The most important thing for a publisher to know is that their shares data “could” be wrong, and they should tread carefully. Many services have been built around tracking social for larger brands and publishers, but everyone seems to be turning a blind eye to this problem.
As the CEO of Parse.ly, I’ve worked with some of the Web’s best publishers to help them solve their data problems. In the first post of this series, I discussed the serious problems associated with shares data. In this post, I’ll address the flip side of the coin and explain how we can reconcile the shares data problem. Over the past three years, it’s become increasingly evident that publishers’ data challenges are steadily increasing. More, now than ever, data accuracy is a top priority in these organizations.
Existing “solutions” to the shares data problem are non-solutions and stopgap at best. Publishers are relying too heavily on shares data from widgets and link shorteners to get a proxy of what’s happening. These tools do churn out data, but it’s inaccurate beyond a reasonable margin of error, because widgets and link shorteners do not include the various iterations of the content.
Before shares data existed, publishers would just look at the referral source to understand how much traffic a social network was driving to their site. This is a deadfall trap that leads to poorly informed decisions. Let’s take a quick look at few ways this problem is being tackled.
Twitter Analytics (which is still in beta) is trying to reconcile the problem by consolidating various URLs for an individual piece of content and tying them all to one URL. It’s a good start but far from a true solution yet. On the other hand, Google Analytics is looking to the social networks themselves to tie into its social data through its data hub activities module. However, relying on social networks isn’t efficient enough for publishers — they are time and resource-constrained enough as is.
Outside of third-party vendors, and from a technology perspective, the obvious solution is to fix the URL structure on the publishers’ side. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy a task as it looks. You could attempt to consolidate and closely control the number of URL aliases that an article has. But in many cases (such as multi-page articles), this is nearly impossible to do. After all, if you change the URL in the browser address bar, that URL is very likely to be shared (via copy/paste) by your readers.
The next obvious solution is to look to the major social networks for a fix. However, the social networks only provide the most basic API for tracking share counts. To date, no social network offers historical information about share counts. Further, none performs any significant normalization logic to ensure multiple URLs pointing at the same “logical piece of content” are treated identically. We should all rally around this issue to get a solution on the social network side, but don’t expect a solution to happen anytime soon.
Parse.ly’s product team works closely with publishers facing these issues to gain insight into large-scale traffic, content and social network trends. The company is working rigorously to solve the problem by approaching it internally — empowering publishers to group URLs around a piece of content from within their site using link aliasing.
No matter the approach, accurate social data is incredibly important to publishers now, and it will become even more important moving forward as better data and tools shape the future of journalism.
The shares problem is solvable. As awareness of this issue spreads, vendors will demand better tools from the networks — this amelioration will mirror what we saw develop around search engines in years past (e.g. SEOMoz, Google Insights for Search) — and the margin of acceptable error will improve. With accurate data at publishers’ fingertips, the possibilities are absolutely invigorating. And the first publisher to realize the opportunity will reap the massive upside and potentially reinvent how editorial decisions in the newsroom are made.
Sachin Kamdar is an entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of Parse.ly. Parse.ly provides insights to online publishers through its flagship product, Dash. Dash captures publisher specific data to present the best opportunities for engagement and to improve key metrics for publishers.