White House website traffic drops - conservative news site celebrates

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There's always a danger of just slapping together a quick cause-and-effect link to make your point.

Take the conservative Cybercast News Network, for example. Today they crow that traffic to the White House website has "plummeted," a drop that they say neatly corresponds to Obama's falling approval ratings.

"According to the web-traffic tracking site Alexa.com, whitehouse.gov was almost the 500th most popular Web site in the world in February. Since then, it has fallen to the 3,732-ranked Web site in the world. Traffic to the site has fallen 51.6 percent in the last three months," writes CNS reporter Matt Cover.

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"The decline in White House’s web traffic has coincided with a decline in the president’s approval ratings and the approval ratings for his policies," he adds, citing a Zogby poll showing that President Obama's approval rating has dropped from 51 percent in mid-June to 48 percent now.

Hold on. As the former E-communications director of the White House during President George W. Bush's first term, I became familiar with traffic patterns. Some things were easy to explain. For example (and this will surprise few), the more unique and interesting content you put on the site, the more traffic you'll get.

Also, not surprisingly, bad news – which usually means a dip in approval ratings – means an increase in traffic.

In order for the website to remain relevant during the long periods of time where President Bush had high approval ratings, unique content and innovative applications had to be churned out.

Online interactive chats worked very well. By allowing people to interact with members of the White House and the Bush administration in "Ask the White House" chats, the Bush White House saw traffic spike. And placing unique video content on the site – like tours of the White House and Air Force One or interviews with residential staff who claimed to have seen Lincoln's ghost – also helped traffic increase.

We've seen the Obama administration do some cool things too. Live video town halls, for instance, while over-staged, are an excellent way to interact with the public. As time goes by, team Obama could ditch the studio audience altogether and just have the president talk to citizens from a webcam in the Oval Office.

So what's behind the traffic roller coaster? Many variables play into it. Let's look at a few.

1. Hope and change. Agree with the direction of the Obama administration or not, there was a lot of excitement with the changing of the guard. With all the interest, higher traffic was inevitable. But, like anything, the novelty wears off. These numbers are naturally going to fall.

2. It's a shiny new toy. The Obama campaign was known for being tech-savvy. It ran a smart Internet campaign, and people on both sides of the aisle were looking forward to seeing how this would translate into a government website. Unless the end result was truly revolutionary, these numbers were going to fall.

3. It's summertime. No matter how important or interesting the content is that's put up on any website, traffic decreases during the warmer months. People are outside and focused on other things.

Like it or not, Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle's perfect game is going to attract a lot more interest than Vice President Biden's trip to Philadelphia to discuss the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (even if you call it by its exciting acronym – ARRA). If Biden's teleprompter fell over again, you'd see a huge spike in traffic. People love faulty teleprompters.

4. Burnout. Now that the presidential election cycle is a full two years long, people want a break from politics. Look at the numbers from President Obama's last news conference. Way down. The diehards are paying attention, but the rest want a vacation.

5. Lack of consistently unique content. By having frequent video Q & A's with the public, traffic would soar. Getting this through the bureaucracy at the White House isn't easy. Senior White House brass need to be sold on the idea that these informal live video interactions with citizens would pay off. But if you sell Rahm Emanuel on the idea, it is fait accompli.

I contacted my former colleague Max Everett about this too to see what he thought. Max and I worked the 2000 and 2004 Republican conventions together. He later would become the CIO at the White House.

He agrees. The approval rating/decrease in traffic correlation doesn't work.

"There was going to be an inevitable drop in traffic given the buzz around Obama's historic election and the change in administrations. But scandal and bad news often drive traffic as much, if not more, than good news in Washington. So I don't see cause and effect in this case," Max said.

What could be the factors leading to the drop-off in traffic?

"The of end of the honeymoon phase that any President benefits from is a part of this," he said. "A struggle to maintain the quantity and type of content that the Obama campaign produced might be leading to some disappointed expectations, efforts around the government to provide information like recovery.gov is probably leading to a little internal competition for eyeballs, and finally I think that people increasingly have more selective and contextual ways to get their news from news aggregation sites and social networks."

The other thing to remember is that the Obama website is only six months old. It's a little too early now to look at traffic and draw intelligent conclusions.

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