Services like Digg have become an important tool in the arsenal of online publishers. After all, they're capable of spreading an article or blog post virally, resulting in tons of traffic in very short order.
Quite a few blogs, for instance, which I won't mention, are known to receive a lot of their traffic thanks to the fact that their stories frequently hit the Digg front page.
Whether or not this is done as part of a concerted effort to 'game the system' is often a tricky question to answer.
But in the case of one online publisher that just so happens to also be a traditional publisher, it appears that 'gaming the system' is precisely the strategy.
Village Voice Media is "the largest group of metropolitan newsweeklies in the U.S." and according to blogger Ed Kohler, Village Voice Media has been using (and abusing?) Digg to drive tons of traffic to its websites.
In an great example of the type of research and investigation bloggers are capable of, he presents a compelling case that a handful of Digg users, all employed or somehow associated with Village Voice Media, are responsible for the company's success in getting onto Digg's front page.
Kohler became interested in the subject after reading an article about CityPages.com's massive traffic growth. CityPages.com is the site for Village Voice Media’s Minnesota newsweekly. In October, its Blotter blog had only 35,000 pageviews. By December that increased to 250,000. Given that Kohler saw only 100 Google Reader subscribers for this blog, he became suspicious. You don't grow pageviews seven-fold in a two month time organically when you only have 100 Google Reader subscribers.
Kohler's post is well worth the read but at the end he addresses the topic that I think is most worth discussing here: if Village Voice Media is gaming Digg and selling traffic advertising against its Digg traffic, is Village Voice Media also gaming advertisers?
In the past, he has noted that Digg users don't seem to click on ads and points to another post detailing a similar observation. While I'm sure this topic could be the subject of much debate, the bottom line is that it appears Village Voice Media gets a non-negligible amount of its traffic from Digg. Depending on how much, it's possible that Village Voice Media's traffic is not only not organic, but also a bit homogeneous.
These are two facts that advertisers would probably be interested to learn. But is Village Voice Media telling them where most of its traffic is coming from and are advertisers asking?
Probably not. I certainly wouldn't expect Village Voice Media to eagerly promote the fact that a lot of its traffic appears to be coming from a service like Digg, which highlights the fact that there are real risks for less sophisticated advertisers who don't ask detailed questions.
But this also creates an opportunity for online publishers. Being willing and able to provide more quantitative and qualitative data about your traffic and users can be a great sales tool in this economic environment. It also gives you the opportunity to be of real value to advertisers by providing some free education.
If I was competing with Village Voice Media, for instance, and was pursuing an advertiser I knew to be dealing with the company, I wouldn't hesitate to discuss their reliance on traffic from Digg and to educate the user about the risks of advertising on properties with homogeneous, non-organic traffic.
While it's nice to grow traffic exponentially overnight, in my opinion gaming social media is hardly the foundation for a thriving and sustainable online property.
Looking at it this way, perhaps the question is not whether Village Voice Media is doing something unethical but rather "Where are my competitors getting their traffic?" If they're gaming the system, you just might be able to checkmate them when it comes to the game that counts: winning over the advertisers you both compete for.