Boston.com’s missing readers

Web readership numbers tend to fluctuate so wildly that only a fool would try to read any deeper meaning into month-to-month changes.

Still, it’s hard not to notice that the number of unique monthly visitors to Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s Web site, has dropped considerably over the past two months, according to Nielsen Online figures provided by a reliable source who asked not to be identified.

After hitting an all-time peak of 8.5 million visitors in January of this year, perhaps tied to President Obama’s inauguration, the figure plunged all the way to 4 million in June, a drop of more than 23 percent over the previous June and the lowest number in two years.

Last June, then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were engaged in the final stages of their hard-fought battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, and I’ve been told that Boston.com’s political coverage does well in search engines and aggregators. So that could be an explanation.

Or maybe it’s Red Sox fatigue — it’s possible that the Sox have been so good for so long that casual fans are checking in less frequently than they used to. Could it be the Globe’s labor unrest? (Unlikely, though it’s interesting that readership figures for the Globe’s corporate cousin NYTimes.com were also down by 21 percent in May.) Or maybe it’s just one of those things.

Based on Nielsen’s May figures, Boston.com is now the ninth-ranked newspaper Web site overall — down from sixth for all of 2008, though it’s still the most widely read regional newspaper site in the United States*.

Among all news sites, including perennial ratings leaders MSNBC.com, CNN.com and Yahoo News, Boston.com now ranks 32nd, down from 17th in January.

What follows are Boston.com’s unique monthly visitors over the past two years. Percentages are increases and decreases over the previous year.

  • June 2009: 4,020,000 (-23.2%)
  • May 2009: 4,397,000 (-11.4%)
  • April 2009: 5,888,000 (+33.0%)
  • March 2009: 5,742,000 (+37.2%)
  • Feb. 2009: 5,659,000 (+15.4%)
  • Jan. 2009: 8,535,000 (+64.3%)
  • Dec. 2008: 4,086,000 (-6.4%)
  • Nov 2008: 5,436,000 (+12.3%)
  • Oct 2008: 6,133,000 (+11.4%)
  • Sept 2008: 8,610,000 (+121.5%)
  • Aug 2008: 4,479,000 (+3.9%)
  • July 2008: 4,891,000 (+21.4%)
  • June 2008: 5,233,000 (+23.0%)
  • May 2008: 4,962,000 (+22.9%)
  • April 2008: 4,428,000 (+6.2%)
  • March 2008: 4,184,000 (-1.4%)
  • Feb. 2008: 4,904,000 (N/A)
  • Jan. 2008: 5,194,000 (N/A)
  • Dec. 2007: 4,364,000 (N/A)
  • Nov. 2007: 4,839,000 (N/A)
  • Oct. 2007: 5,506,000 (N/A)
  • Sept. 2007: 3,887,000 (N/A)
  • Aug. 2007: 4,311,000 (N/A)
  • July 2007: 4,029,000 (N/A)
  • June 2007: 4,254,000 (N/A)
  • May 2007: 4,038,000 (N/A)
  • April 2007: 4,171,000 (N/A)
  • March 2007: 4,245,000 (N/A)

*I’ve been asked how Boston.com can be considered the most-read regional newspaper site when the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post and New York’s Daily News are all ahead of it.

My answer is that the LA Times has long been considered a national paper. Indeed, Slate includes it as one of the five papers it summarizes in its “Today’s Papers” feature. (The others are the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.)

It’s only recently that Boston.com’s readership dropped below those of the other three papers, so perhaps I’ll have to rethink my “most-read regional newspaper site” formulation. Both New York and Chicago are huge metropolitan areas that dwarf Greater Boston. Yet the Tribune, the Post and the Daily News are all more regional than they are national.

I’ll have to ponder that for a bit.

7 thoughts on “Boston.com’s missing readers

  1. matteomht

    I'd immediately wonder whether any changes in content or site presentation are to blame. It seems to me that Boston.com does lots of incremental changes, so it's hard to pinpoint exactly what's different. But I swear that the site is more about fluff I don't really *need* to read– Love Letters, food blogs, stupid photo submissions from readers, etc. And there are more headline-only URLs, with no content underneath them. I certainly find it less informative today than I did six or 12 months ago.

  2. Bob F

    I think it's natural that with the warm weather and all, people are out and about and will spend less time surfing online. Also, many people would be visiting the site during working hours, and with 10%+- unemployment.. there are simply less of them. But to hear Boston.com's management talk about their new hyper local sites and how much traffic they are getting, you'd think their traffic count was skyrocketing. I wonder if they've reduced prices on the ads they sold based on the prior traffic counts? Should be like Neilson, ad prices based on actual traffic. There are 'SOME' in the industry that sell ads based on the "expected, anticipated" increase in their traffic.. that never materializes.

  3. Ron Newman

    I don't quite understand what you mean by this:"the most widely read regional newspaper site in the United States"since the Nielsen ratings that you linked to put it behind the LA Times and Chicago Tribune, as well as two secondary New York tabloids.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Ron: The LA Times has long been one of the "Slate 5" of national papers. There's no argument about that.I guess we could argue the other three. I'll have to ponder that.

  5. Timothy

    Boston.com claims this mantle by calculating UVs as a percentage of market size. So, since LA, Chicago, and NYC are much bigger markets in terms of population, their UVs are bigger in raw numbers but not percentage of market.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Timothy: Well, that would work, though I have not heard Boston.com make that claim.There are many problems with the Nielsen numbers, by the way. Just about any news site shows internal counts up to three times higher than Nielsen give them. But a lot of those are robot hits.For instance, with 4 million unique monthly visitors, Boston.com is probably showing an internal count of 12 million monthly uniques. The real figure is somewhere between 4 million and 12 million. But who knows where?

  7. Brigid

    I have never liked the Boston.com site—information is hard to find and they tend to have annoying, intrusive ads and "features" like rotating tabs that automatically rotate stories out of sight as you try to read them.For about the past two months, every time I click through to a story I get a screen-filling interstitial ad for some new hospital on the North Shore. This does not make Boston.com my first choice these days.

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