Attack of the fuzzy numbers

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Don’t worry, nobody was snooping over your shoulder counting how many times you actually watched the Star Wars kid. In a WSJ column (free today), Carl Bialik picks apart the Viral Factory’s list of the top ten viral videos of all time. You might remember the Viral Factory list from a roundup we included in a recent story.

Well, despite wide coverage, the methodology behind the list was left obscure. For illumination, Bialik tracks down a comment left by the Viral Factory on one such article. The company’s process is not exactly exacting, including things like “informal email surveys among a couple dozen friends of the company’s employees,” and not even the same for all ten videos.

Here’s the math on the number of viewers of Star Wars kid, for example:

The final estimate of 900 million came from taking the number of Google search returns today; assuming there are five times as many Web sites, cumulatively, since the video debuted in 2003; estimating that one-third of these are “blogs / articles / forum posts”; that each of those were read by, on average, 50 people; that of those people — supposedly no one read more than one of those sites — three of four watched one or more clips; that of those who watched, each watched on average 10 of the roughly 120 versions of the video; and that on average these “Star Wars” Kid fans would watch each clip once a year, or three times in all. That’s 500,000 * 5 * 1/3 * 50 * 0.75 * 10 * 3 = 945 million. “We rounded down — what’s the odd 45 million between friends?” Viral Factory wrote in the comments.

Tracking videos is a hard task — even across a single site, where multiple posters often add multiple versions of the same thing. If a company like Guba or Audible Magic can get their video fingerprinting technology working across multiple sites, they could probably double their revenue by selling analytics. Or maybe Big Champagne, whose (somewhat cloaked) measurements of popular music titles on P2P networks have gained wide currency, will get involved. Whoever it is, we claim first in line to publish your weekly top ten lists!

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