A quiet time for webcomics?

It looks like I’m not the only one being a little quiet these days. I decided to take a look at some page views on compete.com and found a few interesting things: looks like readership of some of the most popular webcomics is a little down lately.

Take xkcd, for example. The titan of webcomics could usually be counted on picking up a million page views a month. Compete, though, shows that current readership is at 300K right now. It’s not terrible, but there’s definitely been some drop off.

Ctrl+Alt+Del, which turned 10 this year, has surprisingly slipped down the pack, too. Though it was inexplicably in the 100K’s as recently as March of this year, the comic is now picking up a readership of 28K lately. Those are PVP numbers… or it used to be PVP numbers, as that comic is now at 12K readers.

The Oatmeal, which may be the webcomic with the higherst current viewership, is relatively strong at 475K, but it’s also down from what I remember to be the 2 million and 3 million range. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has suffered a slow decline, going down to 60K from 200K a year ago. Hark A Vagrant! drops to 12K views, but that’s to be expected as Ms. Beaton has gone into semi-retirement.

Things don’t look sunny for longform webcomics either. Gunnerkrigg drops to 12K (down from 30K in February). Dresden Codak has an appalling update schedule, but it only had 6K unique visitors in the last month recorded. Dr. McNinja is hovering at 7K.

Seriously, those last two are a little alarming. Those should be numbers for blogs writing about webcomics, not webcomics themselves.

Shining triumph? MS Paint Adventures, which joins the 100K club as it gains 28K readers in the last two months recorded. Questionable Content also remains strong, despite some recent controversies. It manages to hover around 116K unique visitors a month.

Looking at these numbers, though, it looks like February 2012 was the high waterpoint for webcomics.

Are these symptomatic of the fickle trends of online readerships? Or am I missing some recent comic success stories that have been quietly supplanting the old guard that, in some cases, are over a decade old?

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on November 13, 2012, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. I find those numbers pretty suspect. According to compete.com, the unique visitors for my own site peaked in April with about 2,300, and have been declining ever since. But Google Analytics shows that we’ve had 8,000 to 9,000 every month for the last year. So it seems that compete.com is grossly underestimating sites’ traffic, and is also showing downward trends that don’t necessarily exist.

  2. Hurricane Sandy has disrupted over 30 million people’s routines, in one of the most net savvy regions in the world. Over a week of power outages reported from Cleveland to Harrisburg to NYC to Long Island to Delaware, plus everything in between… and people may never return to their exact same bookmark routine…

    • Not buying that it’s that significant. The hurricane was at the very end of October; it wouldn’t be affecting numbers before then, certainly not all the way back to February. And the areas that were evacuated and disrupted for long periods of time are much more limited than “all the areas that lost power at one point or another.”

  3. According to the same site, my numbers on erinptah.com (which includes other sites, but the comic at catperson.erinptah.com is a major driver of traffic) peak in March, which is close to the pattern. I checked out a few other non-webcomic-related domains (archiveofourown.org, thekeep.org, and neopets.com), and they peak in unrelated places, which seems to rule out a flaw in complete.org’s calculations.

    Meanwhile, all the Tumblrs I checked except one (getoutoftherecat, eschergirls, projectunbreakable, and curveappeal; not fyeahartstudentowl) peaked in February. Maybe there really was some kind of sea change in what people consume online…

  4. You’d think readership would be higher with the mass proliferation of tablets these days.

    At the same time, I also wonder IF the mass adoption of people using their phones/tablets to browse the web is accounting for some of the drop-off.

    I also wonder many readers are taking breaks from their favorite comics at the moment — especially if they’re plot-driven ones. I know that’s how I sort-of read webcomics: I bookmark the last page I was on and continue reading after a month or three to enjoy a whole backlog of updates at once. Perhaps the planets have aligned this year?

    • (That is to say, I’m wondering if a lot of people are being slightly bothered by the one-page-update-a-week standard many webcomics follow.)

    • I have a few to add regarding mobile devices:

      I admit, webcomics are not one of those things I usually read on a mobile device. This is primarily because the text is not scalable. So you have to zoom in to read the word balloons, then zoom out to either get to the next panel or to find the page forward button. And it gets a little more complicated if the picture is linked to the page forward: zooming in sometimes triggers the link, and, if you’re not in 3G range, paging back and forth is kind of a pain.

      In a way, the Comixology format sorta fixed a few of those issues. The download times are no problem, since the whole comic (22 page or so) has downloaded on your mobile device. Meanwhile, on an iPad at least, the page takes up the whole screen. Thus the text is legible, and there’s very little zooming in, zooming out, or panning. So, in a way, traditional comics are better formatted for the page-style confines of a tablet than webcomics.

      That’s been my experience with trying to read comics on a tablet, anyway. The current format of most webcomics is quite inconvenient.

      • Some would say that’s not a good thing. (Granted, it’s about another issue that the comments agree the author’s wrong about, but I think you can get the gist of how it connects.)

        I wonder if the next evolution of comics will come to embrace the distinction Scott McCloud drew in Reinventing Comics between digital delivery (the chapter where he talked about micropayments) and digital comics (the chapter where he talked about the infinite canvas). Granted, in the strict sense the two will probably always remain merged because the latter without the former would involve receiving a single comic on external media, which not even video games are doing exclusively anymore.

        But I wonder if webcomics, as we know them, will eventually start to fade away in favor of iPhone and iPad apps or comics for Comixology, which could even make the infinite canvas or even micropayments a reality. This is especially the case if Microsoft proves to be successful at making the traditional laptop obsolete. Homestuck, despite being on the web (and being unusable on a Surface or iPad because of the restrictions on Flash on each of those devices), may be a glimpse of the future in that respect. (Seriously, Hussie, develop an iOS/Android app for your current comic before you focus too much on your video game sequel.)

        The future of newspaper-style comics, meanwhile, may be a case of back-to-the-future, with the return of syndicates hawking “comics page” apps for reading a bunch of comics at once. I’d say that would make Scott Kurtz squirm, except I’m wondering if that was one of the ideas he was thinking of hawking to syndicates during his consultancy offer earlier this year. Weirdly, GoComics.com, the site hosting the online versions of the majority of actual newspaper comics, is hawking an app for reading comic books. (Of course, some newspaper-style comics might be able to survive with apps, but still.)

        Of course, I’m not sure if webcomics will fade away entirely; while stuff like cast pages can be incorporated into apps, I’m planning a webcomic that will rely heavily on reader discussion as part of the overall experience of the comic. Homestuck may be well-suited for mobile devices, but a lot of its appeal and part of its experience has to do with the way its fans interact with it, which would be a lot harder if it were just on an app.

        In short, I think if the Foglios were thinking of making Girl Genius more digital-centric today, they would be putting it up on Comixology, not the web. Web serialization is not the future for most “long-form” comics.

      • To clarify, I meant that it’s not a good thing if tablets aren’t suited for webcomics.

        Funnily, most people who advance to the next comic when you click on a comic image did so because Scott McCloud told them to, repeatedly, in Reinventing and his online follow-up to it, and even in his “Chapter 5 1/2” to Making Comics. So Scott, who claimed in Reinventing that hypertext was antithetical to comics, may have accidentally given bad advice that was too rooted in the web to hold up to new technology. (Even in a comic app, it’s now more natural to swipe to the next page than tap.)

  5. I’m not sure about the numbers either. Checking out Gunnerkrigg’s Project Wonderful shows update days getting anywhere between 80k and 140k unique hits (and even then I bet some people are waiting for the Jones-centric chapter to end so they can read it in one chunk. Spoiler, she ain’t a robot) and Tom’s making a healthy amount in ad revenue.

    Think a corroborating source is needed before we start worrying. Though if Girl Genius’s readership is declining I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m getting really bored of this battle and yet another scheming character has been introduced? Come on Phil, it’s been YEARS, zap the castle and let’s do something new or maybe even tie up on of the bajillion loose ends lying around. Gah, don’t make me unbookmark you!

    …Apologies for random rant. Also, Gunnerkrigg Court is awesome and if you’re reading this and you haven’t checked it out, do so now.

  6. Perhaps readers dont read those comics in their own homepages, they are more easy to read on tumblr , facebook, rss feeds, forums , twitter, etc,

    Or perhaps people moved on and get their comics from comixology , shonen jump alpha and similar sites

    Indeed

    • It must be investigated

    • I don’t see how people can read comics on forums and Twitter without either going to the website anyway or committing something close to copyright infringement, and the only reason I don’t include Tumblr in that category is because of the way that site has contributed to Hussie’s success. Facebook and RSS are dependent on a comic-by-comic basis (ie, whether the comic is even offered in that format), or Facebook would fall in the same category as well.

    • That’s sort of the assumption I’m working under. It feels like social networking sites are becoming the central hub for a lot of people’s internet experiences, and now they prefer to consume the things they enjoy through their favorite social site.

      Of course it’s weird to me… I’m not really a social networking type, and I prefer to visit the separate homes of all the sites I enjoy, rather than having that content brought to me.

      Maybe the deeper question is, are there fewer readers of webcomics, or are they just reading webcomics in ways that we have difficulty measuring?

  7. Damn, i’ve been waiting for someone to pick up on this story! Good on yer. If you take a look at the Alexa numbers for a lot of webcomic sites, the numbers are down in a similar fashion as well, so it’s not just a Compete anomaly. In addition, there’s a decline in mention of webcomics in the media as well– on traditional comics sites, the Comics Journal, etc., compared with say 5-7 years ago when the PBF and Achewood were reliably featured in the greater culture and things seemed a little more hopeful for the medium. So yeah, there is most certainly i feel an observable decline in the medium.

    My own theory is that it’s, like any phenomenon, a Combination of Factors. Factor one is, like another commenter mentioned, the rise of mobile devices, and the fact that with a cursory googling of relevant terms one can easily find statistics that indicate that in the last couple years the percentage of internet traffic coming from mobile devices now accounts for as much as 1/5th of total traffic. That is, millions of people who used to browse the net on actual computers have now redefined the internet for themselves as something you exclusively visit on a smartphone. Purely because of the format, this means less visits to many comix. Speaking from personal experience i have close friends/family who literally can’t read my webcomic because their only internet is on smartphone. They’ll catch up every few months when they find themselves in front of a friend’s desktop or something, but again that means far less numbers in terms of pageviews to my site (though not less readers, technically, though some are bound to stop reading altogether). So yeah, this absolutely has to be one factor at play here.

    The second factor is that there are simply less prominent comix now–either as a whole or as a proportion of the total number of webcomics out there (i’m not sure which). All one has to do is take a look at the list of notable webcomics on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_webcomics) and you can see how drastically things have trailed off in the last few years. Yeah, we’ve had Hark! A Vagrant and The Oatmeal in recent years, two giants obviously, but between them and all the small-readership strips there’s not much else that’s prominent. And i mean prominent largely in terms of the perception of being prominent, ie: heavily mentioned in the media. There are i’m certain a lot of recent strips that have started in recent years that have very significant numbers in terms of readership, but the problem is nobody’s talking about them, and that wikipedia list functions really as a list of comics that people are talking about.

    And let’s call the third factor a decline in the usefulness of content-sharing sites that used to provide a ton of incoming traffic to various webcomics. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the site Digg and how it drastically changed a couple years back, and speaking from personal experience i can say with authority that the launch of Digg v4 was the end of incoming traffic to my and probably many other webcomic sites. Reddit as well has become drastically less useful in terms of incoming traffic, partly due to the nature of its /r/comics section, and i would surmise also in part due to the factors i’ve outlined above– the site reflects what’s in the popular culture, and webcomics have faded a bit, and thus they’re (seemingly) posted less fervently in that and higher traffic subreddits like /r/funny. And this is, again, just a theory, but i’m sure there are other sites too that used to be of more use to webcomics artists but no longer are. And it all feeds back on itself too, one must remember– webcomics aren’t talked about in the press, so they aren’t linked to, so they aren’t talked about, so they aren’t linked to, etc, etc (repeat to fade).

    That’s certainly what i’d like to believe, at any rate– that it’s a decline in media exposure and external factors, as opposed to a decline in the number of great webcomics. There are by my reckoning no fewer great comix now than in the previous decade, and i do keep a pretty close eye on the landscape. I’m just personally frustrated that i never read about webcomics in the comics media anymore (let alone the mass media). Comics Alliance use to have a webcomics column, and now they don’t. The Comics Journal used to have a column and now they don’t (and before you say “well write one then mr. shittypants!”, i actually contacted them about just that and i never heard back, so there you go). Y’know, thousands of people read Zen Pencils (http://zenpencils.com/) every day, that’s a big audience, and it’s a great strip that makes innovative use of the medium, and by extension that’s a friggin’ news story, but it’s not being told from what i can see because the media’s not interested (present company excepted, obviously). I dunno, blame the recession? Less money out there, less media coverage, less everything, everybody suffers? Maybe it really is that simple in the end. When you think of all the other things that have declined in the last few years, it starts to make a bit more sense for sure.

    /wall of text

    PS: Again, this is just my personal sense of what’s going on, i claim no concrete evidence. I hope to hear more of other people’s anecdotal experiences moving forward as there’s a very important conversation to be had on this subject i reckon.

    • Hey, Winston! Great thoughts.

      Gotta agree that the mainstream coverage of most webcomics has tapered off a lot. The ones that do get covered regularly — like MS Paint Adventures — seem to retain a healthy readership. I have noticed that, as superhero comics get even more mainstream, most coverage has turned toward the latest movie adaptations, toy lines, cosplay, etc. It was once my hope that places like iFanboy and Comics Alliance would cover webcomics more on the regular, but it seems like most readers want to know more about, say, who’s the guy that’s going to voice Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

      Perhaps that’s how it was always meant to be. Webcomics are the modern indie comics, and those hardly get mentioned in any sort of comic conversation.

      • Yeah, that’s a really good point actually. It’s frustrating, because you look at video games right now and the indie stuff is right in there in the conversation, but maybe it’s not analogous. Although maybe it’s because they use the same form of distribution as the traditional publishers, and maybe that’s what it’ll take for online comix artists to get some respect as well–the traditional publishers moving primarily to digital.

        Or something, i dunno. I’d certainly be nice if art was granted attention based on its merits and now how profitable it was in the context of traditional revenue models (etc etc), but perhaps one can’t have it all. Fortunately the audience, actual people, aren’t bothered by it–they just want good comix. And while i’m here, thanks to you for your own efforts– as a webcomics person, it means a lot when there’s someone out there devoting their time to blogging about online comics in a meaningful way, just out of an appreciation for the medium. I’d like to think we’re all ahead of our time around here.

        • Video games are so centralized in a handful of consoles, and a favorite distribution approach for a lot of indie games has been through those consoles’ digital-download services like the Xbox Live Arcade, as well as apps for smartphones. People can’t help but use these services and see those games. This probably ties back into the points about mobile made elsewhere in the thread.

  8. So, is siteanalytics a pretty reliable source for traffic measurement? I had an interest in this a while back, but I kept finding that every site I looked at that purported to do this sort of thing had conflicting numbers with the other sites I looked at, and there seemed no good way to determine accuracy for any given site.

    • Based solely on their reporting for my site, I’d say they’re not very reliable at all. But I don’t see how they could be very accurate. According to their methodology page, they seem to function sort of like the Nielsen ratings, meaning that they get people to allow them to monitor their day-to-day browsing. Then they infer traffic figures based on what these monitored browsers did. So if they are showing a trend that webcomics are consistently declining, it may say more about the people they are monitoring than about webcomics themselves.

  9. This might not be entirely new. (Bengo’s explanation might be that webcomic readership is becoming less centralized and people might be finding out that a lot of the big name webcomics actually suck… but then, he’s someone who rage-quit out of webcomics three years ago after leaving a trail of broken bridges in his wake and me not quite sure how many of his points were good ones that got ignored by people who inadvertently proved them in the process.)

    Worth noting that the Google Trends graphs I posted a while back mostly seem to confirm this data, while also suggesting that MSPA isn’t quite as high in the rankings as you might think. I think MSPA’s biggest triumph is that it has attracted an audience outside the “typical” webcomic audience, that is, less nerdy and more mainstream.

  10. Your probably all right to some degree. I do think people who make web comics themselves may have a second like myself. Don’t forget almost everyone is affected by this economy in some way shape or form except the super rich. Beside doing these updates for free can be a strain. Sure I love drawing and creating but If have to choice in my window of free time to play Mass Affect 3 or finish page. I chose game time! I will never give XYKD too much respect because it’s stick figure comic that could be easily done by anyone. The fact that so many people jock it will always amaze me. I will admit it I am hater, but I think that comic and others that are poorly drawn are great at promoting and getting great back links. Yeah it makes me sick. If there taking a hit… hooray!

    • Sure I love drawing and creating but If have to choice in my window of free time to play Mass Affect 3 or finish page. I chose game time!

      Hey, can’t blame you for that. I’ve fallen into that as well. Though Halo 4 seems to be eating into my Mass Effect 3 time!

      (And if you’re on XBox Live, look up “The Crimson Bee” sometime. That would be me. :) )

    • You’re just jealous because because you decided to use actual art when when it comes to webcomics, art doesn’t matter. Go read Order of the Stick and tell me you don’t respect it. Randall Munroe is popular because the stuff he writes speaks (or at least, spoke) to people, regardless of whether it looked like stick figures or Rembrandt.

      • Duh I did say that, I am a hater. Listen. I guess I’m like those people who don’t get Beaver fever and don’t give him no respect. Unlike them I do give Justin Beaver respect, he can sing at least.

  11. Compete is not a valid tool for comparing website stats since it doesn’t have access to the real website data.

    For my webcomic Sandra and Woo ( http://www.sandraandwoo.com/ ) it reports a steady decline from 22378 unique visitors in November 2011 to 12156 unique visitors for October 2012: http://siteanalytics.compete.com/sandraandwoo.com/

    However, the two web traffic tools with real access to my data report a slight increase (Google Analytics) or even a significant increase (Webalizer) of page views and unique visitors in the same time period.

  12. Maybe it’s also the age group that was reading these webcomics? I mean, I know that this year I’ve looked at my bookmarks and gotten rid of a TON of the ones that I used to read. Mostly because I didn’t find them funny/ their stories suddenly seemed kind of juvenile. A lot of my favorite webcomics have stopped updating (Templar, I’m looking at you…), and some of them have gotten so slow that I don’t even remember to check them (Rice Boy I’m looking at you…). This is me personally, I’m not sure if other readers have been feeling differently towards webcomics, but maybe it does partially account for some of that drop? Just a theory….

  13. I just want to throw this out there, but for long form webcomics I’ve taken to reading them in large batches and then letting the archive build up for several months, or in some cases years before returning again. I can’t be the only person out there who does that, but I suppose that doesn’t really account for a sudden drop-off in the numbers.

  14. Out of curiousiy, I reran a Google trends search on webcomics alongside some of its prose equivalents. Based on the secular trend it looks like searches for webcomics might be decreasing? Can anyone who knows these algorithms and their interpretations better explain this to us?:

    http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=online%20novel%2C%20webfiction%2C%20light%20novel%2C%20webcomic&cmpt=q

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