Before I start – I am not a theologian, a book writer, a YouTube commentator, or anyone special within the Catholic media sphere. However, if you have been following traditional Catholic media for a while, you will almost certainly seen arguments about the SSPX, their legitimacy, and its various (supposed) scandals. The disagreement has divided many popular “Trad Inc.” commentators, and there are now questions as to whether those fermenting the divide have financial interests. Here’s a quick recap:
Well, those are definitely interesting messages, but considering the fact that I have actually programmed analytics systems (hire me) and have used analytics before, I figured it would be an interesting afternoon to find out what financial interests there may be. I can’t get to the bottom of whether the SSPX is right or wrong, but I can probably assist the conversation with information showing whether there are financial interests or not.
So, where do I start? The graph from the top tweet actually comes from a service called Alexa, which is owned by Amazon (and not Trackalytics, which just buys Alexa data). This is not the same Alexa that powers those smart speakers. Amazon actually owns two Alexas: The smart speaker one, and a data and web traffic analysis company. This Alexa buys traffic data from Internet Service Providers and repackages it for web development agencies, who pay $299/mo. for the privilege of using that data. This data is certainly not perfectly accurate, and any numbers provided should be taken as just an estimate.
I do freelance web programming and analytics work, and so I signed up for a trial of Alexa to get some information. Who are the most popular commentators? And, what is the popularity graph for those commentators? And, what websites do listeners of these commentators visit most often? And other questions of the sort. Anything interesting that Alexa could give me, honestly. I decided to start out with the elephant in the room, Church Militant, and expand to other commentators.
This is a 1-year graph of Church Militant’s worldwide internet rank. Basically, how popular is the website worldwide? Google is #1 at this, YouTube is #2, Facebook is #3, etc, all the way down to Church Militant’s 1 year peak of #60,376. This rank is not perfectly accurate, and I don’t know quite what the margin of error is. Church Militant’s current rank is #97,799, which is a major rank drop from June 2019. That peak in March, before the SSPX fight, was #79,181. Still a massive drop in rank.
If you aren’t shocked enough by that downward trend, take a look at the 3-year graph. It gets worse for the ranking:
The peak was around #43,715 in November 2018. Remember, it is now #97,799. This does not mean that Church Militant has only half the traffic, it just means that they are much lower in the list of most-visited addresses. It is safe to say though, that Church Militant has significantly less traffic than previously, and that doesn’t help when you just did a studio expansion.
However, this isn’t the beginning of what looks like a worrisome image for Church Militant. This is a graph of where Church Militant gets most of their viewership from:
As you can see from this graph, Church Militant gets roughly ~84% of their viewership from users who directly enter the URL into their address bar. This means that the massive drop in rank cannot be solely attributed to, say, Google and Bing demoting the website. Church Militant does not have a strong social media presence, getting only ~2.5% of website traffic from social media posts and 5% from links on other websites. Only ~8% of Church Militant’s traffic comes from search. This is especially notable considering Church Militant’s large numbers of paying subscribers, and it is logical to assume that almost all subscribers visit Church Militant directly. Thus, a drop this large in viewership may certainly correlate with a drop in paying subscribers, but only Michael Voris could confirm this. Remember, these are just estimates from Amazon Alexa, and only Church Militant has access to certifiably accurate numbers.
Church Militant has declining viewership, and so the SSPX story is all about saving money, right, or repositioning brands? It’s a little more complicated than that. Almost every Catholic trad media outlet has a similar trajectory.
As you can see from the graphs, just about everyone except the Remnant is suffering right now, but if you look at the overall graph, some are definitely hit more than others. I am not sure what caused the December 2017 drop within Patheos. Remember that these graphs are not quite as they appear: The difference between #100,000 and the #1,000,000 lines is 10x, not 1x. Also remember that Alexa rank does not correspond to viewership. It just means that Alexa believes this website is #X more/less popular worldwide.
As you can see from the three-year graph, Church Militant and National Catholic Register are actually neck-in-neck with each-other in popularity, weaving in and out and around each-other. You can see the bump in the October/November 2018, and a large decline around October/November 2019, with the Amazon synod. 1PeterFive was most impacted (yellow) and makes the Church Militant decline look like nothing in comparison. LifeSiteNews shot slightly up, Fr. Z took a bit of a tumble, and Taylor Marshall and The Remnant actually didn’t move much downward at all by comparison. The Remnant in the last month has actually shot up significantly, defying the downward trend.
Another data point is the traffic metrics for the last three months (the only range available for these “high-precision” numbers). Blank fields have no data available.
|Site||Global Rank (now)||<- Over last 3 months||Rank in Country (US)||Global Reach %||Over last 3 months||Global Pageviews %||Over last 3 months|
As you can see from the numbers, Church Militant pageviews are down 23% estimated in three months, which is massive. OnePeterFive is down 28% in three months, also massive. The Remnant is having a breakout last three months, with more than 70% more pageviews in the last three months. Great news for Michael Matt! [Full disclosure: Michael Matt lives, like, ~20 miles from me and I actually see him time to time at church, but I have never met him.]
And with that, the most powerful (Alexa ranked) Catholic blogging websites are, at this time of publication (4/25/2020):
- LifeSiteNews (#27,556)
- National Catholic Register (#93,531)
- Church Militant (#97,799)
- The Remnant (#285,071)
- OnePeterFive (#476,753)
- Taylor Marshall (#545,025)
- Fr. Z (#706,751)
- Canon212 (#2,262,969)
I think what is also important to consider when looking at the above numbers is the question, Where are these sources getting their traffic from? Church Militant gets 84% directly. With other websites, it’s very different. Here’s the full graph:
These percentages are for the last three months, Alexa doesn’t keep such detailed information for long. As you can see, Church Militant is a very weird anomaly with it’s unparalleled 84% direct traffic. That may be driven by the subscribers, but a loss of subscribers would also correlate with the drop in traffic after the synod and the SSPX debate?
I decided to look more at anything else Alexa could give me. I discovered a tool called Audience Overlap, and for those actively in the debate, the connections are frighteningly realistic. With # of sites set to a little over the default #50 (and Patheos removed, because that’s like every religion in one), we see a very interesting set of groupings that I believe may be the most important image in this post:
This is a graph as to what visitors of a bolded website tend to visit most often, visualized into thought bubbles, with the distance between them indicating the frequency of overlap between viewers. Some very interesting details can be brought from this:
- Church Militant and LifeSiteNews viewers go together, apparently. This is generally an Anti-SSPX, Pro-TLM crowd. Church Militant has also done stuff with Live Action and the Daily Wire, which surprisingly shows.
- National Catholic Register floats around with other, popular, sometimes heretical papers, such as America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, and Commonweal.
- Taylor Marshall’s viewership don’t read National Catholic Register much, but instead love visiting reference sites like Catholic.com, USCCB, Vatican.va, and CNA.
- The more SSPX-friendly crowd is a bubble of it’s own with Fr. Z and the Remnant, but it has a bit of overlap with the leaning-benevacantist crowd, such as Canon212, Catholic Family News (blocked by Church Militant, remember), and even the official SSPX website.
- Remember that the image above is made from estimates from web traffic. Alexa doesn’t know the content of the websites or what is going on at all: It just knows that people tend to congregate around the shown websites based on their web traffic patterns, which is fascinating.
So that’s all interesting stuff. What about YouTube? What’s going on there? Websites are only part of the story, right? The best we have for this information is SocialBlade, which archives YouTube data to help advertisers determine trends.
To avoid confusion, be aware that when SocialBlade shows a percentage, that’s in comparison to the previous 30 days. So if you see, say, 500 new subscribers in 30 days, down ~20%, it means the month earlier you got 600 new subscribers in 30 days and are ~20% down in comparison to last month.
Starting off, they are looking great, until you remember this is only 30 days.
Has Church Militant been losing subscribers or video views on YouTube? Nope, they are doing fine and gained after the Amazon synod. What about the breakout star online, The Remnant?
Michael Matt has been doing great! Just look at that 68% video viewership growth in 30 days and 200%-greater-than-average subscriber growth! What about Taylor Marshall?
Slow and steady, but at the same time, doubling the amount of new subscribers you are getting each month is a great statistic. Doesn’t look like the SSPX feud hurt him much, even if he is stagnating a bit. What about his former friend, Timothy Gordon? This is where things look worse.
His channel is younger, that must be remembered, but his channel is stagnating. He hasn’t lost viewership, but he’s gaining viewership comparatively slowly and the amount of new subscribers he’s getting each month is going down, which you wouldn’t exactly expect for his previously higher-profile status in Catholic Trad Media.
So, back to the beginning again? Are there financial motives for the SSPX feud? Well, Canon212 and Fr. Z, who are SSPX-friendly, are declining in viewership. On the other hand, SSPX-friendly Remnant has grown the most. Taylor Marshall is doing fine, but Timothy Gordon’s channel just isn’t taking off as much as it should be. The Anti-SSPX Church Militant hasn’t taken a major hit, but has definitely gone way down in viewership over the last year or two, which is not great right after you finished an expansion campaign. Are there financial motives? Who can say, as there are winners and losers on both sides. Look at the data, and think about it yourself a bit. Think about it over coffee. Read and re-read. Maybe Church Militant, or 1P5, or any of these groups will release official, guaranteed-accurate numbers to disprove this article, but I don’t count on it. And of course, popularity doesn’t determine truth. I wish I could write a happier or more journalistic ending to this post, but I’m only a college student, not a reporter. (Again, I’ve programmed analytics systems, that’s my realm of knowledge. If you liked this, hire me or take a look at other stuff on my website.)