How the Huffington Post became a new-media behemoth

In a blog post at her eponymous website, Arianna Huffington has provided some numbers that describe the growth of the news network over the past year — a year that coincided with its acquisition by AOL (s aol) for $315 million — and more than a few of them are eye-popping. At a time when some newspaper websites are happy to get page views in the tens of millions in a month, The Huffington Post racked up more than a billion page views in December. And while page views can be inflated, some of the site’s other metrics show that if there’s one thing the team that build the HuffPo understands, it is how to get reader engagement to hit levels that other news sites and publishers can only dream of.
It should be noted that AOL started redirecting its existing news portal site to the Huffington Post site in May, which undoubtedly helped boost many of the traffic numbers (although it’s not clear just how many visitors the AOL News site was getting when it made the switch). That could help explain why unique monthly visitors — a metric that many websites prefer over raw page views — climbed by almost 50 percent to 36 million. But in any case, that puts the site ahead of the New York Times, and not far behind the Daily Mail, the largest newspaper site with 45 million unique visitors a month.

Not the web’s largest news site, but it’s getting there

The Huffington Post isn’t quite the largest news site on the web just yet — Yahoo News says that it gets more than 80 million unique visitors a month, and more than 5 billion pageviews, and CNN gets about 73 million uniques a month. And there are some other massive websites who are on the fringes of the media business: Reddit recently crossed the 2 billion page-view mark, and says it gets about 34 million uniques a month, and Tumblr said recently that it gets over 15 billion page views a month, and reaches about 120 million users through its network of 42 million blogs.
Apart from the monthly unique visitor or page-view figures, however, some of the most fascinating numbers from Huffington Post are the ones around reader participation, including more than 6 million comments in the past month alone, and more than 1.4 million referrals from Facebook in a single day. Some of the other numbers include:

  • Comments on a single day: 253,331 (Jan 25, 2012)
  • New commenters signing up per day: 5,500
  • Social referrals in a month: 21.6 million (December 2011)
  • Facebook referrals in a day: 1.4 million (January 4, 2012)
  • Blog posts in last year: 61,688
  • Stories published per day: over 1,000

One of the secrets to the site’s massive traffic numbers is probably the sheer volume of stories and blog posts that Huffington Post publishes — over 1,000 every day. Many of those, of course, are likely to be the kind of “aggregated” story from another publication that has drawn so much criticism from traditional news entities such as the New York Times. And in many cases, at least judging by the numbers above, the Huffington Post is probably getting orders of magnitude more engagement from readers even on those stories than the newspaper or website that originally carried them.

The lesson: Use whatever social tools are available

Among the things the Huffington Post did that helped make it a social-news behemoth was to integrate Facebook’s open platform (then called Facebook Connect) into the site almost as soon as it was launched — something that immediately allowed readers to see what articles their friends had read, shared and commented on. That drove millions of readers to the site, and also boosted the number of comments by over 50 percent. And the site has also integrated virtually every other sharing tool known to man to make it easy for readers to share, and even come up with some of its own.
Traditional media critics attack the Huffington Post for its aggregation, but as Nieman fellow David Skok pointed out recently at the Nieman Lab blog, aggregation is deeply embedded in the DNA of the media industry, and always has been. And as we’ve tried to point out before at GigaOM, aggregation and particularly curation are two of the skills that modern media companies need the most — or readers overwhelmed by information will go elsewhere, whether to apps like Flipboard and Zite or to new services that give them the tools they need to filter that growing ocean of content.
Some media outlets are experimenting with new services that show they understand this, including Reuters with its just-launched Social Pulse feature — which aggregates top news from both its wire service and other news sites. Meanwhile, new players like BuzzFeed (which is run by many of the key players from the early Huffington Post) are moving from being just aggregators to becoming news entities in their own right by hiring reporters, and even Tumblr is hiring journalists to act as curators of its network — a very media-like thing to do. New media entities are everywhere, it seems.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Libertinus Yomango and World Economic Forum