The New York Times' website attracts about 50 million unique readers every month. With such a large audience, that little box you're used to seeing in the sidebar -- "Most Popular" -- can be wildly influential. "Exposure begats more exposure," wrote Tom Weber at the Daily Beast. "With the electronic fire hose pouring out torrents of content each day, many turn to what's already been deemed interesting by others ... to help them filter." Weber spent several weeks directing a team of friends and colleagues to figure out what it took to game the Times' feature.
On December 14, my troops were given a new story: the aforementioned "An Exhibition That Gets to the (Square) Root of Sumerian Math," now three weeks past its publication date.
Based on our previous tests, we knew we wouldn't see movement in the most-popular list immediately, since the Times appears to use a 24-hour moving average. We started to see some impact at 11:43 p.m., 70-odd emails in, when the story popped up on the Science most-emailed list at No. 8. By 7 a.m. the next morning, about 300 emails had been sent, and our story was climbing--now up to No. 4 on the Science-page list, our new high-water-mark.
But as we checked the overall list and found no sign of our test article, we figured we needed to turn up the heat--saturating the site with more emails over a 24-hour period. Things started to pick up. Shortly before 1 p.m., the Sumerian story jumped up to No. 2 on the Science page--and, more importantly, made its debut on the overall most-emailed list. Though the Times only displays the top 10 most-emailed stories in its home-page box, it also offers a link to an expanded list showing the top 25. After 400 emails, our story edged onto the overall list at No. 22.
Read the full story at the Daily Beast.