Cartoon from Tom FishburneOne of the things I’ve struggled with during my online career is how to figure out what impact, if any, I’m actually creating with all my blogging, tweeting, and other online social media activity.   It would be nice to show a potential funding agency or employer that I’m not just farting around on the internet.  I’m actually accomplishing something.

By. Um.
Farting around on the internet.


There are a lot of different ways that you can try to measure how far your online efforts are spreading your ideas. (BTW, there is a large and argumentative literature about the differences between Assessment, Evaluation, and Measurement.  I am going to stick with the less controversial term ‘Measurement’ here.)

You can track your traffic using Google Analytics.  You can count how many followers you have on Twitter, Friends on Facebook, Followers on G+, and Pinheads (?) on Pinterest.  But before you jump into measuring, stop and think.  You are a scientist. Would you run around measuring all possible variables for an experiment?  I hope not.

social media planning strategyStart with WHY you are online. What do you want to accomplish? I really like this graphic, because it shows how what you measure should be driven by your goals.

When I started blogging, I wanted to try to get better at writing for a non-technical audience (personal goal) and I wanted to get more people thinking insects are cool (squidgy professional goal).  Those are not, of course, proper goals. But it’s a start.

I’ve had 1.3 million visits to my blog.  But what does that really mean in terms of my goals?   That traffic could just be the result of very good search engine optimization.  It might be a million people clicking through, going “Damn it, no porn!” and then leaving.

If you are counting followers, or blog visits, you probably have an upward trending line. Yay!  But that doesn’t actually mean that you are changing any behavior, or having any influence. What you want to know is how many “Likes”, RTs, comments, or other sorts of things that show people actually engaging with your content there are.

What’s an appropriate metric for those goals? Google Analytics data for length of time on a page tells me if people found my writing interesting enough to stay for a while.  Number of return visitors tells me if people ever come back, or if they read one thing, and then decide that’s enough.

Don’t measure everything from the giant firehose of internet data.  Choose metrics that actually help decide if you’re heading toward your goals, or at least give an indirect measure.

Do you really need to keep track of any of this stuff?

That depends on your goal! If you really are messing around on the internet just for fun, then why worry about investing time in this sort of record keeping? That’s time you aren’t writing awesome stuff.

On the other hand,  you might want this info for a portfolio.  Much better to have some data than none.  You can set up a few monthly routines or use some automated tools to gather basic info that you might want, so it won’t eat a lot of your time.

This post will focus on Quantitative data about your online activity–things you can measure.  You should also save things that are qualitative–really nice comments, emails, or other interactions. Those are nice for portfolios, and also preserve moments you can look back on for a warm fuzzy feeling.

There are good tools out there that can give you lots of data about your social media and blogs.   Many of them are expensive, but some are free. Lets look at some of the biggest free ones.

Google Analytics

If you don’t have Analytics installed, find out how to do that. Right now.  There is a goldmine of data in them thar servers, and Google makes it easy to discover and find.  There is so much information, in fact, that you can easily loose a day just playing with pretty graphs.

This is why you want to have a goal in mind before you start!  Is knowing how many people are reading your site on an iPad really critical information? Yes, if you are a web designer. Not so much, if you are primarily a writer.

Google can tell you where people are coming from, what is most popular, and also how many people find your site via social media links like G+ and Facebook.  It lets you compare time periods, so you can clearly see seasonal trends, and you can build detailed reports.  But keep what you want to accomplish in mind before you download that giant spreadsheet.


Klout is probably the best known of the social media ranking and metric tools.  Klout incorporates 400 measurements from different social media streams you choose to connect to.  It plugs this all into a secret equation and comes up with your Klout Score, which is a single number between 0 and 100.  The closer you are to 100, the more important you are (in theory).  Companies are beginning to pay attention to Klout in some ways that will probably make you itchy.

Klout recently revised it’s algorithm to make the scores more reflective of what they call “real world importance.”  This had the happy effect of making Justin Bieber’s perfect Klout score of 100 lower, and President Obama’s increase to 99.  Alas, however, it meant that my Klout Score was no longer close to that of John Cusack.

Because all the online ranking services use a secret ranking sauce, it’s a good idea to create a comparative list, so you can see how you compare, and also benchmark for changes.  This can also be a source of great personal amusement.

Ultimately, an online score is useless–looking at it is rather like weighing yourself obsessively. There isn’t always an obvious reason why your score goes up and down, any more than you can explain why you gained 2lbs overnight in your sleep.  (What?? I know I’m not the only one that happens to!)

What is useful about Klout is stats about interactions, and a sense of how you fit into the online ecosystem, compared to your peers.

If you check once a month on a regular schedule, grab some numbers, and then move on, you’ll have an interesting snapshot over time.   Give your friends “+K” and help their Klout scores increase.  But don’t turn into a Klouchebag and obsessively check and post your scores publicly.


PeerIndex is a European company that basically does a lot of the same stuff as Klout. Except they are smaller, and much, much more brightly colored.


PeerIndex is currently undergoing a major revamp, and has one important feature that Klout just got rid of.  You can generate a group of your peers, so you can compare your rank to noted entomologist…John Cusack.   PI doesn’t have as many media channels available to autoconnect as Klout, but the score you get from PeerIndex seems to make a bit more sense than the Klout Score.

If you look at this comparison, Carl Zimmer and John Cusack have a much higher social rank than I do, as they should! Alex Wild and I have more similar scores.  The score is, however, still a single number, arrived at by a very opaque process, and the caveats for Klout apply to this ranking too.  Take what you can use, move on.


There are a bunch of other things out there; my list is not exhaustive! I encourage everyone to add suggestions in the comments.  I wanted to also mention some of the tools I’ve given a shout out to in other posts. Most of these are links to screenshots of the tools in action, to give you a sense of what they look like. You can also just click over to my set of Social Media Pontification photos.

Please let me know in the comments if you have a favorite I haven’t mentioned here! There is so much available, I am sure I have missed something.
Alexa is a variant on the sort of data you get from Google Analytics.  It combines social media data with basic traffic stats to give you a snapshot of who is reading your blog–their age, education level, and gender, for example.  I have no idea how accurate any of that is, though!

Amazing amounts of detailed data on just Facebook; alas, the cool stuff is not free.

Social Mention
SM has an interesting feature that lets you determine “sentiment”, or the ratio of positive to negative mentions.  That can backfire, though, since if I post something about spiders, I get a lot of mentions about how awful spiders are. That shows up as negative sentiment towards me, Bug Girl.

I covered HS in my Part 1 and Part 2 of the social media posts; in addition to allowing automated posting, streaming of your different media streams as a dashboard, Hootsuite also has the ability to generate stats on links clicked and other measurements. (limited in the free version).

Facebook Insights
This is a component of Facebook available to people who manage pages. It provides very detailed demographic data on who is interacting with your content.   However, you have to have a page, not a personal profile, to use it.

I was just not that impressed by this one. It graphs followers and provides a rank, but not much else in the free version. Also, it makes that damn song get stuck in my head.

I have the same Twitter Grade as Justin Bieber.  That, alone, should tell you something about TwitterGrader.  Because it doesn’t give you anything but basic counts, not of much utility other than entertainment value. I am an “elite twit.”

This is the only monitoring tool that was cheap enough to tempt me to subscribe. The free version, alas, doesn’t provide enough info to be of much use.

I mentioned Topsy before in terms of its ability to provide trend and traffic data; its utility (the free version anyway) is somewhat limited.  Topsy will also give you an interesting overview of retweet data for a single tweet.

Wefollow is a keyword focused ranking system; I’ve shown what you get for the word “Insects.”  This is a system that can be gamed a bit like Klout; the more people that rank you as influential, the more influential you are.

If you need a word cloud generated, this one is rather nice.

Other Social Media Posts:

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Timely is another tool I swear by. It allows you to schedule tweets (great for me, since I have a tendency to “dump” tweets at times when everyone is asleep), will analyze your twitter profile to determine the most impactful time to publish tweets, and then after posting it tracks the number of retweets, link clicks, and estimates your “reach” in terms of people. I’m always interested to compare which tweets generate the most traffic.

    Great post, thanks for the tips!

  2. Great info Bug! My problem is continually fluctuating between my social media goals: sometimes I’m like “I WANT ALL THE READERS!!1!” but other times I’m like “Ugh, I don’t want to deal with trolls, I’m good in my quiet little patch of troll-less internet”. This usually ends with me spamming links to some of my content, but then leaving the majority of it as silent Easter eggs for those that actually follow my blog.

    Perhaps it’s time I set some real long term goals instead of just winging it from day to day… M’eh, maybe tomorrow.

  3. Brilliant post. The bulk of people coming to my site is through searching ‘scary spider’. This was an unintended effect of writing a post called ‘Scary spider story’ for Halloween. One of my goals is that they leave thinking they are not so scary and they can be even cute.

  4. Some great comments on Twitter going on right now too. One person rightly pointed out that this focuses on “out of the box” solutions.

    Using R, and some already pre-written code, you can produce some very cool spatial maps of your followers. Or write your own code!

  5. Bug girl, you and I will become close acquaintances over the years. My goal is similar to yours, but I will be doing it just a tad differently but parallel to you. The goal my company is focusing on is to get gardeners raising solitary bees. Enough, so that their excess bees will be shifted to orchards and crops. Highly logistical, yes. Social media needs, high. Doable, very.

  6. I read Bug Girl’s Blog almost exclusively via RSS – do any of these systems track that? If not, and if there are many RSS users, you might want to switch from providing the full post via RSS to providing only a teaser. That’s of course slightly more inconvenient for people like me, but I presume it’s the reason so many blogs don’t provide the full content via RSS even when it’s short.

  7. Michael–the answer is “it depends.”
    The way in which readers are counted depends in part on the tool they are using. For example, something like Networked blogs publishes your content within a frame, and so “steals” the page view for itself. For WordPress, RSS does NOT count towards traffic (so my actual traffic is probably higher, since I have fairly tech savvy readers that use RSS.) To be tracked in Google analytics, the feed reader has to run javascript–most don’t.
    All traffic is an estimate, unfortunately, since without fairly invasive cookies, you can’t really track people that well.
    You can see what is read via google reader on analytics; and feedburner also lets you keep track of rss readers. I just figure it’s not worth tracking, since I can get a basic read on what I want to know with direct traffic monitoring.

    For your other question:
    Most blogs don’t give you full content in the RSS because that makes it easier to Steal your content. All bloggers deal with what are called scrapers–sites that grab your posts and republish them on their sites, chock full of ads. A lot of people complained when I had just a short summary in the feed, so I switched back to the full post feed.

  8. As far as I know, Alexa is quite terrible at everything it tries to do. Quantcast seems to be more accurate and certainly more reactive for all that demographics stuff.

  9. Thanks for the feedback! I do like Quantcast, too:

  10. Oh, and I want to add this quite excellent rant on the general uselessness of impact factors for academics:

  11. Really great post and very thorough. This is a great primer on social media “influence” measurement, and what might go into that.

Comments are closed.