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Ringing Pavlov's Bell

April 21, 2005

Lately I've been wondering how to improve 5MV's popularity. Don't get me wrong, we're pretty well-known already; there are 5MV links all over the place and we get about 400 unique hits a day. That's good. But it could be so much better -- that's what's starting to bug me. There are sites a year old that do 100 times our business. (I'm mostly thinking of webcomics here, because that's where I spend the most time online. It's not really a fair comparison: webcomics just have a bigger audience than Trek sites these days. But the point remains.)

How do you measure a site's popularity? I'm pretty attached to my Site Meter, which I've been using since October 2000, but hitcounters aren't very reliable. They miss a lot, even when you've got one on every page (which became possible once I started bringing in PHP -- I'd estimate that 80% of our pages are tracked by the counter now). For example, the figure I quoted above is based on our Site Meter average of 419 visits per day. Now that I have direct access to the server stats, I can compare that to the real figure as logged by the server itself, which is 960. Quite a difference, but this figure isn't the whole story either. It doesn't say anything about the variation -- who just pops in and out, and who stays a while.

The forum is another guide, but not necessarily a more accurate one. It's way at the other end of the spectrum; where hitcounters count everyone who so much as drops by, forums count only those who are not only regular visitors but want to spend time hanging out with other regulars. That makes the numbers a lot smaller, and I don't trust the averages I've got anyway. They seem to consider all the posts we've ever had, but only part of our lifespan, i.e. the year since we switched to phpBB. (No way are we getting 182 posts a day.)

So with this stuff on my mind, a couple of weeks ago I was making the Five-Second Babylon 5 update, and I accidentally erased the index page of Sci-Fivers. I didn't have my backup with me, so I had to post a temporary "oops" sort of thing. While I was making it, I had an idea for a little experiment to try. And try I did. This is what the stopgap page looked like. Look closely....

See it? If your eyes don't find it, your keyboard will; press Ctrl-A. The text is almost invisible, but not quite. (My signoff was meant to raise suspicion, with the gray colour and lowercase Z.) This was my experiment, and obviously my chances of getting any results from it weren't good. A reader would have to go to the main Sci-Fivers page for some reason, AND find the hidden message, AND actually act on it rather than writing it off as simple weirdness on my part (which of course it was). 5MV has plenty of readers, but how "deeply" do they read? This is what I hoped to find out.

The page was up for 12 days. I didn't expect any responses. I got six.

I'm considering this a good sign. People are reading 5MV, and not just the updates. Our content is still getting people interested. With Enterprise ending, we're going to need to branch out (something you'll hear more about in the coming months' updates), and I've been wondering if we can find a balance that satisfies both old and new readers. I still don't know for sure, but I feel pretty good about our chances.

And now, Further Notes!

(1) 2317438, you ask? It's an obscure Beatles reference. If you look at the cover of Magical Mystery Tour in a mirror, the name "BEATLES" sort of looks like that number. Now, back in the 60s there were a bunch of conspiracy theorists who claimed that Paul McCartney was dead; weird even for doped-up hippies, they would look for clues like this on Beatles albums. The story goes that when they tried calling the number 231-7438 on Wednesday morning at 5:00 (the day and time Paul is pointing to on the back cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... look, I said this was weird), they received a cryptic answer: "You're getting warmer...."

I was tempted to send that message back to the people who replied, but I decided not to. Instead, I've given them a more fitting reward: the location of an unpublished two-part fiver by me, slated for the 5th anniversary event in June. (Don't look for it. You won't find it, and I'll rename the file in a few days anyway.)

To read more about the Paul-is-dead mystery, just Google the number 2317438 -- and discover one last twist in this story. My secret message is now on the first page of Google results, beating out the Beatles page where I'd looked up what number it was!

(2) There was actually something else I was testing with this experiment. I'm fond of Easter eggs, and I want to include them now and then in 5MV events, but they're no fun if no one finds them. On the other hand, announcing that there is one defeats the purpose. With this secret message, I've learned that we do have readers who poke around unprompted, so eggs are indeed worth trying. (To make sure they aren't missed completely, whenever I do an egg I'll include a response mechanism like I had here. If no one's found it after a while, I'll mention in the newspost that there was one.)

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