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Most Popular - a quick retrospective

May 19, 2009 | By Jeff Freund
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I had an interesting conversation with The Numbers Guy (aka Carl Bialik) from the Wall Street Journal yesterday.  He was researching the idea of popularity and how it affects peoples’ choices.  One of the areas he was exploring was the Most Popular lists that are now standard on all premium media websites.  He published a blog posting today about this, entitled The Growing Popularity of Popularity Lists .

At Clickability, we have been providing a Most Popular service since 2001, at which point we started aggregating the data behind our EMAIL THIS, SAVE THIS, and PRINT THIS  products into the Most Popular.

Several interesting aspects of these lists came out during our conversation:

1)    Most Popular lists started as standalone pages/features (ie. You click to a full page that contained the most popular articles), and over time evolved into page components and widgets.  We actually had a widget for this in 2002, but had very little uptake on it as embedding 3rd party page components was not standard practice at the time.  Evolution of web publishing practices to be accommodating (and even relying on) 3rd party components and the emergence of standards like RSS changed everything in the use of embeddable lists.

2)    These lists were some of the earliest forms of “social media” – they provided a voice back to the publishers about the content.  This was either in a passive was (by tabulating page views) or in a more active way by using stats from tools like “email this to a friend” or ratings to generate the most popular lists.  In fact, Digg and others like it are actually an extension of the “most popular” from one site to the Internet at large.

3)    With some of our customer, the Most Popular feature leapt from being just an end user feature, to an editorial tool.  The managing online editor at a premiere news brand was a shining example of this.  He reviewed the up to date most popular list throughout the day as an ongoing decision making tool.  The Most Popular was also reviewed in the daily editorial meetings as well.  In the end, we built some special analytics tools (the Most Popular Tracker and Calendar) specifically for people like him to rapidly asses the lists as part of their editorial role.

4)     The most popular lists had also jumped from just being on the website to other publishing channels as well.  Places that I have seen Most Popular that we power propagated:

a.    RSS feeds into My Yahoo! and other personal portals
b.    Within of periodic email newsletters
c.    Shown and Reviewed on television (by CNN)
d.    Published in newsprint the following day
e.    Published in periodical magazines

5)    The metrics behind the most popular have also changed.  The first metrics where viewed, and shared (by “email this” type tools).  This has evolved into ratings, most commented on, most blogged about, most searched for, etc.  NY Times has some really nice things in this area.  Also, segmentation on most popular lists based on geography is now showing up – makes a lot of sense for those with global audiences.

While the basic functionality of the Most Popular lists has remained the same, they certainly have evolved over time (almost a decade!) since they first appeared.




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