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Enviro Websites and the Big Spill: Continuing the Debate

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, June 24 2010

Many thanks to Josh Nelson for taking the time to dig further into the available data about web traffic to environmental organization sites. His response to my earlier post makes several excellent points. He's right that Compete.com is an imperfect traffic measure, and he's also right to argue that comparing April 2010 traffic to May 2010 traffic could produce a skewed picture because of Earth Day. It's certainly heartening to see that the March vs May comparison shows nearly all of the Group of Ten's sites gaining traffic (except, oddly, the Sierra Club) and that the overall increase is a respectable 17% rather than a "paltry" (my word) 3%.

That said, I still think this is an important topic to explore, for several reasons.

First, this is about accountability. The big environmental groups ask their members for donations and then promise to use the money wisely to amplify their voices and impact. Yet not one, as far as I know, makes its web traffic metrics public. We're forced to use imperfect measuring tools like Compete.com because the groups aren't sharing their internal data.

Second, and related, this is about establishing benchmarks for evaluation. In the context of a huge and ongoing crisis like the BP oil spill, what should good digital activists expect, in terms of the growth of these groups online? Is a 17% increase really all that respectable?

Consider this bit of context: Page views of the HuffingtonPost's Green page have exploded between March and May. Katherine Goldstein, the editor of HuffPostGreen, tells me:

Over the last 9 months prior to the oil spill, we already saw an overall 5 fold increase in green traffic. Comparing March traffic (completely pre-oil spill) to May (full blown oil spill) it jumped from 11 million page views (March) to 52 million page views (May) -- a 370% growth due to oil spill. In May, the percentage of traffic to our Green section was 11% of the total to all our 20 verticals. In March, that figure was 3%.

I fully agree with Josh that raw web traffic stats alone do not tell us everything about engagement, and there are plenty of other relevant measures to consider. I don't think my original post ever argued that the only thing enviro groups should be doing right now is maximize web traffic, not at all.

That said, there are other issues still on the table that Josh didn't address. One, which I raised in my first post, is why the big enviro groups aren't doing any better at optimizing their web presences to take advantage of the big surge of interest in search terms like "BP", "BP oil spill", and "oil spill." Right now, it appears that a "free agent" activist software developer named Andy Lintner has done more to capture and channel organic online interest in the spill, with his site If It Was My Home, than any of the major groups. If you search on "BP oil spill" on Google, If It Was My Home comes up 6th, a very impressive result, considering that Lintner only created the site at the end of May. The site enables you to visualize the spill if it were spreading near your home, and has a concise set of links pointing concerned citizens to useful actions they can take to deal with the crisis.

And according to one report, Lintner's site earned 250,000 visitors in just a matter of days after he launched it. It's not clear if that is unique visitors or not, but if it is, it's more than all the unique visitors Compete.com reports coming to the nrdc.org and switchboard.nrdc.org sites combined for the month of May. One activist-coder with a creative brainstorm mashing up government data with mapping tools! [UPDATE: Lintner tells me he's now received close to 3 million visits.]

I don't have the time now to rehash the much larger philosophical argument embedded in my passing remark about the big enviro groups having too much of a fortress mentality and failing to embrace and encourage a much more networked and bottom-up kind of activism, but I think Andy Lintner's actions speak louder than my words.