Sunday, 2 October 2011

An accidental survey of the Hacker News ecosystem

So my little rant a week ago made a bit of a splash, briefly occupying the top of Hacker News. Looking at the inbound traffic, what surprised me was the variety in the HN ecosystem, particularly the alternative front ends that people use to access the HN stream.

Writing a HN front-end is an uncertain proposition: You only get to talk to your audience once - at launch. You don't have a viral loop, so users will most likely be within that initial spike, plus whatever you can get from word of mouth. There are a few online listings, but then the question is how many will get to see those without a static link from HN. This is my attempt to bring a little more attention to these very cool but underappreciated projects.

What I saw in the logs, is that at least 3% of the HN traffic came from alternative front ends. The number may seem small, but zooming into those visits reveals the surprising variety of ways people consume Hacker News. At this point I'd like to apologize to the coders of native apps: I can't see you in my logs, because there is no referrer in the traffic you sent my way. I know that 20%+ of the traffic I got is unaccounted for (and it damn sure wasn't 3600 people dropping in to see what's on my blog), but I can only guess where it came from. With that said, here's the situation, if my analytics dataset is to be trusted:

The most popular alternative HN front-end is hckrnews by @wvl, sending 69 visitors over. hckrnews competes with the default front end head-to-head by offering multiple convenient ways to access the submissions. It is also well integrated with the Hacker News plugins made by the same author for Chrome and Safari.

iHackerNews targets an unmet need, namely the lack of an official mobile website. iHackerNews is built by @ronnieroller and also offers something else much requested of HN: an API. 51 visitors were iHackerNewsers.

The hardest to measure HN-alternative of sorts is @cperciva's Hacker News Daily. The idea is simple: A feed with each day's 10 most upvoted submissions. It covers the need to know that even if you're gone for a day or two, you can still see the best posts when you come back. The reason it's hard to measure is that only a fraction of people go through the website, that sent 31 visits. I would expect most to consume this through the feed (as I do too). Google Reader tells me that Hacker News Daily has 1061 subscribers. That's significantly lower than the 36.564 subscribers to the main HN feed, but I suspect readers are much more likely to be engaged, since they get only one feed item per day.

Another mobile-friendly front end is As far as I can tell it's been made by @JoelSutherland@KrisJordan and the team. While not as feature-complete as iHackerNews, I do prefer the look and feel which looks more tailored to a mobile device. 13 visitors came that way.

12 more visitors came through another mobile-optimized site, The selling point is the instapaper integration as well as its optimization for iPhones by using iUI.

For the fans of a more traditional reading experience there is Hacker Newspaper by Giles Bowkett. As you might expect, it renders the stories of the HN front page in a newspaper format. I imagine this would work quite well with a tablet. Hacker Newspaper sent 10 readers.

 An interesting take on the HN frontpage is, which allows you to sort by points, comments, domain, submitter, and age amongst other things. 4 hnsorters showed up.

Another 3 came via one of my favorites, Hacker News Reader, which is a serverless app. This means that you download a static file that when executed on your browser, fetches the HN frontpage, parses it, and presents it in a different way. No server is involved, which means that if login was implemented, your credentials would never need to touch the developer's server. HN Reader is also installable as a Chrome Web App. While feature-limited, it looks optimized for mobile and also rocks instapaper integration. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Then there is the long tail: The alternative front ends that barely registered by sending a single user my way. Since there are so many projects in this list, I am sure I may have missed as many if not more that didn't send a user to my post. There's, the only project that explains its mission with a rage comic.

Then there’s  HN overload, which nicely organizes each day's top links in a clean format. It scores by aggregating hn points, reddit karma, and number of retweets. Definitely tempted to use this one more.

There's, which organises hourly snapshots of the HN front page using an etherpad-style timeline. Genius. promises to optimize your HN reading experience by allowing you to see both the front page on the left, the article page on top, as well as the comments page at the bottom. A very interesting experiment.

Another very clean and mobile-friendly site can be found at I like the minimalist well spaced layout as well as the refreshing blue colour scheme in a sea of orange competition.

As is obvious there is a lot of variety in the HN ecosystem. I hope at least one of these apps convinced you to give it a try, even if just for a day.

Besides the dedicated HN front-ends, I really should also mention the aggregators: websites that pull together an HN feed with feeds from other relevant sites. The main ones are,, and, in this order. Aggregators sent 94 user agents this way.

Another benefit of being able to dive into the referrer logs, is to see from what part of HN people came through. If you're wondering what that means, read on. There's /best, where articles rise and fall much more slowly, giving you access to great articles you may have missed over a few days of absence. There's /classic, which applies a different sorting algorithm. I believe it has something to do with usng only veteran users' votes. Then there's one I didn't know existed: It's /over. This allows you to set the threshold of points you want to see articles, well, over. Going to /over?points=100 will show you the latest(?) articles that have over 100 points. As for the two people who came with as the referrer, you sirs, are gentlemen and hackers.

Since we're talking data, another lesson I learned is that these 'follow me on Twitter' links you see at the end of some blog posts? They get clicked. I added one to my previous post a few hours after the initial spike, and I estimate it brought about 1.5 new followers per 1000 reads. Not earth shattering, but not too bad, either. 

What do those links look like? Well, something like this:

If you read this far, why not follow me on Twitter here.