NHPR Website Analytics & Trends: FY 2016
'Top Line' Metrics show flat audience growth
NHPR has traditionally used Google Analytics' three pillars of audience measurement for our website: Sessions (formerly 'Visits'), Users (formerly 'Unique Visitors') and Page Views.
For FY 2016, those traditional measurements seem to show a period of flat growth for NHPR.org, with a 5% growth in Sessions, a -1% loss in Users, and an 8% growth in Page Views, as illustrated by the chart below.
digging deeper reveals a different story
Throughout the year, the lack of robust growth in our web analytics has been puzzling, especially as investments in our digital content have resulted in our creation of more and better stories, and at first glance, our online content appears to be drawing higher traffic numbers than in previous years.
As it turns out, appearances are deceiving.
The chart below shows the top 25 most-viewed stories of FY 2016 (in red), and overlays the page views for FY 2015's top 25 stories:
The average difference between stories of the same rank in FY16 and FY15 is an increase of page views of 39%.
So, what accounts for the disparity in "top line" analytics and what would seem to be a year of robust audience growth for our online content?
It's a confluence of two things: our transition to a mobile-friendly responsive website, and the rise in popularity of what's commonly known as "ad blocker" web-browsing technology.
What's Responsive Got to Do with it?
Perhaps you've experienced this - you log onto a website on your phone or tablet, and for a moment, you see a full version of the webpage before your phone switches to a mobile-friendly view. On the analytics side, that initial brief page load is counted as a pageview, effectively creating a duplicated subset of pageviews within the total calculation. Visitor numbers are also affected by this duplicative count.
Before NHPR switched to Core Publisher's responsive design, mobile pageviews and some visits would also be double-counted for NHPR.org. So, prior to February of 2015, our overall pageview and visit numbers were artificially inflated by mobile visits to our sites and stories.
While we've done some de-duplicating of the data, it's impossible to know exactly which numbers correlate with what, so our data from prior to February of 2015 is known to be somewhat inaccurate.
With our responsive site, there is no longer a mobile, redirected URL, meaning that clicks on Facebook links or direct visits to NHPR.org get counted a single time.
Because FY16 was the first full fiscal year in which NHPR.org has been responsive, we need to reset our baseline for future measurement to the data collected in 2016.
what's ad blocking got to do with it?
"Ad blocker" is blanket term for any software or plug-in designed to improve user experience by blocking certain website behaviors. Ad blockers were initially created to stop so-called "pop-up" ads, which sometimes contained links to virus downloads and unsavory websites.
These days, ad blockers have become more native, and more aggressive. They are also built in as opt-in extensions to many web browsers, notably Google Chrome, the fastest-growing browser among users.
Some ad blockers aren't opt-in on certain browsers, meaning relatively inexperienced users may be using them without understanding what they are missing on the web, or understanding they are even using ad blocker technology at all. Think about the number of times you've visited the preference settings in your browser. Have you checked those settings to see what you're blocking?
In addition to pop-up ads, new blockers also prevent some web users from seeing native ads, code blocks, animations, and other interactive features on websites. (A notable example that affects some NHPR.org users is that ad blockers keep users from seeing the "Donate" and "Listen" buttons on the top of our homepage.)
Blockers also prevent "cookies," or pieces of code used by analytics trackers to count individual site visitors, and some of the more popular products also block analytics trackers themselves, meaning visitors using them are not being tracked at all.
Unfortunately, it isn't possible to know what percentage of NHPR.org visitors are using ad blockers, but as we do see growth in both pageviews and visits, it's likely the unique user count has been adversely affected by them. As this is a growing and known issue with all website, Google Analytics has stated they are working on tools to better measure users and their behavior on websites to compensate for this technology. In fact, new analytics startups are advertising services explicitly designed to account for ad-blocker users.