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When Data Disproves Assumptions

John Doherty —  December 16, 2011
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Back in August I mentioned in this post that one of my goals for this site was to double RSS readers by February 7th, which would mark 1 year since I started this site.

Well, let me tell you that I think I need to set loftier goals. At the time, I had 41 RSS subscribers. As of the 13th of December, I have 123!

Here are the statistics:

Boom!

Boom!

How’d you do that?

Back at the end of July I installed a little plugin called What Would Seth Godin Do? It’s a nifty little plugin that you can use to customize a message that people see when they arrive on your site. I have mine set to display only where I have the custom WordPress code implemented (more on that in a minute), and I display a different message depending on if the person has visited my site before or not.

If you have visited before you see this message:

And if you have never visited before, you’ll see this:

Data is Nothing without Tracking

When I installed this plugin back in June, I decided to do something that I had never really done before, that being tracking events via an event in GA. I use this code:

Click to Enlarge

This is awesome because now I can see the growth of RSS subscribers over time in GA. This helps to pinpoint what exactly moved the needle:

Hang on...

But hang on…this doesn’t stack up. I installed the plugin and I’m tracking using Events, but why doesn’t my Analytics show the clicks?

The answer is simple, yet surprising. Apparently subscribers are not using the plugin to subscribe!

So where are they clicking?

Unfortunately, I can’t pinpoint it. Because the number of clickthroughs to subscribe to my blog is actually a pretty low percentage, Google’s In-Page Analytics sadly does not give me any statistics.

What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned a couple of lessons through this. First, check your data before making assumptions about where conversions are coming from. I had assumed that my signups were coming from the plugin until I checked the Events (which I do not check often enough, apparently).

Another lesson I learned is that having multiple RSS signups above the fold of the site is a good practice. Duh, right? I guess you never really know until you see it in practice, though.

CRO 101, right?

Am I going to remove the plugin? No, because it did bring me a few signups recently (intriguingly, not until the beginning of December…) and I do not think it takes away from my site, but I may test moving it around to see what happens.


As I’ve said time and time again, this blog has been quite a learning experience for me. I’m interested to see what happens in the next months as I test more extensively.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

7 responses to When Data Disproves Assumptions

  1. Proud to be one of those subscribers!

    Interesting article. I use google reader for all my subscriptions and its so frustrating when I go to an interesting site and the subscribe button is all the way at the bottom right of the page, come on!

  2. Nice post John. It’s amazing how much work is needed to accurately track the improvements we make to our website and ‘SEO’ in general.

    As you point out, you can implement a plug-in and see a lift in subscribers over time, but perhaps your (awesome) posts were simply tweeted by someone like Randfish and that led to people deciding your content was worthy of subscribing to. Something like that is extremely hard to attribute.

    This post goes to show that assumptions about analytics often just end up correlational and show what we assume is happening. Finding the truth is so much more work.

    Link building can be one of the toughest to track. You can build 5 links to a page and get an increase in rankings, but perhaps the increase came from the single best link, not the total number.

    End of rambling comment.

    • Thanks Anthony. You’re right, it really is a lot of work to track. I need to implement better tracking on here, so that I can see what’s really working. This experience has taught me that I definitely need to track better!

  3. This is pretty impressive statistics. I get around 10 subscribers a day on average in the last couple of months, but actually also developed application for mobile devices that are actually RSS readers. Never spend much time on this part, just submitted several feeds to top RSS feed directories, actually I have several different RSS on my website. This one isn’t based on WordPress, but I am sure that I will be able to write a plugin similar to the one that you’ve mention.

  4. I’m going to guess that good content has something to do with your subscriber numbers jumping!

    Also, and sorry for the novice question, but does inputting your URL into Google Reader count towards your RSS subscribers because that’s how I get your updates? I’m assuming yes, but figured I’d ask.

  5. I think the big orange button is more of a draw to people subscribing to RSS. It’s a universally recognised symbol.

    The reminder box perhaps appeals more to people who otherwise wouldn’t subscribe?

    Just a theory.