I had something of a happy mystery yesterday: a huge surge in traffic on one of my Noise to Signal cartoons with no apparent reason why.

That’s the kind of mystery I dearly love to solve. Not just because I’m nosey, but also because I’d like to thank whoever’s responsible. So I donned my deerstalker, broke out the virtual magnifying glass and started an investigation.

I solved that mystery… but discovered something a lot more important in the process.

Here’s how I proceeded:

  1. WordPress Stats usually tell me right off the bat where most of my traffic is coming from. But this time, they were as baffled as I was. (It doesn’t help that WordPress Stats can’t tell you the sources of traffic for an individual post.)
  2. The cartoon wasn’t recent – in fact, it dates back to March (and Ada Lovelace Day). So that ruled out people who just happened to be dropping by (which wouldn’t have explained the big surge anyway).
  3. I dropped in on Google Analytics, which reported the vast majority of the traffic to that page came directly: that is, it didn’t have a referring web page – either on my site or any other one. Normally, that would make me think of Twitter; a substantial amount of my traffic comes from users of mobile devices and desktop apps, clicking on a link from a tweet, and with a few exceptions, that doesn’t offer a referrer.
  4. So I ran the URL through Backtweets. But there was only one tweet about it, from a user with a few dozen followers… and posted well after the first wave of traffic arrived. She’d probably picked it up from whatever source was driving the rest of the visitors.
  5. I took another look at WordPress Stats and Google Analytics, and discovered something I’d missed the first time. While I couldn’t tell what site most of the traffic was coming from, those few visits that did have a referring URL had something in common: they were all coming from webmail sites.

Conclusion? Whoever linked to me hadn’t done it on the web; they were sharing my cartoon via email, probably a mailing list or e-newsletter, judging by the sheer volume and suddenness of the traffic.

But there the trail ran cold. How could I find out which list or newsletter had the link?

I resigned myself to never knowing who my cartoon’s benefactor was… until Alex pointed me to a killer analytics application.

No, not a web application. Not a server-side analytics package. Not a plugin, script or iPhone app.

“Why don’t you just post a note on that cartoon asking people where they found it?” Alex suggested.

What? Find out more about your incoming traffic by… asking your incoming traffic?

Feeling a little sheepish, I added this at the top of the post:

October 26, 2010: WOW, that’s a lot of traffic today! Thanks for visiting and spreading the word, folks. As far as I can tell, this cartoon is either spreading by email, or was in someone’s (pretty large) email newsletter. Anybody know the source? I’d love to thank them.

In a few hours, I had my answer from a commenter named Patricia Washburn:

This was mentioned yesterday on Systers, an international list for women in technology. Nice job!

Thanks to Alex’s reminder, and Patricia’s kind comment, I learned my cartoon had appeared on a legendary email list called Systers – founded by the even-more-legendary Anita Borg, and dedicated to women involved in the tech side of computing. You might have guessed that I’m pretty psyched about that.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the power of web analytics software to track your traffic – and serve as your personal detective – that you forget that “traffic” is another word for “people”. But as with so much in the online world, even in as number-centric a field as analytics, a little conversation can take you a long way.