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Statistics are no Substitute for Judgement

August 31, 2009
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When I started this page about seven months back, I didn’t anticipate that I might get interested in the mechanics of blogging.  But early on I discovered that WordPress provides comprehensive statistics on visitorship, and as time has gone by I have found myself tempted to visit my “Blog Stats” page on a daily basis.

How many people have looked at my page today?  How did they chance upon it?  Which parts did they find interesting? How are visits influenced by the frequency, subject, or quality of my posts? Since I launched this site, it has had just over 4,000 visits. Maybe this isn’t a big number, but I am pleased that I am not writing purely for my own amusement, as I had feared at the start of this process. 

This seems like a good time to examine what people are actually looking at. The following is a compilation of the “all-time” top 20 search topics that led people here as of August 28th (I have grouped similar searches):

Search 

Views 

siberia 51
eurypterid/sea scorpion 36
ordovician animals/fossils 21
samuel hearne 21
ancient shore / ancient shore wordpress 16
plesiosaur / plesiosaur skeleton 13
ancient seas 12
40000 feet 10
aequorea 8
tabulate rugose / rugose corals 8
mv ithaca / mv ithica 7
summer end 7
clearwater lake manitoba  6
octagonal shed 5
“norman aime” 5
ordovician cephalopods 5
bird gravel 5
small ponds 5
ship scrapping 4
museum exhibits 4

 

It is intriguing that fully half of these topics (such as bird gravel and ship scrapping) are at best marginal to the subject of this page. I get hits for “Siberia” and “40000 feet” only because I posted a single photo of Siberia from the air. Obviously, it is worthwhile to include a diversity of material if you want to attract visits; I just hope that a few of those who came looking for information on octagonal sheds (for example) took a bit of time to read some of the other material on offer here.

The paleontological search topics are a mixed bag, but I am surprised by the level of interest in eurypterids, which appears to be far greater than that for any other Ordovician group. Are there more people who collect eurypterids than cephalopods, for instance?

Considering visits to specific posts, the most popular by far is The Churchill Quartzite.  Fair enough.  I like that one myself. But I am at least as proud of some pieces that have attracted only 10% of that attention.

How much should I be thinking about what attracts people to one piece, rather than to another? This is the point at which attention to statistics can become dangerous. As long as they are just a matter of interest or fun, like baseball statistics or lottery numbers, then that is fine, since they cannot be modified by passive observation. (If I am in a position to modify baseball statistics or lottery numbers, I am not telling you about it here, and you will be hard-pressed to locate me in my new tax haven somewhere in the Caribbean.)

But as the generator of content on this page, there may be a danger that I will begin to modify that content. I might begin to write what I think will attract visitors, rather than writing whatever I find interesting on a given day. I do like to see an increase in the number of hits, and most months they have increased, but when will they reach saturation?  If I “sell out,” might visits continue to go up, or would this just annoy those people who come back regularly to follow what I might have to say?

The truth is that I have no plans to sell out, at least in any conscious way. I have a long-term agenda for this page, and anyway, I am too contrary (or pig-headed?) to be strongly swayed by whether I am attracting a large audience. There is, however, a plan to add more items that might make the site useful. In particular, I am currently working on separate pages about Tyndall Stone fossils, and more technical pages about my research.  But these have turned out to be big projects, so don’t expect to see either of them next week!

Statistics are no substitute for judgement, but they can provide untold hours of idle amusement.

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