Will Digg’s Downfall Change Hosting?

Digg, while still a popular site, seems to have “dugg” itself quite a hole. Not only is site traffic down some 34% after a controversial redesign of the site, but content creators who get their work promoted to the coveted front page are seeing only 60-70 percent of the traffic they used to get.

There was a time in which the Digg effect struck fear into the hearts of webmasters; though a coveted prize it was known for crashing servers and, as well as traffic spikes like it, spawned alternatives to shared hosting, such as grid and cloud hosting, as well as caching systems such as WP Super Cache and W3 Total Cache.

With the slayer of shared hosting accounts now less lethal, and likely to become even less dangerous as time passes, the question is whether (and how) the downfall of Digg will change hosting. The answer isn’t very straightforward but it will, almost certainly, have some impact.

The Era Before Digg

In the era before Digg, the hosting world was talking about another “effect”, the Slashdot Effect. Similar to the Digg Effect, it was known for crashing sites without warning by rushing thousands of eager visitors to unsuspecting sites.

Over time, Slashdot’s influence waned a great deal; much of its casual audience were absorbed into other social news sites such as Digg and Reddit. However, a very large, dedicated following continues to visit the site regularly and, although Slashdot may not mean as much as it once did, it certainly can still crash an unprepared server.

Most webmasters moved on to worrying about the Digg Effect- potentially a much bigger storm with tens of thousands of unique visitors in a few hours. The idea was that, if you could be ready for reaching the front page of Digg, you were probably ready for just about anything.

And that is still technically true. Digg may be weakened, but it is still the 300-pound gorilla of the social networking world. However, with its weakened punch, will webmasters start forsaking Digg-proof accounts in favor of cheaper shared plans?

It doesn’t seem likely, at least not in the near term.

The More Things Change

The reason the weakening of Digg is causing such a stir is not because of a possibly changing of the guard among social news sites, but because there is no clear successor. Reddit is often mentioned as a replacement and has taken in many Digg refugees but it has seen only seen modest growth and is still only a fraction of Digg in size.

But just because the traffic spikes are less sharp doesn’t mean that webmasters can or should scale back. There are three very big problems with that.

  1. Digg is Still Too Powerful: A Digg effect at 60% power is still more than most shared hosting accounts can handle. It’s not as if a regular shared hosting account will be able to withstand the strain of a Digg effect, at least not without help.
  2. Digg is Not the Only Source: Even though Digg has become the measuring stick for traffic spikes, they can come from a variety of sources including StumbleUpon, Reddit, mainstream media or even search terms that become suddenly popular.
  3. On One Site, Likely On Them All: If a link reaches the front page of Digg, it likely also will be passed around social networking sites heavily as well as other social news sites. That is the very definition of going “viral”. The fact that a site sees only 70% of the traffic it used to from Digg does not mean it won’t make up that traffic and more on other services.

In short, as long as there are large sites that link to smaller ones, whether they are social or not, and/or the ability for content to go viral on social networking sites, there will be traffic spike and smart webmasters will want to be prepared for them, either through getting spike-proof accounts, using solid caching systems or both.

However, this doesn’t mean things will remain completely the same. There will be a few changes behind the scenes…

Blunting the Traffic Spike

As other traffic sources begin to share the spotlight with Digg, the prospect is there for sites to receive a lot more traffic from social news and social networking sources, albeit over a longer period of time. Instead of seeing sharp traffic spikes, they will likely see traffic plateaus that start with a sharp spike and remain relatively flat, tapering off over a a period of days. For example, instead of getting 25,000 visitors in a few hours, you’ll more likely see 15,000 initially and higher traffic levels for the next few days as the story makes rounds elsewhere.

This means that hosts will not have to worry about as many concurrent users on accounts with traffic spikes but will have to worry about sustaining the higher load longer and the probability of more sites on one machine being placed under that kind of stress.

Hosts will have to make sure their machines are ready for that. Likewise, caching plugins with relatively short update intervals may want to extend them. These changes will be almost invisible to end users and webmasters alike, but reflect the types of challenges that hosts will face as the traffic landscape on the Web shifts.

Bottom Line

In the end, I don’t expect to see many webmasters dropping back from a VPS or cloud account to a shared one just because Digg is seeing less traffic. Even though the social landscape of the Web is changing (and not in Digg’s favor) the reasons that webmasters chose the accounts they did remain valid.

While there may be some tweaking to do in the settings and maybe some refocusing for hosting companies, the issues themselves don’t see to have drastically changed.

Digg’s downfall, if it continues, will change hosting, just not in ways that will be easily visible, especially since the rise of cloud hosting will likely happen with or without the site at all.

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