Last week, I met with two people from a non-profit in Phoenix that looks at progressive policies to balance economic development with the environment. Land use and livable communities are two of their key talking points, so it seems logical that they should be aware of a service that encourages and enables people to use light rail to get around the inner city, right? For those unaware, that describes our Knight Foundation-funded project, CityCircles.

As we discussed CityCircles during the meeting, the inevitable question arose: How much traffic are you getting?

The answer, in all honesty, is not much at the moment.

But “hits” — or page views, or unique visits, or whatever traditional web metric you choose to use here — is not what we’re looking for at CityCircles.

Our project is less about “how many” people are using the service and more about “how” people are using it: How they are interacting with it, with each other, and with the light rail community at-large as a result of our existence. I bring this up because it will inevitably be part of any early discussion you may have about your own startup.

The Battle For the Top of Search Results

Your answer will obviously be critical to how the project is perceived. For us, we do our best to follow how web usage is developing as new startups go live. One particularly interesting development is the mile-wide content creators like Demand Media, Associated Content and other related sites. (See the ongoing feature on these kind of content farms being published this week at MediaShift.)

In general, these companies pay writers of a general skill level to write about almost every topic under the sun for an extremely, ahem, modest fee. They are essentially choosing quantity over quality as their business model. (However, that is in the eye of the beholder, as any piece of content is capable of being high-quality to a particular user if it’s exactly what they’re looking for at exactly the right time. It just tends to be something that won’t win any major journalism accolades.)

A really great story on this topic — with a really great volley of thoughtful comments — came out earlier this month on The Wrap.

There’s a lot there to contemplate, but what I prefer to ponder is a post written by FoundingDulcinea’s Mark Moran in December 2009.

He argues — successfully, in my mind — that sites like Associated Content and others will, over time, kill search engines’ usefulness (if the search companies don’t address this issue). The deluge of content from thousands of writers on multiple topics will come to dominate the top search rankings, thus diminishing the utility each user gets from that search. As some have noted, certain searches require you to wade through posts to get to the deeper results on a topic you are interested in, and this equates to being invisible in search because few users click past the first page or two of search results.

Metrics to Consider

Why do I bring this up for potential startups?

The impact these sort of sites can have may force you to re-think your own metrics. If page views work for you (and you should think beyond that), then that’s great. Just remember to follow developments that impact search engines, because that is where validation for your project will come from as you talk to potential stakeholders.

If you’d like to consider other options, here are a few metrics we are tracking under our grant:

  • Number of registered users
  • Number of posts
  • Number of comments on those posts
  • Number of community improvement projects completed
  • Most frequently visited landing pages for light rail stops
  • Length of time spent on our mobile website (train schedules)
  • Interviews with users at our light rail events (anecdotal stories about light rail use)
  • Number and type of merchants participating in our light rail events

Food for thought — especially at a time when startups have to score millions of page views to attract a whiff of advertising money, if that’s your business model. Our model is based on a deeper experience of use, not just information consumption.

Start thinking ahead to answer that inevitable question.