Ranking the Top Christian Blogs

Ranking the Top Christian Blogs September 24, 2012

Last week, several friends emailed a link to Kent Shaffer’s Top 200 Church Blogs list, asking whether it’s a helpful list and how well it actually assesses the blogs across Christenblogdom.  A part of my job is identifying excellent Christian blogs with large followings and then explaining to them why I believe Patheos could (and does) provide a fantastic environment in which to cultivate their audience and their influence.

The answers to my friends’ questions are, in brief: It’s a very helpful list.  I appreciate the work that goes into it, and I’ve used the list myself to find new blogs that would otherwise have never made it onto my radar screen.  It is, in my opinion, the best list of top blogs currently available.

There are, however, serious limitations to the list that are not well explained, and that everyone should understand.  Kent leaves out many of the largest Christian blogs, especially Catholic ones, and he is (through no fault of his own) forced to base his ranking on publicly available information.  There is not here — as there are with college rankings, for instance — internal data on number of pageviews or unique users.  Since I happen to know the traffic for a lot of the top blogs, both at Patheos and beyond (through ad networks and, well, asking people), I can point out some interesting limitations and omissions.

BACKGROUND: Surprisingly, there aren’t many rankings of top Christian blogs to be found, and the ones that are available are poor.  The Technorati ranking of “religion blogs” is practically worthless.  It serves mostly as a magnet for search engine traffic, and a way of getting bloggers to register Technorati accounts.  The best rankings focus on a single measure — like Adrian Warnock’s ranking of bloggers’ Twitter followings — but these of course are limited in their own way.

It’s worth noting that rankings often serve the ranker better than they serve the ranked.  They give the ranker a great way to get other blogs to direct their readers over to check out his blog, and if the ranked blogs include the little “Top Blogs” logo that’s inevitably provided then there will be a permalink on their blogs toward the ranker’s blog.  This will help his own ranking for search algorithms and thus his own traffic.  Bad rankings, then, are mostly gambits to get other bloggers to link to the ranker’s blog.  They also serve to position the ranker as an expert on the world of blogging, which may or may not be true.

Kent Shaffer, the proprietor of Church Relevance, offers a good ranking.  Or at least he makes a worthy attempt.  He ranks blogs by combining a number of different metrics, including indications of traffic (like the Alexa ranking), subscriptions (Google Reader) and linking behavior (buzz measures).  It takes a lot of work.

WHY IT’S HELPFUL: It’s helpful because it gives you information on 200 Christian blogs.  You’re bound to find some you enjoy.  Looking for a bulletin-board blog that tells you what’s going on in the world of Reformed Christendom, along with great quotations from someone working at a publisher?  Between Two Worlds is your place to go.  The latest research on church demographics and effectiveness?  Ed Stetzer‘s your man.  Great reflections on faith and culture?  Consider Cultivare.

In this particular ranking, it’s great to see so many Patheos blogs: Jesus Creed at #2, the brilliant young Marc Barnes’ Bad Catholic at #12, Tony Jones, Pete Enns, James McGrath, Roger Olson, Nada Bolz-Weber, Dwight Longenecker, Black White and Gray, The Anxious Bench, and so on.  Lots of friends and favorites are on there as well, like Rachel Held-Evans and Tullian Tchividjian and Michael Patton’s Parchment and Pen.  It’s also true that the blogs in the top 10 are larger as a whole than the blogs at 21-30, which are in turn larger than the blogs at 91-100.

WHY IT’S LIMITED: The main limitations — and I’m not being critical of Kent Shaffer here, I suspect he would agree — have to do with who is included and who is excluded, and the limitations of the rankings tools themselves.  A ranking is only as good as the tools at its disposal.

INCLUSION/EXCLUSION: The makers of the list are clearly more familiar with blogs of a certain kind.  Catholic blogs are few and far between.  While I already mentioned Marc Barnes’ Bad Catholic at #12, Elizabeth’s Scalia’s The Anchoress is just as much a “church blog” and actually larger and more well established.  Mark Shea is just as large as well, and very influential.  Yet neither appear anywhere on the list.  By their size, both would be in the top 20 (actually both are larger than several blogs listed in the top 10), but they’re not included in a top 200 list.  I mention Patheos blogs because I know their precise traffic, but I could also mention Whispers in the Loggia, Curt Jester, Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register, Happy Catholic, or other Patheos blogs like The Crescat.  Or why include DesiringGod and The Resurgence — which you might say are less blogs than resource sites — but not the New Advent?  What counts as a “church blog” for Catholics may be a bit different than the criteria for Protestants.  Anyway, there may be good reasons for excluding some of these — and I’ve sent Kent some questions and will update if he responds — but I’d just like to know the criteria.

Okay, so a Protestant bias is understandable.  Kent is a Protestant.  There’s also a strong leaning away from progressive blogs.  I can understand that too — I am a conservative, after all!  But Fred Clark’s “slacktivist,” judging by size alone (without getting into the other metrics), would be in the top 5.  Now, dear old Fred drives me crazy, and I would understand not deeming his a “church blog,” but there are quite a few others as well — blogs like John Shore, who would also be a top 30 blogger based on traffic alone.  And others, like Homebrewed Christianity, are not as large but are certainly “church blogs” and certainly in the top 200.  In fact, Fred Clark gives a left-leaning list of 25 blogs worth knowing about here.

There are some other peculiar omissions.  Judging by traffic, Ann Voskamp, GetReligionPhilosophical Fragments (ahem), The French Revolution, and Rod Dreher would all be in the top 20.  Each one has several times the number of pageviews of some of the blogs that are listed in the top 20, and more than some listed in the top 10.  Are Dreher, Dalrymple (c’est moi) and French too political?  Many of the blogs on the list are quite political, and Kent says the list includes “news blogs.”  So it’s, well, bizarre.  And where are some of the long-time stalwarts like Mark D. Roberts and Ben Witherington, both of whom should be in the top 50?

Or take Michael Hyatt, who sits at #3.  His traffic is monstrous.  He gets more traffic alone than the entire website for The Gospel Coalition, which means he gets a lot more traffic than my friend (and for all his greatness) Justin Taylor, who blogs at TGC and sits at #1.  However, Hyatt rarely references his faith on his blog.  He mostly blogs on media, leadership and productivity.  How do you say Ann Voskamp’s blog (which gets several times the traffic of the #6 blog on the list) is a not a “church blog” but Hyatt’s is?  Ann has the same Alexa ranking as Tim Challies, and Challies should be in the top 5 (he’s listed at #9, lower than some blogs he dwarfs).  And where is First Thoughts?

In other words, while the rankings generally place bigger blogs toward the top and smaller ones toward the bottom, the particular rankings between 6 and 9, or 20 and 30, are much less reliable; an awful lot of blogs, including many of the largest, are missing; and the ranking leans strongly toward conservative Reformed Protestantism (three blogs from The Gospel Coalition in the top 6), lacking many of the largest Catholic blogs, many of Patheos’ biggest blogs, as well as other big blogs like Ann Voskamp, John Shore and Rod Dreher.

TOOLS: Many of the limitations above stem from the limitations in the tools used to measure the blogs and their size and significance.  Here are the tools he uses:

Alexa: Alexa rankings are arguably the best way for an external observer to assess the size of a website.  If you are ranked 5000 in the US (for instance), then Alexa estimates that you are the 5000th largest website in the United States.  The problem here is that blogs on a platform (like Patheos, TGC, Christian Post, Christianity Today, Beliefnet or HuffPo) will not have individual rankings; they will only show the ranking of the site as a whole.  This leaves Kent unable to use Alexa rankings meaningfully.  Still, one can compare blogs that are not on platforms — but then one sees that Tim Challies, whose blog is in the 80,000s worldwide, is ranked #9, while Al Mohler is #8 with an Alexa ranking above 260,000.  I would estimate that Tim Challies has at least ten times the traffic that Al Mohler does, yet Al Mohler is mysteriously ranked higher.

Compete: Compete is a helpful tool for websites that use Compete.  It notoriously undercounts traffic for websites that do not pay Compete to track their traffic.  It may only count 1/6th of your traffic, or it may count 1/3rd.  Thus you’ll be ranked higher or lower not on the basis of your traffic, but on the basis of how badly Compete undercounts your traffic.  Yet Kent turns to Compete to see what kind of traffic a blogger had in August — a single month, and a summer vacation month at that.  Again, however, he can’t get down to particular blogs.  When he looks at Scot McKnight, for instance, he can only see the traffic for all of Patheos.  So this is no better — in fact, it’s considerably worse — than Alexa.  Compete should have been left out entirely.

Google PageRank: Google pagerank shows the authority that Google’s algorithm’s give to a particular website.  Get a lot of inbound links from high authority sources, and you will be deemed more authoritative.  As you are deemed more authoritative, you get more search traffic.  [SEE UPDATE BELOW] It seems to me that Kent used the pagerank, again, for entire platforms (it gets problematic if you try to get separate pageranks for multiple blogs on the same platform) rather than specific blogs.  So we’re through three criteria now and we haven’t found one that gets beyond the platform to the specific blog.  Unfortunately, he seems to have gotten Patheos’ pagerank wrong.  We have a pagerank of 6, but he puts all Patheos blogs at 5.  Unless I’m missing something?

UPDATE: I inferred that Kent was using the PR for the full platforms because I found some blogs for which the PR was wrong.  Those are evidently just mistakes, as Kent tells me that he focuses on the PR for specific blogs.

Google Reader Subscriptions: Finally we come to a measure that allows Kent to drill down past the platforms to particular blogs, but it’s not a very helpful one.  Some blogs strongly promote RSS subscriptions, some don’t.  Only your Google Reader subscriptions will count, not other RSS services, not social networks.  But some blogs encourage RSS or Google Reader, some don’t.  That’s why you’ll see Michael Hyatt, with a much larger site, at #3 with 2000 GR subscriptions, over DesiringGod at #4 with 17,000 subscriptions.  Older blogs may also fare better since people are more likely now to use social networks to follow blogs than RSS feeds.

Open Site Explorer: Kent then uses two tools from a site I’m not familiar with, Open Site Explorer, that are intended to estimate search engine rankings.  I don’t know quite what to say here except that I’m skeptical.  The first figure, homepage authority, seems to make sense.  The blogs I would expect to have a higher homepage authority generally do.  The root domain links (RD) ranking (sites with unique root domains linking to the blog) is all over the map.  This too may reward blogs that have been around a long time, since blogrolls and link trading used to be much more common.  It seems to hurt blogs that have moved recently.  Obviously I’m biased, but I see some great Patheos blogs that stir an awful lot of conversation having high homepage rankings, as they should, but root domain links that are extremely low.  Not sure what to make of that.

Computation: Perhaps the biggest problem of all comes when you consider how all of this works out in the computation.  Kent doesn’t weight the categories; he simply ranks all blogs on every measure and then adds up the numbers.  But remember that some of the terms don’t really get past the platform to the blog.  So, blogs on ChristianPost will win the #1 slot on Alexa ranking, since they sit on the largest platform.  [EDIT: Actually, there’s a blog on the list from the Houston Chronicle, which has a better Alexa ranking, so that blog, whether or not it has a large readership, will win the “Alexa” measure.]  Blogs at ChristianPost should win the second round, since Compete seems to show me that CP has 2 million unique visitors, but Kent’s ranking oddly has them at 61k uniques (there may be a good explanation here, I just don’t know what it is).  Instead, all Patheos blogs will tie for #2 on the second round, even though some will be 30-50 times larger than others.  On the third measure, a few blogs with a pagerank of 6–generally blogs that have been around for a long time–will win the round.

And so it goes.  To give an example, Pure Church is ranked #22, but that’s largely because it’s on a large platform, The Gospel Coalition, which means that it fares well with Alexa, Compete and PageRank.  It ranks over Acts 29, even though Acts 29 has 2000 subscriptions compared to Pure Church’s 866, and 1075 root domain links compared to 155.  The only reason Pure Church is at #22, in other words, is because it is on a large platform, not because of the blog itself.  (I don’t know either of the bloggers for those; so, no offense, I have no dog in the fight.)

All told — use the rankings as a helpful way to find out about blogs you might not have heard of before.  Do not use them as a comprehensive list, however, and do not assume that they really reflect anything like an exact order.

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