When I started this blog, I implicitly made a promise to myself that I would be aiming for quality of posts rather than quantity of posts. Evaluating quality is hard, whereas one always feels some vague sense of purpose by seeing some measure of output increase. Nonetheless, I feel I have mostly kept this promise, and haven’t written that much solely for the sake of getting out another post. This post is something of an exception, since I noticed in the office on Friday that this blog was closing in on 100,000 page views. Some of these were not actually just me pressing F5 repeatedly. Obviously this is no more relevant an integer to be a threshold as any other, and one shouldn’t feel constrained by base 10, but it still feels like a good moment for a quick review.
Here are some interesting statistics over the years of this website’s existence.
- 175 posts, not including this one, or the three which are currently in draft status. This works out at about 4.7 posts a month. By some margin the most prolific period was May 2012, when I was revising for my Part III exams in Cambridge, and a series of posts about the fiddliest parts of stochastic calculus and network theory seemed a good way to consolidate this work. I’ve learned recently that PhDs are hard, and in fact it’s been a year since I last produced at least five posts in a month, if you discount the series of olympiad reports, which though enjoyable, don’t exactly require a huge amount of mathematical engagement.
- By at least one order of magnitude, the most viewed day was 17th August 2014, when several sources simultaneously linked to the third part of my report on IMO 2014 in Cape Town. An interesting point to note is that WordPress counts image views separately to page views, so the rare posts which have a gallery attached count well in a high risk / high return sense. In any case, the analytics consider that this day resulted in 2,366 views by 345 viewers. During a typical period, the number of views per visitor fluctuates between roughly 1.5 and 1.8, so clearly uploading as many photos of maths competitions as possible is the cheap route to lots of hits, at least by the WordPress metric.
- One might well expect the distributions involved in such a setup to follow a power-law. It’s not particularly clear from the above data about views per month since late 2012 whether this holds. One anomalously large data point (corresponding to the interest in IMO 2014) does not indicate a priori a power law tail… In addition, there is a general upward trend. Since a substantial proportion of traffic arrives from Google, one might naively assume that traffic rate might be proportion to amount of content, which naturally will grow in time, though it seems impractical to test this. One might also expect more recent posts to be more popular, though in practice this seems not to have been the case.
- The variance in popularity of the various posts has been surprisingly large. At some level, I guess I thought there would be more viewers who browse through lots of things, but such people would probably do so from the home page, so it doesn’t show up as viewing lots of different articles. There is some internal linking between some pages, but not enough to be a major effect.
- At either end of the spectrum, a post about coupling and the FKG inequality has received only 16 views in 2.5 years, while a guide to understanding the Levy-Khintchine formula has, in slightly less time, racked up 2,182 hits. There are direct reasons for this. Try googling Levy-Khintchine formula and see what comes up. In a sense, this is not enough, since you also need people to be googling the term in question, and picking topics that are hard but not super-hard at a masters level is probably maximising interest. But I don’t have a good underlying reason for why some posts should end up being more Google-friendly than others.
- In particular, quality of article seems at best loosely correlated with number of views. This is perhaps worrying, both for my reputation, and for the future of written media, but we will see. Indeed, two articles on the Dubins-Schwarz theorem and a short crib sheet for convergence of random variables, both get a regular readership, despite seeming to have been written (in as much as a blog post can be) on the back of an envelope. I also find it amusing that the Dubins-Schwarz theorem is always viewed at the same time of the year, roughly mid-February, as presumably it comes up in the second term of masters courses, just like it did in my own.
- By contrast, I remain quite pleased with the Levy-Khintchine article. It’s the sort of topic which is perfectly suited to this medium, since most books on Levy processes seem to assume implicit that their readers will already be familiar with this statement. So it seemed like a worthwhile enterprise to summarise this derivation, and it’s nice to see that others clearly feel the same, and indeed I still find some posts of this flavour useful as revision for myself.
- This seemed like a particularly good data set in which to go hunting for power-laws. I appreciate that taking a print-screen of an Excel chart will horrify many viewers, but never mind. The above plot shows the log of page view values for those mathematical articles with at least 200 hits. You can see the Levy-Khintchine as a mild anomaly at the far left. While I haven’t done any serious analysis, this looks fairly convincing.
- I haven’t engaged particularly seriously in interaction with other blogs and other websites. Perhaps I should have done? I enjoy reading such things, but networking in this fashion seems like a zero-sum game overall except for a few particularly engaged people, even if one gets a pleasing spike in views from a reciprocal tweet somewhere. As a result, the numbers of comments and out-going clicks here is essentially negligible.
- Views from the UK narrowly outnumber views from the US, but at present rates this will be reversed very soon. I imagine if I discounted the olympiad posts, which are sometimes linked from UK social media, this would have happened already.
- From purely book-keeping curiosity, WordPress currently thinks the following countries (and territories – I’m not sure how the division occurs…) have recorded exactly one view: Aaland Islands, Afghanistan, Belize, Cuba, Djibouti, El Salvador, Fiji, Guatemala, Guernsey, Laos, Martinique, Mozambique, New Caledonia, Tajikistan, US Virgin Islands, and Zambia. Visiting all of those would be a fun post-viva trip…
As I said, we all know that 100,000 is just a number, but taking half an hour to write this has been a good chance to reflect on what I’ve written here in the past three years. People often ask whether I would recommend that they start something similar. My answer is ‘probably yes’, so long as the writer is getting something out of most posts they produce in real time. When writing about anything hard and technical, you have to accept that until you become very famous, interest in what you produce is always going to be quite low, so the satisfaction has to be gained from the process of understanding and digesting the mathematics itself. None of us will be selling the musical rights any time soon.
I have two pieces of advice to anyone in such a position. 1) Wait until you’ve written five posts before publishing any of them. This is a good test of whether you actually want to do it, and you’ll feel much more plausible linking to a website with more than two articles on it. 2) Don’t set monthly post count targets. Tempting though it is to try this to prevent your blog dying, it doesn’t achieve anything in the long term. If you have lots to say, say lots; if you don’t, occasionally saying something worthwhile feels a lot better when you look back on it than producing your target number of articles which later feel underwhelming.
I don’t know whether this will make it to years, but for now, I’m still enjoying the journey through mathematics.