NET NEWS: Web Popularity Contest: Feast or Famine

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Science  02 Jul 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5424, pp. 7
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5424.7c

It may be child's play (and it often is) to set up a Web site these days, but don't count on yours attracting throngs of visitors. Researchers have found that a tiny number of sites are visited by a disproportionately huge percentage of Internet users.

Traditionally, a business's success depends heavily on its location, but that constraint doesn't exist in cyberspace. Bernardo Huberman and Lada Adamic of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California wanted to find out what this means for market share. Tracking visits over 1 day to 120,000 randomly chosen Web sites with access logs supplied by America Online for 60,000 of its users, the researchers found that just 0.1% of the top sites captured 32% of visits. They also found the same pattern for Web sites that offered similar content: For instance, 10% of adult sex sites drew 60% of users.

“This was totally unexpected,” says Huberman. “We expected to find things more evenly distributed,” because content on one type of site—adult sites, for example—is often similar across all sites. But once a site becomes popular, through advertising or word of mouth, it begins to draw traffic that might otherwise go to equally good sites. This behavior fits mathematical models that describe other “winner-take-all” scenarios, such as a small number of sports stars grabbing most of the endorsement money, according to the Xerox duo's report.

Although the researchers say they can't predict which sites may blossom into winners, they can offer one guarantee: Sitting back and waiting for visitors to find you is a recipe for failure.

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