Internet Popularity - Are You Faking It?

August 23, 2008

If the Internet was a popularity contest would you consider yourself a faker? Lots of websites and blogs seem to be faking it until they make it. But does it really work - and why?

Untwisted Vortex ran this article on How To Expose Fake RSS Subscriber Numbers. It seems that many bloggers do fake their subscriber numbers and it’s a fairly easy thing to do.

Lately, I’ve seen blogs with similar traffic to mine claim to have between 10 and 100 times as many subscribers. Either that’s lots of folk not coming back, or they’re faking their subscriber numbers. But why on earth would anyone want to do that?

I guess a lot of it is to do with perceived popularity. If you make your website or your blog seem popular, plenty more people will want to visit it and subscribe. It’s human nature - the vast majority want to follow the crowd. And it’s not just those who fake their RSS stats that do this.

Anyone who does something to drive a huge amount of traffic to their website or blog, to increase their site stats, could be accused of faking it, to make their website seem more popular. But where does it all end? Marketing is essential in any business and any activity that is designed to bring more people to your website, falls under the umbrella of marketing.

I personally don’t publish subscriber numbers on this site. But is there really anything wrong with making your business appear more popular, so long as you can deliver the goods? What do you think? Is it ok to fake it until you make it? And are some ways of Internet Marketing more ethical than others?

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27 Responses to “Internet Popularity - Are You Faking It?”

  1. Mike Goad on August 24th, 2008 12:51 am

    If you make a habit of faking it, at what point do you stop? Also, if you’re faking something, is it reflected in other things you do on your blog? And, finally, the people that are impressed by numbers probably won’t be sticking around long anyhow.

    So, I guess, I don’t think it’s a good idea to fake it. I also think the effort needed to do it could be spent doing other things, like networking online.

    Mike Goad’s last blog post..I was told yesterday that my last day of work is next Friday!

  2. Vered on August 24th, 2008 12:55 am

    I don’t think that tool is too useful because it relies on Feedburner stats and apparently those can be tinkered with too:

    How to get 2500 new subscribers overnight

    I think that the only way to get an estimate of where a blog stands compared to your blog as far as subscribers go, is to subscribe to their blog in Google Reader and check the stats that Google Reader provides for each subscription.

    While it’s only a fraction of the total number of subscribers, and likely not foolproof, at least it can’t be tinkered with (as far as I know) so it can give you a sense of how many readers that blog REALLY has, compared with your blog.

    The former attorney in me is thinking that if a blogger fakes her subscriber count and gets direct ads as a result, in a way that’s fraud. They are actively misleading the advertisers who believe they are getting more exposure than they actually get.

    Misleading readers is not fraud, but certainly unethical.

    I think I am going to write about this too. Maybe next week.

    Vered’s last blog post..Obsessed With SEO?

  3. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 12:57 am

    Hi Mike - that is a good point. Where do folk stop? And I guess, even if you weren’t faking, or exaggerating stuff in your blog content, people might assume you were. After all, if people are willing to exaggerate one thing - how far are they willing to go?

    Also, time spent doing that faking is a good point. If it’s going to be time consuming - I guess it may well be better to spend that time on networking instead.

  4. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 1:04 am

    Hi Vered - Did you have a good time at the game?

    I guess I don’t tinker with Google Reader enough because I didn’t realise you did that.

    The advertising thing is a really good point. I guess a lot of people want to increase their number of subscribers to sell advertising space. And if they’re faking that sum to make more money for their ad space then they definitely would be committing fraud wouldn’t they?

    I’m looking forward to see what you’re going to write Vered. I guess so many people are fiddling stats that others may follow without realising they could be doing something illegal (I know - they should, but some folk are really dumb).

  5. Kelly@SHE-POWER on August 24th, 2008 1:59 am

    I feel stupid because I didn’t even know you could fake RSS numbers. Or that I could see subscriber numbers on Google Reader. I know very little about stats.

    Not that I’d bother faking it because my blog isn’t a business, so what would be the point? I could kid myself that they were real of course and have a falsely inflated ego, but even I’m not delusional enough to believe my own lies.

    I don’t put my RSS numbers up because they’re just not that impressive. Maybe if I had 400-500 I would.


    Kelly@SHE-POWER’s last blog post..The Marbella Money Shot

  6. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 2:06 am

    Hi Kelly - like you, I have limited knowledge on subscribers - so I wouldn’t worry too much about your lack of knowledge. I know how to go into Feedburner and check my stats but I’m not sure how reliable that is.

    I’ve never bothered putting up my stats either - a) Because I don’t see the point and b) There’s too many sites out there with ridiculously inflated numbers that mine would look really low in comparison.

  7. Shilpan | on August 24th, 2008 3:51 am

    Cath - I have observed few blogs that have skyrocketed their subscription count while their posts show mediocre content and comments. That always made me wonder but with this article it makes sense. I agree with Kelly that I was clueless about the fact that someone can fake the subscription count.


    Shilpan |’s last blog post..An Interview with Tim Brownson

  8. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 4:11 am

    Hi Shilpan. I was quite shocked too. I saw some of the blogs you mention suddenly get thousands of subscribers and I was beginning to wonder if I was doing something wrong.

  9. Vered on August 24th, 2008 5:29 am

    In Google Reader, click on a blog you’re subscribed to, then click on the link “show details” on the right. It will show you an average of posts per week and number of subscribers that subscribed through Google Reader.

    Vered’s last blog post..Obsessed With SEO?

  10. Vered on August 24th, 2008 5:33 am

    Oh, and yes, I had a great time at the game - it’s always a fun family outing and the Giants WON!

    Vered’s last blog post..Obsessed With SEO?

  11. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 6:34 am

    Hi Vered - Thanks. I’ve tried that. The results were interesting. Those sites that receive a huge amount of traffic from non-bloggers had relatively few subscribers. So, I’m guessing their repeat visitors access their blogs in different ways - perhaps from using the favourites button on their browser.

    I’m glad you had a great time at the game. We don’t have baseball matches in the UK. It’s more old fashioned here and we call it rounders.

  12. Kelly@SHE-POWER on August 24th, 2008 8:10 am

    See, when I start thinking about these things it does my head in. I just checked the Google Reader thing, but it says I only have 10 subscribers through them, so what does that mean if Feedburner says I have 187 in total?

    I know I have half my subscribers come via email, but is my situation odd? From looking at my percentages that would mean your blog Cath has about 1800 subscribers. Is that right? Or does this just show I don’t appeal to bloggers because they’re the ones using the readers? But have more than 10 close blogging friends, so I don’t get this at all.

    Confused and feeling like a bit of a failure about now.


    Kelly@SHE-POWER’s last blog post..The Marbella Money Shot

  13. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on August 24th, 2008 11:22 am

    Well, there’s a few problems with trying to hunt down true RSS subscriber numbers.

    1. Unless the blogger has activated the API in Feedburner, you won’t see the RSS count.

    2. Depending on Google Reader’s count only shows you how many readers use Google Reader - it doesn’t take into account other RSS readers.

    Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with not divulging RSS numbers, both on a marketing level and on a personal choice level.

    On a marketing level, displaying a low number can turn people off. A higher number can incite social proof and cause people to join. That’s the marketing catch (in a nutshell).

    Here’s the personal choice: I don’t want people to sign up for our RSS just because of a big number. They should sign up because they like what they read.

    Faking numbers? Stupid. Why would anyone walk around claiming, “I have 10k readers” when they have 100? Just stupid.

    But there’s nothing wrong with implying (without claiming) that there are tons of readers or letting people believe the reader numbers are higher than they actually are. Hell, that’s just business and being resourceful. Lying? Dumb. Using persuasive strategies? Business.

    Honestly, though, I’m not sure why this subject of who has what RSS count matters. I don’t care if Joe next door claims 40 million and crows like a rooster, lying through his teeth. I care about me and my choices. That’s all.

  14. Cath Lawson on August 24th, 2008 2:32 pm

    Hi Kelly - don’t worry, you’re not a failure at all. According to feedburner I have around 210 subscribers, so I can only assume that many people who come back don’t use a reader. I’d had this blog for more than 6 months before I knew what a reader was, so it doesn’t surprise me.

    If it makes you feel better, Dooce has a small amount of subscribers through Google reader - but I read that she has a million plus readers per month. Like you, she probably has a massive percentage that don’t use a reader. Her RSS button is way down the bottom of the page, so I’m guessing it’s not important to her.

    Hi James - good point. There’s a big difference between implying you have lots of subscribers and telling people you’ve got 20,000.

    The more I’m finding out about subscribers - the less I feel it matters too. But I did want to address the issue because it does seem like there’s a lot of folks out there wondering what they’re doing wrong, because some naff blog claims to have ten times the number of subscribers they do.

    Cath Lawson’s last blog post..Online Networking: Do I Hide From People Like You?

  15. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work on August 24th, 2008 2:33 pm

    I concur with a lot of what Shilpan and Jame Chartran said. The bottom line needs to be based on your authentic purpose for blogging. For example, I truly want to increase the number of self-employed people in the world because I believe that doing so will increase worldwide fulfillment and happiness. Even though that seems like a broad niche, I mostly attract readership from the already self-employed and those who are considering making the leap.

    Yet my first responsibility as a coach and blogger is to continue to create community and write for them, first. However many subscriptions that produces is fine with me.

    Tom Volkar / Delightful Work’s last blog post..Everything Counts So Make It Count

  16. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 2:45 pm

    Hi Tom - That’s a good point. I guess many of the blogs who exaggerate numbers are in wide niches (often how to make money) and appeal to more people. Whereas you are looking for the same readership as I am.

    Like you, I’d rather have fewer subscribers who were in my target market, than ten times the amount, who weren’t.

  17. Al at 7P on August 24th, 2008 2:57 pm

    I think numbers come into play in two cases: (1) trying to show social creds of a blog, and (2) trying to negotiate ad rates to sponsors.

    I think the first case is pretty silly, since I think these days people are less swayed with social creds (RSS subscription, Alexa ranking) as they were in the past. The second point could be an issue, but I think those are blogs with 100K/mo page views or more, and I’m not quite there (yet).

    In my opinion, it’s just not worth faking numbers. Once people see that a blog lacks integrity, people will leave it in droves.

    Al at 7P’s last blog post..Why Should I Help You?

  18. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 3:05 pm

    Hi Al - Good point. I’m not sure how many people take notice of those stats - I’m guessing lots of folk don’t even know what they are.

    As for advertising, I would hate to exaggerate subscriber numbers to attract advertisers. It’s immoral and as Vered said it could be illegal.
    Plus, as you said, if folk catch the fakers out, they won’t bother reading anymore.

  19. Ellen Wilson on August 24th, 2008 7:53 pm

    Hi Cath,

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this to in regards to marketing and going back and forth with it. So I have around 110 subscribers last time I checked, and yeah, I publish that API number so anyone can check if they want to.

    Then I though, what the hell does this number say about me? Or more importantly, what do I want people to think about me?

    It is true that people make unconscious decisions about who they will follow or not regarding stats. Little egos will follow bigger egos. I don’t like to feel like a number, and I doubt if anyone else does either. But yes, it does make you feel good if people visit your blog and read your stuff so we all check our numbers.

    I do think people “fake” their popularity and inflate themselves.

    There are some bloggers out there who I like and trust who publish their numbers and it seems to work as a good marketing tool for them.

    Ellen Wilson’s last blog post..The Forward Momentum of Bloggery (continued)

  20. cathlawson on August 24th, 2008 8:02 pm

    Hi Ellen - I’m still not sure if I have done that API thing, but I’m able to check my Google Reader subscriber number, so I guess I did.

    As you say, people like to check their numbers and compare themselves to others - I guess we all use all kinds of stats.

    But nobody wants to feel like I number. And in blogging, what you say is far more important.

    I personally avoid publishing the numbers on here cos folk used to have similar counters with the number of page views - years ago and it is so old fashioned.

  21. Alex Fayle on August 24th, 2008 8:16 pm

    I remember in Guerrilla Marketing (I think it was) there was a story about hiring people to line up outside a club to make it more popular - they did they same in an episode of Queer As Folk I remember.

    Whenever I’ve been in that situation (for example waiting half-an-hour to get into an empty club), I’m irritated as all hell and have less interest in returning. So yeah, a lot of people are sheep and will follow the bellwether, but what do you want as a blogger? Quantity or quality.

    I know more leads means more business, but if the leads are superficial then I won’t get more business - they’ll just confuse me in the end because I won’t know what I’m doing wrong conversion-wise.

    As for posting my RSS numbers, I might at some point, but then there’ll always be people with more and then I’ll start comparing and comparisons just lead to negativity and frustration.

    Cath, your posts are really making me define myself as a blogger - what I want, what I don’t want, how I want to work, how I don’t want to work - thank you very much!


    Alex Fayle’s last blog post..My Summer Someday List

  22. Natural on August 24th, 2008 9:14 pm

    now i’m starting to see how people fake their numbers..if the numbers are accurate and you feel good about what you accomplished, then display harm.

    to fake it though seems quite pathetic. like you NEED some sorta of approval or a high subscriber account to prove your blogs worth. i didn’t quite get it when someone had thousands of visitors and 5 comments per post. doesn’t add up. i get it now.

    Natural’s last blog post..Is Your Subscriber Count Showing?

  23. Barbara Swafford on August 24th, 2008 10:49 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    I remember being impressed when I saw a blog that had tens of thousands of subscribers. Then I realized the numbers could be manually adjusted, so just like most of the other blog stats people brag about, that too, I take with a grain of salt.

    A blog can have zero subscribers or 80,000. If it’s good and piques my interest, I’ll read it.

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Four Day Open Mic - 8/21 to 8/24/08

  24. cathlawson on August 25th, 2008 12:15 am

    Hi Valerie - that’s a good point. Maybe it’s not just a marketing gimmick. It could also be an esteem issue. It’s sad that those people need to inflate their numbers to value themselves more.

    Hi Barbara - It took me a long time to realise the numbers could be fiddled. Mind you - it took my months to work out what RSS was and put it on my blog.

    Which other blog stats can be fiddled? I’m guessing there’s probably heaps of stats that I haven’t even heard about yet.

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