Influential Bloggers

Over the past few weeks I have noticed a fair bit of discussion in the blogosphere about the subject of influence. Various bloggers have been attempting to define influence and to understand which bloggers are the most influential. This is a surprisingly difficult topic for influence truly is difficult to measure and define.

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It is tempting to understand influence in ways that are easily quantifiable. Blogs have long been ranked primarily in two ways: traffic and inbound links. Traffic refers to the quantity of visitors a site receives and a site that receives a great number of visitors is perceived to be more influential than one that receives only a few visitors. Inbound links refer to the number of links to a blog from other blogs. The blog directory BlogStreet says simply, “Influential Blogs are those blogs which are blogrolled by other Top Ranking blogs.” This metric is premised on the understanding that bloggers will link mostly to sites that they consider worthy of attention. By placing a link on their site to another site, they are, in a sense, giving it a vote of approval and admitting influence.

I believe that these are both unsatisfying measures of influence. And yes, I understand that in saying this, I am indicating that a tool like Truthlaidbear is mostly useless. I have long observed that traffic and influence are not always related. It seems clear that it is not only quality or influence that draws readership, but controversy. Blogs that dwell on controversy (and in the Christian sector “controversy” is, unfortunately, often synonymous with “discernment”) tend to attract a lot of readers but I am not convinced that these sites hold influence proportional to their readership. Inbound links should be a measure of influence, but links are often tossed about with little thought, thus reducing their meaning and effectiveness in determining influence. Yet, because they are easy to measure, they continue to be the most common measures.

Adrian Warnock recently proposed several measures of influence. He proposed the following: The number of people who read your site or your “hit rate;” The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers; Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products; The number of people who link to you in a blogroll; How many comments you get; How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them; WHO reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices;” How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers.” These metrics are generally not easily-quantifiable and are thus, in some ways at least, less satisfying. However, I believe they are also quite useful. I’ll discuss each one very briefly.

The number of people who read more than one page and then become regular readers. I’m not entirely sure what Adrian means by this, but I assume he is discussing the number of pages per visit–how many pages the average visitor reads when he visits a site. This is a reasonable measure of influence, but can be easily upset by the way a blog is constructed. For example, some bloggers prefer to post the complete text of many articles on the main page of the site. A visitor to this site can read several day’s worth of articles without visiting a second page. On the other hand, some bloggers prefer to post only excerpts of each article on the main page. Such blogs will have a much higher number of pages read per visitor, and yet this has nothing to do with influence. Either way, this is very difficult to quantify.

Your ability to send your readers to other websites and/or to cause them to want to buy certain products. Or, put more succinctly, your ability to convince a reader to take a particular action. I consider this an important measure of influence and in many applications the most important measure. After all, for a blog based around politics or selling goods, this is the only measure that really matters.

How many comments you get. This metric is, at least to some extent, a byproduct of the number of visitors a site receives. Yet it is also an indication of the level of interest generated by a site’s posts. However, it can be influenced by the themes and contents of a particular site. When it comes to blogging, controversy generates buzz and excitement. I have often lamented the fact that an article describing some great work of God is likely to receive a lot less attention than an article expressing anger or disgust about another person. Controversy sells.

How many other bloggers link to specific posts you write and interact with them. This is an important measure of influence within the blogosphere and even beyond the blogosphere. After all, a person who chooses to discuss an article written by another blogger is admitting that the other person has some level of influence over him.

Who reads your blog – if the leaders of your field pop by and then take your ideas to influence others, you have a bigger direct influence than someone who is read only by “novices.” In other words, a site is influential if it influences other influencers.

How much of an impact positively or negatively you have on your readers. This one is nearly impossible to quantify, but is intriguing as a somewhat abstract idea. There are certain blogs that almost always leave me encouraged and satisfied while there are others that leave me beaten down and discouraged, even after only a short visit. Perhaps we can extrapolate long-term impact from these short-term experiences.

I think something needs to be added because different blogs have different emphases. For example, a site that directs people to other resources has a different, less-direct influence than one that is based primarily around teaching or exposition. Mitch Ratcliffe, who has done a good bit of thinking on this topic writes, “When looking at influence, we have to dig very deeply into narrow spectrums of network relationships.” He goes on to “contend that there are layers of influence based on different interests among writers, *but* the existing relationships we have with the writer (or podcaster or…) do carry over into areas where they are not necessarily “expert” or consistently writing about. Understanding how those marginal relationships can be amplified is important to seeing into the flow of influence.” In other words, bloggers are not influential within a void, but are influential within a particular area. That area may be as wide as the blogosphere or a sector of the blogosphere, or as narrow as only a small portion of it.

Joe Carter has also discussed influence recently and has determined that the most influential bloggers may be those who link most to others. “John Schroeder makes the intriguing claim that linking is a form of blogging servant leadership. ‘He’s absolutely right about everyone wanting to be a Chief (agenda-setting thinker blogs are one example) and no one wanting to be an Indian (i.e., value-adding linker blogs). While most bloggers tend to be both, I’m becoming more convinced that the truly influential bloggers will be those who spend the majority of their time on linking-style activities. Justin Taylor is a prime example. I work on a university/seminary campus and hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some version of ‘I heard on Justin Taylor’s blog…’ He’s the kind of servant leader we could use more of in the blogosphere.” Without belittling Justin’s blog (one of my favorites) or Justin (a friend and I guy I want to grow up to be just like, even though we’re about the same age), I disagree with this claim. I do think link blogs like Justin’s hold some type of influence, but surely the greater influence is in the hands of those who write the material these blogs link to! Justin is clearly influential, but I am not convinced that this is a product of the number of other sites he links to.

So how do we measure influence? Truthfully, I don’t know that we can. There are clearly a few blogs in each sector that every other person knows or seeks to emulate. There is not a political blogger in the world who does not know of Instapundit. There is not a Christian blogger who does not know of Evangelical Outpost. These bloggers have somehow become influential and I would like to think they have done so simply by posting large quantities of good information and by dedicating themselves to the task of blogging. I do know that several companies are attempting to create a tool that will analyze the blogosphere and quantify the influence of each blog. I am eager to understand their methodology and to see the results of their efforts. I hope that, within the Christian blogosphere especially, we can have bloggers who do not seek to be influential, but who seek to serve others and to serve the Creator through this task. If He gives influence, may these men and women use it to honor and glorify Him.

As an aside, I noticed that Matt Galloway, who has also invested effort in understanding the blogosphere, has imagined a “Blog Influential trend tool.” “What would a Blog Influential trend tool like? It would have to have a way to set the base to be known Influentials within the area of interest – instead of a doomed to fail attempt at the whole blogosphere.” In other words, a person wishing to understand a particular sector of the blogosphere, but it technological, religious or political, would need to map the trends at only a handful of the most influential blogs. I suspect that Galloway is correct, and that whatever tools are created in the coming months and years, will use this type of methodology to map trends within the blogosphere.