The Web 2.0-defying logic of Drudge
In a world of online bells and whistles, the influential Drudge Report stays old school.
LOS ANGELES (Fortune) -- On Tuesday night, The Drudge Report recorded the clinching of the Democratic Party nomination by Barack Obama with a photo of the candidate and his family and the headline "June 2008." It was a nice, understated look for Matt Drudge, the site's founder-editor, who is better known for bringing a sensational, opinionated and idiosyncratic flair to digital news, particularly in the political arena.
Another Drudge touch was that underneath the headline and photo he arrayed photographs of the front pages of three British newspapers, The Guardian, The Times and the Independent, and their respective takes on Obama's triumph and Hillary Clinton's loss.
Lately, the blogs that write about blogs have been full of speculation about whether Drudge has become a supporter of Obama, or whether he is merely setting him up for a slapping in the months ahead once the campaign against John McCain gets rolling. Drudge began posting links to news stories from his Hollywood apartment (he now lives in Florida) back in 1994 and jumped into the national spotlight with his coverage of Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Since then, there has been an endless debate over whether he is some kind of Republican Party operative due to the enormous sway he holds over the news business, and generally about how the heck he does what he does.
I'll leave the debate over Drudge's political agenda to others. But as America enters a new political season, what is perhaps most astonishing about The Drudge Report is how unconventional it seems as a news site by today's "Web 2.0" (bleh) standards.
There is no Drudge video section, no subsidiary sections of the report (lifestyle, sports, and so forth) and no tricky pop-up windows to keep visitors on the site there rather than sending them elsewhere on the web. In short there is very little that looks like it was done for many of those "-ization" words that are so de rigueur in webland, - optimization and monetization. All Drudge produces is a single page, updated a few dozen times every day by Drudge personally - he has purportedly not missed a day since he launched the site-with the help of a part-time associate or two.
Yet by any measure, Drudge is among the Internet's most popular news sites, although its influence far outweighs its considerable page views because Drudge's real king-making power is his ability to drive traffic to other organization's sites by merely linking to their stories on his page. But in his 14 years on the job, Drudge has not changed the simple black and white design of his page one iota, only adding a few elements here and there and more names to his lists of columnists and news sites to link to. He declined a request to be interviewed, but a few useful things about what makes Drudge Drudge can be gleaned from studying his product.
For one thing, where his site's spare design is concerned, Drudge seems to adhere to the utopian ideal of openness and interconnectedness that the web was founded on. All he is doing is telling people what he thinks is news, and they can either come back his way or not. In this sense, Drudge has a kinship with Craig Newmark of Craigslist, who has also strived to keep his classified site as plain and straightforward as possible. The simplicity also might invite comparison to Google, but based on some of the tart stories Drudge has posted about the search giant - yesterday he highlighted its "close ties" to NASA in a real estate deal - that is an invitation he would probably put in the waste bucket.
Second, he probably makes a very handsome living - one rival estimated it to be in the millions of dollars each year - just based on the fact that his site attracts so many page views. According to Drudge's own numbers (which he publishes on the lower right corner of his page), as of Thursday afternoon it had received 22.8 million "visits" in the past 24 hours, 573 million in the past month, and 5.8 billion in the past year. Drudge uses an outside firm to sell advertising, which he runs in four slots on his page. There's no subscription service or splash-page ad to endure.
Another constant topic about Drudge is whether he's losing any of his ground, particularly against the upstart Huffington Post, which founder Arianna Huffington and her partners have tried to position as liberal counter-programming to Drudge's conservative bullhorn.
According to Nielsen Online, the Post nearly doubled its traffic in April from a year earlier, and had slightly more than Drudge's 3.3 million unique visitors. comScore Media Metrix says that the Huffington Post attracted nearly 2.4 million unique visitors in April to Drudge's 1.4 million, with Drudge's visitors down 13% year over year.
Needless to say, as with all media measurement these days, the results are woolly. (Drudge's critics, for instance, claim that the way his site automatically refreshes itself skews its page views, while his defenders argue that's nonsense and updating is just another of the site's longstanding, reader-friendly traits.)
The site Quantcast, which directly tracks visits and page views and combines that data with panel-based surveys like Nielsen, shows Drudge maintaining a significant lead over the Huffington Post in both unique visitors and especially page views. However you parse the numbers, Drudge's site commands a loyalty that most news organizations would kill for: Nielsen recently released a study that showed Drudge had the most "sessions" per month of any news site. And Quantcast showed that the vast majority of Drudge visits are "addicts" and "regulars," not the "passers by" that make up so much of online news traffic.
It should be said that, politics aside, comparing Drudge with a site like the Huffington Post is off point because the latter is a hybrid between a news aggregator like Drudge and a conventional newspaper with original content (by a combination of staff members and mostly unpaid bloggers.). Love Drudge or abhor him, there really aren't others quite like his site - with so much juice generated by a few taps of a single man's fingertips on a keyboard.
And while I'd bet that the Huffington Post will continue to mutate and evolve and could look quite different a year or five years from now, I'd also bet that if you wanted a glimpse at what the Drudge Report might look like five years hence, you only need to go to www.drudgereport.com today.