If you've compare the traffic of the big 5 social news sites - Digg, Reddit, Care2, Netscape and Shoutwire, like I did in my Top 5 social news sites roundup, you can see that the top 2 are growing. Care2 seems to be slowly losing momentum, Netscape's real quality traffic is indistinguishable from the huge amount of traffic they get on their name alone, while Shoutwire seems to stall (and if they keep having 2-3 days old articles on the front page, they'll probably start plummeting pretty soon).
But what about the newcomers? Are there still some cookies left for them, or have the big ones scooped the entire bowl, leaving only scraps for the little sites? Unfortunately, it seems so.
As you can see by this fantastic list over at 3Spots, there's more than enough new social content services around, and new ones are probably being created every day. But a quick Alexa check shows that not only are most of these sites poorly visited (which isn't that surprising, given that they're, well, new), but their traffic doesn't have a strong tendency of going up - it mostly just stalls with occasional peaks when news of these sites appear on Digg or some other big site.
Still, careful examination of these sites can give us some valuable info on what works and what doesn't in the social news arena.
First of all, let's divide these sites into some broad categories so we can notice the trends easier. Bear in mind that, for simplicity's sake, I'm leaving out many new somewhat similar services like Spotback, Megite, or Tailrank, and focusing only on the more or less "standard" social content websites.
1. English Digg-like social news sites. This means sites which cover a broad range of categories, and are in concept similar to Digg, with standard browse-submit-vote-comment functionality. This includes Pligg sites, which aren't that much different from Digg, but tend to be similar between each other.
2. English specific social news sites. These are sites with functionality similar to Digg, but instead of covering all possible topics, they focus on one category.
3. Non-English social news sites. From Meneame to Fresqui.com, these are the sites that cater to the social news needs in a language other than English.
I've extracted the Alexa traffic data for all of the sites on 3spots list (yes, all of them), and I've compiled a list of top 5 sites for these three categories. (*I've excluded pornography sites, because I their rate of success probably depends on vastly different factors than other sites. I've also excluded the five big sites I've covered in my recent article.).
In the first category, the list is:
1. Newsvine.com - traffic stalling
2. Blinkbits.com - medium growth
3. Hubpages.com - medium growth
4. Thebeststuffintheworld.com - medium growth
5. Wikio.com - slow growth
The second category looks like this:
1. Flurl.com - theme: videos, slow fall
2. QJ.net - theme: gaming, slow growth
3. Dzone.com - theme: developers, medium growth
4. Bestweekever.tv/ble/ - theme: TV, slow growth
5. Bad.webpagesthatsuck.com - theme: bad web sites, medium growth
NB: at this point between 50 and 100 in Alexa's charts you can find as much as 50 new topic-specific social content websites. I'll name some of the ones that are doing well: dogster.com, videosift.com, indianpad.com, blosker.com, dealigg.com.
In the third category, instead of making a top list I decided to just randomly pull out some of the big growers, as it is difficult to me to discern which of these sites get most of their traffic from the social news component and which get it from completely different sources (btw, the obvious winner is Meneame.net):
- Meneame.net - fast growth
- Fresqui.com - fast growth
- Fuzz.fr - slow growth
- Overmundo.com.br - medium growth
- Mywowo.com - traffic stalling
- Wykop.pl - slow growth
So, what have we learned from this exercise? The top 5 lists might not show all that much, but sifting through all of the websites I've learned a lot.
1. There is no viral growth. If you make a social news website, do not expect exponential growth or a boom of new users overnight. Like any other website, the users you get are the users interested in your topic(s), they will only stick if you have quality content, and you have to fight for every one of them.
2. Growth is hard to come by at all. Of all the sites mentioned here, only about a third is actually growing at a noticeable rate. Moreover, huge spikes (probably from Digg or Slashdot traffic) didn't help them at all, the traffic almost universally goes back to the same volume as before the spike.
2a. Non-English websites are the only ones that are universally experiencing growth.
3. Specific topics don't do much better than general topics. This came as a huge surprise to me, as I was pretty certain I'll see a pattern of growth amongst websites that cover specific topics. But, lo and behold, there aren't many that made it big. However, there's definitely more specific-topic sites appearing, and they have a tendency to grow - up to a point. My conclusion here is this: if you have a big web portal or a service behind you with an established community and lots of traffic, you might do well with a site that covers a broad area of interest. If you're a startup, go with a very specific topic.
3a. Technology news are not dominating, nor is any other specific topic.
4. Websites in other languages do much better than English-based websites. However, I think that this is simply due to language barrier winning over Digg. It means that non-English users, if given an alternative, will rather use a good Digg clone in their own language than Digg itself. Consequences of this are easy to predict: if a country doesn't have its own Digg yet, go ahead and make one; you'll do well. But if a good Digg-like site exists and has at least decent traffic already, then it's the same as fighting against Digg itself.
4b. Social news sites are most popular among the Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese population.
5. Technology, design and approach DO matter. Sites that are more technologically advanced, better designed, or have an original approach, tend to do better than run-of-the-mill Digg clones. Examples of this are Newsvine, and thebeststuffintheworld.com. This might seem natural, but on the Internet design and technology often yield to virality and content; just remember MySpace.
The prospect for upcoming social news websites is grim. It seems that it takes a combination of an interesting specific topic, great design and functionality, and an original approach to achieve at least moderate popularity. And even then there's a chance your website will just stall at the same traffic volume for months, and maybe years, before it finally shuts down. There's still some room for growth if your website is non-english and/or covering a specific geographic area. Of course, I cannot rule out that some ingenious site will show up and take the world by storm, but from what I've seen in this research, none of the newcomers show signs of greatness.
The way I see it, the concept of social content websites does not work on its own - except in rare cases of Digg and Reddit. It's a great addition to a website that already has good content, or plans to build good content in the future, but it's definitely not driving growth by itself. For now, the Digg effect seems to be reserved for Digg only; the future lies somewhere else.
*Disclaimer: the data used for the comparisons in this article are taken from Alexa and need not be correct or exact. Furthermore, I did not use any exact statistical means of comparing data; all comparisons in the article are my own interpretation of Alexa's data and many other individual factors.