower than his typical traffic from an ad revenue (ppc) perspective.

    The percentages are relevant if advertisers are being charged the same price for two very different types of traffic.

    I used Marco’s stats as a 3rd party example. You can find plenty of other examples similar to Marco’s on the web. Marco may be special in a lot of ways, but his experiences with Digg traffic are not unique.

    And, I think you’re probably willing to agree that traffic from Digg is generally NOT going to be from the local media site’s geographic market, so serving up local advertiser’s ads to this type of traffic is probably not in the best interest of their advertisers.

  45. VVM Staffer, thanks for the info. That helps explain why Jen Boyles submits a lot of CityPages stories while Ivanb is much more selective. Jen may actually be hurting her long-term cred on Digg with her behavior.

    I imagine Ivanb is on the staff somewhere. Can you confirm that?

  46. this is an excellent analysis and highlights the deep rooted problems that have turned digg from one of the shining beacons of the web to another smoldering pile of marketing garbage. barely any stories are front paged anymore because of the quality of the content, they make it through friend networks, reciprocal and blind diggs, and rings such as vvm. digg is now a popularity contest and gigantic clusterfrak of marketers, social media ‘consultants’, and spammers.

    ban them all and restore some integrity to digg

  47. I don’t know what that graph with my old digg username (Overmind12812) is supposed to imply…that I get dugg a lot by some gamer? In any case, I’ve never participated or condoned such action on digg. I’m in it 100% to be part of the best social news community on the web.

  48. Ultimately this comes down more as a chink in the armor of social media marketing. It can be a good fit for some but traffic for trafiics sake is probably a flawed marketing strategy.

  49. shadyMrPatch, traffic is pretty good today. I geotarget ads, sell on fixed costs based on specific markets, and backfill with AdSense, so I’m confident that people are getting what they thought they were paying for here.

    vtbarrera, I think you just got caught up in the stats. I remember looking at your profile and figured you weren’t tied to VVM. Sorry if it looks like you are.

  50. Pingback: Village Voice Employees Gaming Digg to Increase Traffic? [Dan Collins]
  51. I can verfiy this as fact- I am well known social media marketer and Village Voice hit me up on more than once occasion to do digg submissions for them because I have a powerful account.

  52. The image of IvanB I believe could be from the Smells Like Teen Spirit music clip by Nirvana.

    My take on this is it is gaming, and the real question is: Are IvanB and Philostrato being paid to Digg and submit these submissions? If so, it’s against the TOS and they should be banned.

  53. First off, really good analysis.
    Second, 99% of Digg’s users never vote on a story. — they just observe. The front page does not represent what the entire digg community wants to see — it only represents what top users have dugg up. Thefore, as long as the content isn’t shitty spam, it has a right to be there. All of Village Voice’s content is worthy journalism — who cares if they’re gaming to get hits.

  54. “Digg users are the sheeple of the social news world.”
    – – – –

    (There really is no such animal as a “sheeple.” Now, if you’re implying that a “Digg user” is primarily a mythological construct, well, . . . .)

    But your analysis was spot-on. No, a Duggered visitor isn’t going to be as valuable to the site as is someone who wasn’t induced to visit by a false recommendation, but then, very few of those doctors telling us about Viagra in the commercials are actually doctors, very few of those guys drinking beer in the commercials actually ever again get to put their hands on those beautiful womens’ butts, and several of the really nice looking guys in the local gay-phone-sex ads in CP are actually straight.

    Y’all are talking about cold calls versus good leads. If you can make ten thousand Duggerers wander through your site for a look, maybe nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-four think “sheesh, what a dork!” and never come back, but the six who do come back are six repeat viewers you wouldn’t otherwise see.

    So, those ten thousand certainly aren’t a net negative. No way would I count them like I would count non-referred views, but I’d still ascribe some value to them.

  55. I think Charles Johnson over at Little Green Footballs had a similar complaint about the integrity of Digg, in that someone kept removing his links. If Digg wants to retain cred as a reader-generated source of news, and not a propaganda outfit run by inside interests, they should sort this stuff out.

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  57. Fascinating and well-thought out article. In the end, Digg or no, quality content is what builds loyal readers. Number of feed subscriptions is a better measure of ROI for advertisers than simple page views.

  58. So Ed,

    a) How many dollars does this translate to?

    b) Do you think CityPages will now raise pay for their staffers?

    c) Are you unhappy that you didn’t think of it first? 🙂 i.e. What’s your motivation in studying and posting this stuff?

  59. Wow, your really did your research. I do think they are gaming the digg system. I check out digg almost daily. Digg is controlled by just a few, but I still find interesting stuff.

  60. Matt, I don’t have an answer to the dollars translation. That would depend on ad rates, how much they sell out, ads per page, etc. Lots of factors.

    Raise pay? Not sure what you mean by that.

    I’ve thought of this kind of thing before, but couldn’t figure out how to make the numbers work with typical ad network traffic.

    This type of stuff is what I do for a living. Posts like this break up the posts about toilet paper folding techniques.

  61. Ed — great work. Did you try to get any response from VV Media or Jen Broyles? Have they commented on your report anywhere yet?

  62. David, Jen stopped responding to my questions when I started asking about Digg tactics and the impact they have on local advertisers. She referred me to Bill Jensen at VVM, who has never responded to my email (he had a week). I also contacted Keith Plocek (philostrato) with VVM, who also never responded to my email.

  63. I used to game digg back when I was a homeless rodeo clown but not any more. Now I am a world class magician !

  64. This is way overblown. Sure a few super-users can help give an article a fighting change as it kick things off on Digg, but that article still has to appeal to the populace if it is going to rise and amass lots of votes.

    The real question is whether or not the number of votes matches well with the quality of the articles. If not, then the voting masses should be ashamed, not VVM. VVM is simply working it and working it well.

    As for geotargeting advertisements, if I had a website that received visitors from across the USA or the globe and I had the ability to sell and support Geo-advertising, damn straight I would. I’d be an idiot not to.

    So please, get off of your high ethical horses and applaud a business that’s kickin’ it and rockin’ it and making it work when most print publishers are on their death beads.

  65. Great article. But let me take the insight one step further. The gaming aspect really only matters if the ads on the site are sold as CPM. Your effective CPM numbers reveal this – the quality of digg traffic for advertisers is lower then the typical traffic on the site because it cost more to get a click. This danger always exists for advertisers and as a former employee of I can say with certainty that both Publishers and Advertising Networks exploit this fact to their advantage constantly. If you are an advertiser you should only buy CPC or CPA deals (Cost per Click / Cost per Action). Web advertising is interactive – unlike print, TV, radio, etc. its effectiveness can and should be measured. And advertisers should pay only for results. CPM is a sucker’s bet – today it is gaming on digg, tomorrow something else. The industry is changing slowly because all the big media outlets are comfortable with Brand metrics that have been used to sell traditional advertising for decades. They are currently feeding a lot of dumb money online where savvy Publishers and Networks are getting fat. But this is changing fast and CPM is doomed. Take away CPM and this gaming of Digg has no monetary consequences. At worst some folks decide to look at an article that is not very interesting — if that happens enough times they will stop trusting Digg and stop using — the only loser then is Digg, which they should be if their product is unreliable — they need to correct their ranking algorithm to prevent this type of abuse.

  66. Successfully using a distribution channel is not a bad thing – these influencers are generally posting varied stories and it is the popular ones that get passed along. True it is not local traffic – the nature of the web is both intimate and global – and a story if of interest may have a greater reach than just a particular city.

    True, it seems they have a crew of Diggers – but in most social media it is the nature of the beast. In Twitter there are retweets, StumbleUpon has its groups of followers that ripple out.

    This is not a Ponzi scheme – though I think Madoff could use some benign stories up there on the front page for his name (now if this was all being done for money the plot would thicken more) – maybe the crew could give a hand. But they are not doing that… they are driving traffic – traffic even initially not from the search engines. So in essence they are distributing the news site.

    I buy newspapers from around the world when I travel – I read global, national and local stories – and online I do the same. I click a lot of links in Twitter right now and then skim through them – my digital all-encompassing newspaper.

    I agree CPM is largely dead compared to search. But there are many ways yet to fairly monetize the readers – social media is here and we are using it as our sources of news.

    Hey, I found this story on Twitter – should we be questioning the network that is spreading this story?

  67. Pingback: The Local News Blog » How Village Voice Media Uses Digg to Game Their Traffic Numbers
  68. another thing you’re missing out on is that they could have paid two top diggers to do this. I know that there are a lot of top diggers who are clearly on the payroll.

    A recent frontpage submission came from a site selling flash tools, and it made the frontpage and stayed on the frontpage. The submission was for a pay-for flash splash product and was submitted by a very high and influential digger – very clear cut case of a top digger being paid to get a submission to the front.

  69. AussieWebmaster, the story here isn’t so much that they’re using Digg as that they’re using Digg to drive traffic to advertising they’ve sold to local businesses who gain nothing from the Digg exposure. When you travel and read a newspaper in the city you’re visiting, the ads are relevant. But, if you, from Australia, click on a Digg link that VVM worked hard to get you to click on and end up at a website with ads for a restaurant in Minneapolis? Is that advertiser getting their money’s worth?

  70. Manuel, I used quite a few tools that make compiling the data relatively painless. Less work than you may imagine.

    It will be interesting to see if Digg does anything about the obvious gaming of their system. They could react to the behaviors of a few members, or they could adjust their algorithms to make it less easy for people to game their system. Or, maybe Digg is happy to see marginal content promoted to their homepage through Digg rings?

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  72. I’m not sure what is so sinister (I should know) about digging what you do or your friends do at work and promoting it. This seems very conspiracy theory and hater to me…

  73. Satan, thanks for your anonymous comment.

    The problem, as the many comments above this one explain, was that VVM was serving ads from local businesses against the traffic they were gaming from Digg.

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