Measuring the Palin Effect

Is the Alaska governor responsible for record Web traffic in September?

Sarah Palin

September was a great month to write about politics on the Web. The Los Angeles Times had an all-time-high 137 million page views last month, the Washington Post topped 320 million, and both Slate and the Huffington Post set their own traffic records. It’s tempting to give Sarah Palin credit for these new waterlines—she’s ubiquitous on every site’s most-read lineup, among the most blogged-about people in the country (including celebrities and fictional characters), and far and away the most searched-for political figure in America. Then again, September was also a great month for newspaper sites in 2006, with Democrats poised to retake both houses of Congress and no spunky Alaska governor on hand. So, how much credit does Palin deserve for driving page views to the media elite she so disdains?

Quite a bit. Even in the midst of other major story lines—total financial catastrophe comes to mind—data from the Web analytics firm Hitwise suggest a very real Palin Effect. One of the clearest ways to measure this is by focusing on search engines. Slightly more than one-third of Palin search queries drove traffic to news and media sites, according to figures that Hitwise general manager Bill Tancer provided for Slate. Fox News received the largest share of these search referrals at 1.12 percent, followed by Time at 0.98 percent. Many other publications received at least 0.1 percent—nothing to shake a stick at, given the torrential interest in Palin.

Knowing this, one can then look for a Palin Effect in the percentage of traffic that publications received from search engines. The spike is unmistakable. In early September, right after McCain announced the Alaska pol as his running mate, the percentage of traffic that Web sites for print publications received from search engines peaked at close to 26 percent, up from about 22 percent the week before and a clear high point for 2008. Broadcast media and other political sites saw a similar jump in the numbers, reversing a downward trend in the proportion of traffic from search engines that Tancer attributes to the increased prominence of blog referrals close to the election.

Speaking of which, Palin continues to reign supreme over the blogosphere. According to Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics technology, which tracks mentions of people and topics on blogs, Palin has been the most blogged-about of the four candidates, ceding her top billing to McCain and Obama only in the days after the two presidential debates. (The BuzzMetrics charts can compare only three items at once, so here’s one that includes Biden.)

Quantifying the Palin Effect for an individual publication is difficult to do without access to that site’s internal tracking figures. We do have those numbers for Slate, if not for anyone else. In keeping with the overall trend in news media, Slate’s referrals from search engines for September were the highest for any month this year. Five of our 25 most-read articles in September were explicitly about Palin—the Sarah Palin FAQ and pieces about her hacked e-mail account, her convention speech, her pregnant daughter, and her interview with Charles Gibson. Another four were pegged to Palin news: “Explainers” on whether you can see Russia from Alaska and music licensing at conventions plus a “Dear Prudence” column on teen pregnancy and a tribute to the intrinsic weirdness of Alaska. Those nine articles, which accounted for about 5 percent of Slate’s September page views, aren’t just a symptom of our readers’ voracious appetite for election news; only one non-Palin politics story ranked in the top 25. Meanwhile, traffic to Slate’s “XX Factor” blog increased by nearly 30 percent last month, when three out of four posts mentioned Palin.

Was Palin solely responsible for Slate’s record traffic? It’s a very close call. Slate’s 87 million page views in September beat the previous record by about 9 million. By my estimates, Palin-related content (including blog posts) pulled in at least 10 million page views. Had McCain gone with a safe, Joe Biden-like choice, Slate would have written fewer articles that would have gotten fewer page views. Articles about Palin receive on average several times as many views as articles about Biden, but that doesn’t mean those 10 million page views evaporate entirely if Palin turns into, say, Tom Ridge. If we assume even a boring would-be veep recoups a few million views, then Slate still probably would’ve set a record, but it would’ve been a very close call.