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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Seattle Weekly Owner Uses Digg to Falsely Drive Up Ad Rates, Media Watchdog Reports

Posted by on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 11:15 AM

Village Voice Media, the struggling owner of the Seattle Weekly, is "running an organized reciprocal Digg campaign using staff at their network of alt-weekly newspapers across the United States," according Ed Kohler's media website The Deets. In plain English, that means VVM staffers have systematically submitted VVM stories to Digg, a social-media web site that allows people to submit and vote for ("Digg") stories that they consider especially interesting or noteworthy, and voted them to the top of Digg's front page. Sites with a lot of "Diggs" generally have very high web traffic, as Digg users click on Digg's front-page stories.

Kohler noticed, first, that the vast majority of VVM's Diggs came from VVM staffers. "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." Because Digg users' submissions carry more weight if they're from a variety of sources, rather than just one web site, many VVM staffers Digg stories at other VVM properties. According to Kohler's analysis, two users alone, both VVM staffers, have generated between 3.8 and 19.4 million visits to VVM papers. One, Kevin Plocek, has the title "social media manager."

Why does this matter? Although Digg users are free to Digg anything they want, falsely driving up traffic via Digg artificially inflates the value of VVM's web sites to advertisers. The amount advertisers pay to advertise online is based on how many individual eyeballs are landing on a site. But Digg users—who typically don't click through to ads—are more or less worthless to advertisers, something Kohler has also written about here. Claiming massive traffic based on Diggs is like saying my newspaper has a million readers when most of those people are just picking it up and throwing it in the trash. Paying employees drive up traffic to drive up ad rates, like paying ad salespeople to create fake "buzz" around advertisers on their own social-networking site—is a shell game, and a bizarre one at that. But it may be the only game VVM has left.


Comments (12) RSS

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So, are you saying your feelings are hurt cause they thought of it first?
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 5, 2009 at 11:20 AM · Report this
I refreshed the Dallas Observer (My local VVM papers)s blog a few times, there was an Ad for Amex Travel, Microplace, Tic Tac, Livestrong, Forexclub, Partnership for a Drug Free America. Infact, I only saw one locally targeted ad. Since almost all of their ads are for national campaigns I don’t think their advertisers are too concerned about where their readers are located, just that they are seeing the advertisements. While the employees might be submitting the stories to Digg, it is still the Digg users voting them up, I don't see anything wrong about that.

And on the same note, I am a daily reader of SLOG, and I live in Dallas, Texas and I'm sure I am far from the only person that reads the blog outside of your local market.
Posted by John M on February 5, 2009 at 11:27 AM · Report this
Erica, I was just about to write this up--wanted to point out that Kohler doesn't accuse VVM of successfully inflating those Digg votes. It takes hundreds of users to get a story up in the listings, and he can't find more than a dozen or so VVM staffers as users.

The stories that reached the top of Digg did so relatively organically. But you do touch on the right issue -- how VVM courts local advertisers with this data, and how that's disingenuous.

@2: I just loaded the Observer as well (hiya!) and it's all ads with Dallas area codes. They are not yet effectively geotargeting, and they haven't since I've moved here.
Posted by Sam M. on February 5, 2009 at 11:33 AM · Report this
does the Stranger make of a point of telling locals, Seattle, that tons of their traffic are horn dogs not living in 206 land? And, thus, fewer local consumption dollars ...

Wonder ...
Posted by $$$$ it is always $$$$ on February 5, 2009 at 11:53 AM · Report this
Haha advertisers paying for impressions get what they deserve. They're pretty much just guessing right? They basically have no idea what their money actually buys, so cheating them is almost a mercy.
Posted by daniel on February 5, 2009 at 11:57 AM · Report this
Sure this is slimey. But Digg is pretty much only this kind of crap. I quitt using Digg a long time ago.
Posted by lisa g on February 5, 2009 at 12:01 PM · Report this
I usually don't go in for the "why is this news" comment on Slog, since it's clearly a blog and not a newspaper, but this isn't that surprising or uncommon. Businesses of all shapes and sizes are doing this all the time on Digg, to varying degrees of success. @5 - 100% agree on advertisers paying for impressions.
Posted by hillside_hoyden on February 5, 2009 at 12:14 PM · Report this
I managed the VV web site back in ye Internet olden days, and I'd submit selected stories to various sites, but only when relevant -- e.g. an article on Linux posted to Slashdot.

However, doing that kind of thing as an "organized campaign" to a general-purpose site like Digg is pretty lame. And not clearly identifying yourself as an employee of the paper when doing so is ethically tenuous, at best.
Posted by nstop on February 5, 2009 at 12:34 PM · Report this
Don't get yourself all verklempt - these papers are all being run into the ground and will be toast before you know it.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on February 5, 2009 at 1:16 PM · Report this
pretty much par for the course.
Posted by josh on February 5, 2009 at 1:43 PM · Report this
Interesting that the Stranger would make a big deal about the value of the advertising on local VVM sites coming from outside their local market areas. It seems to me that the Stranger's #1 traffic driver must be Savage Love. This column probably gets most of its traffic from the whole USA if not the World, not Seattle. But what is striking is that the ads all around the Savage column seem to be local ads. Boy, how does that really do any good for the local advertiser when the reader is out of town? I read papers from all over the Country and it seems like you guys are doing kinda the same thing as VVM.....
Posted by SPC on February 5, 2009 at 3:02 PM · Report this
It seems unethical, but it's not surprising. Seems like everybody in online marketing has had this idea before. The truth is, while you can fake actual independent interest to some extent, you'll never match the real thing.
Posted by Greg on February 5, 2009 at 3:49 PM · Report this

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