Earlier this week, ComScore published a report claiming that 50 million Americans surfed to a blog sometime during the first quarter. There has been something of a hoo-hah over the details of the figures, particularly from Jason Calcanis at Weblogs who wanted to know why report sponsor Gawker Media featured so prominently. But the rumpus over which sites came top of the blogs should not affect what was apparent in the figures and not just ComScore's claim that blogs now threaten mainstream media. The report listed 20 or so top sites and they had a lot in common. However they did not seem to have much in common what the blogerati think blogs should be doing.
The real winners in the top 20 were the aggregators, some of which are mainly there for people to comment - such as Slashdot - or are more collections of links to other stuff, such as the Gawker Media sites, which annotate links to other material with a few funny asides thrown in for good measure. Blogcritics and the political blogs buck that trend, although the political blogs do depend on news sites for supplying much of the material they quote. Far from threatening mainstream media, these sites are promoting it.
Even with the compulsory sign-up policy still in place, the New York Times gets liberally linked. All that linking is perhaps why the paper's publisher is not getting too worried about losing readers who don't like the policy and perhaps not realising that BugMeNot is making a nonsense of its page-view tracking. But, as it costs a lot less to have somebody post a link to a site and write a pithy comment about a story than to write the story itself, clearly there is some goodly profit to be made. In the short term at least.
The curious thing about the rise of the aggregators is that it runs counter to one of the trends the Internet is meant to impose on every business: disintermediation. We seem to have more and more layers going up in between original content and the reader, not fewer. Now, this may be a temporary phenomenon. In the early days of the Internet, we were promised the support of intelligent agents that would read the newspapers for us and deliver only what we wanted to see. They would provide a thin interface between the user and thousands of potential information sources.
It's going to take a few years for agents to get to the level where we choose to use them rather than rely on the selection and editing skills of a human, so we can expect the aggregator sites to be around for a while. RSS might spread the traffic around a wider selection than the top 20, but the aggregator programs that pull feeds together are nowhere near being good enough to filter effectively on behalf of the user.
We can expect the aggregators to hang around for a while, then. However, given that aggregator blogs are comparatively simple and cheap to set up and run, you have to wonder whether the traditional media companies are going to sit around and watch them take their ad money away. This is where the media companies are getting it wrong now. They are launching blogs in an attempt to engage with the audience with even more original content, on the advice of the blogerati, when they could be raking in the cash by taking a leaf or two out of the aggregator's book. In one way, they have had a go: the Ananova service, now owned by Orange, was launched by the Press Association (PA) during the Internet bubble. Ananova provided direct links to copy from PA, the pooled-copy provider to the UK daily newspapers.