You Will Not Believe What My ‘Most Popular Blog Post Ever’ Is About

You simply cannot guess the topic.

Detail from a tapestry at the Smithsonian Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I wrote a couple hundred articles for a site that was popular at the time. The website was bought out by a competitor which quickly shut it down. When I heard in 2014 that there were plans to delete all the content, I knew I had to rescue the articles I’d worked so hard on, and I decided I would start a Google blog just to have somewhere to repost the articles. I called my blog Disruptive Dissertation.

I didn’t have any immediate plans to “brand” or “monetize” the blog, nor did I ever make the effort. I rarely shared any of these posts on social media. (I wasn’t even active on social media until about 2018). I didn’t worry about gaining followers. (Exactly 1 account is currently following this blog directly through Google; she is a personal friend.) And I never bothered checking the blog’s “stats” to see how many page views it was getting at any given time.

Would it be interesting to take a look at those stats now? I wonder what my most popular post is?

The Blog’s Overall Numbers

Today, the blog has 431 posts (and counting). They were added gradually over the blog’s lifespan (July 2014 to the present day, February 2021). When I look at the blog’s “all-time” stats, I see there’s been fairly consistent activity. The blog has accumulated over a hundred thousand views, considering all its articles.

The average number of monthly views has grown slowly and steadily, which makes sense, given that I am gradually adding new content, and people can always find my old content through search engines or links. That is to say that people don’t only read my new posts; they also read my “back catalog” of older posts.

Writers who produce “newsy” content may gain page views based on how often they post. If a writer typically posts material titled something like “What’s happening right now in September 2015,” people will click that post in September 2015 but no one will ever click it again after that, so, once the post is “old,” the author may as well delete it (for all the good it does attracting readers).

By contrast, my subject matter is mostly “evergreen,” i.e. its relevance doesn’t expire, so I gain page views based on the total number of posts that remain live on my blog. Even during months in which I don’t post to the blog at all, the blog still gets page views because of its enormous “catalog” of permanently interesting information. In that sense, the blog is valued and treated as static websites are. That’s why it’s never mattered to me whether people “follow” my blog. When people “follow” a blog, it means they are subscribing to receive new posts “hot off the press.” But that’s not how my blog provides value. If someone out there is interested in content I’ve posted, they’ll probably find it someday — years later, at the moment they want it — through an Internet search of some obscure keyword. And that’s great. That’s what I’ve always intended.

All-time page views on the Disruptive Dissertation blog.

There was one month in which my page views spiked. During October 2019, the blog had 1518 views. In November 2019, this jumped to 5045 views. In December 2019, it went back down to 1796 views. I only just noticed this — now, in February 2021, since I have not been in the habit of checking my stats — and I have no explanation for it. In November 2019, I did post five articles, but to this day those five posts have a combined total of 163 lifetime views (some of which may be recent). So, those five articles, though they were new at the time, do not account for the approximately 3500 “extra” views that month. Those views must have gone to some of my older articles. I do not know which ones.

So What’s The Best-Performing Post?

Most posts get very little attention. Of my 431 lifetime posts on this blog, only 17 (4%) have received over 200 views. And only 8 (a subset of the 17) have received over 500 views. And only 4 (a subset of the 8) have received over 1000 views. That is to say, when I write a new post for this blog — assuming I continue to write in my usual style, and don’t do anything special to promote it — there is a less than 1% chance it will ever receive 1000 views.

Here are the four articles that received over 1000 views.

4. The character Lord Varys in Game of ‘Thrones’ 2580 views
3. The Unsullied in ‘Game of Thrones’2920 views
2. Review of Cliff Sims’ ‘Team of Vipers’ (2019)2720 views

These specific articles were indeed more popular when they were new. Game of Thrones was a popular TV series that was being aired at the time. (The show was based on a series of novels, and novels are usually treated as less “newsy” than television, but my article was about the TV series and not the books.) Team of Vipers was a tell-all political book about the U.S. presidential administration at the time. The one-time trendiness of these three articles was an added value, not their sole value. They do continue to get page views since I wrote them in a way that gives them permanent value, even though today they are receiving fewer page views than they did when the topics were in the news.

‘Game of Thrones: Varys’ stats
‘Game of Thrones: Unsullied’ stats
‘Team of Vipers’ stats

OK, and the grand finale…the #1 most popular article of all time on the Disruptive Dissertation blog…

  1. Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896) 16900 views
‘Castration at the Battle of Adwa’ stats

Huh? What? What Even? The Heck?

I do not know how Internet users are finding this post. I do not know why they click on it.

Really: I do not know why a battle that happened 125 years ago in Ethiopia against invading Italians is responsible for 17% of all page views on a blog that has 430 other posts gasping to account for the other 83% of views. The title of the post clearly states that this is about something that happened in 1896.

Painting Dragons & Ten Past Noon

The title of the post also clearly states “castration,” which is not a word that most Internet users typically want to click on. (I have many other blog posts about castrated men, which do not attract anywhere near as much attention despite being more interesting to a wider audience, as well as two nonfiction books on the theme of castration, Painting Dragons and Ten Past Noon, of which I struggle to sell copies.)

The Battle of Adwa

Also, embarrassingly, this post is not primarily my own original creative vision. It’s more like a summary; I wrote it mainly based on a book by Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, citing the page numbers from the book. I wrote my own blog post to function as a kind of encyclopedia entry for a topic about which I, personally, was factually curious.

I have only one theory here: My Disruptive Dissertation blog is designed so that at the bottom of every post there is a “Popular Posts” section that shows you links to the three most popular articles on the same blog. No matter which of the 430 posts you’re reading, at the end, you’ll be referred to ‘Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896).’ This design theme is a self-perpetuating system. It maintains the most popular article’s existing popularity. It’s like when everyone wants to be friends with the most popular kid just because they’re already popular.

A hypothesis: If this feature were responsible for all this post’s views, that would mean that, for every 83 people who read any other of the 430 posts on the blog, 17 of them (20%) continue on to read “Castration at the Battle of Adwa.” This starts to look like some interesting example of the “80–20 rule”: 20% of your readers will continue to read the next article you present to them.

Except that the hypothesis doesn’t really check out. That’s because the monthly views for the post don’t look like a miniature version of the monthly views for the blog. They’re spiking and dipping at different times. So I imagine that some of the post’s viewers are finding it by a different method — a direct Internet search, or a link from a very popular website of which I am unaware. Without installing analytics on this post, I don’t know where people are coming from.

‘Castration at the Battle of Adwa’ post stats alongside ‘Disruptive Dissertation’ blog stats.

Your Next Move

Does this inspire you? Do you, too, want to write a short summary of an awkward topic that receives seventeen thousand views? I assure you that you can do it. But you may have to write several hundred other articles, first, before you win the statistical lottery.

And hey, if you’ve got an “outlier” article that proved to be unexpectedly popular, drop it in the comments so we can all take guesses as to why it is popular!

Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’

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