How Hacker News Books Made it to First Position on Hacker News

01 October 2016

Hacker News Books topped the front page of Hacker News for several hours on 26 August 2016 and attracted a significant amount of visits during that time. The following is an account of what happened before, during and after the submission and what I learned from it.

What is Hacker News Books?

Hacker News Books is a service that aggregates links to books on Amazon, O'Reilly or Safaribooks in user comments on Hacker News on a weekly basis and sends the result to a newsletter list. The books are scored by a formula, which takes into account how many times a book is mentioned, score of the parent story, karma of the posting user, etc. That in turn recomputes the All Time Books List and the Yearly Tops. Users can jump directly to the comment talking about a book - usually a short book review. The way the service is monetized is by adding referrals to the Amazon links.

Submission to HN

August 26 16:28 UTC

I submitted the story about Hacker News Books to HN on Friday, August 26 16:28 UTC. Timing was based on this advice - and the fact that according to SimilarWeb 38% of the users on HN come from the US so the timing had to make sense for those time zones. From there on it went really fast. My guess is that the ranking algorithm takes into account clicks on the story links and not only upvotes because the story jumped to being from new to number 1 in only a couple of minutes and only having something like 7-8 upvotes but already with more than 20 visitors realtime.

August 26 16:39 UTC

The story jumped to first position on Hacker News and had 99 users realtime browsing according to GA

August 26 17:27 UTC

Story had stayed as number one for almost an hour steadily gaining users for a peak of 600 users at the same time realtime.

August 26 18:18

Story still position one and keeping a steady flow of users averaging about 500 at same time.

August 26 21:20

The story got switched by the mods from a 'Standard Post’ to a 'Show HN' story. This had a tremendous impact on the ranking of the story, which dropped from n1 to n15 immediately and the number of users from 500 to roughly 150. Compare the n3 story about “Apollo Global” and "Hacker News Books” - they were both posted 4 hours earlier, Apollo had 192 points and 103 comments vs. 350 points and 160 comments for HNB and yet the ranking difference was so big. On the other hand the story stayed a long time in the Show HN section, probably longer than it would have stayed on front page but the new users count was certainly very different.

August 26 22:20

Story went down from n15 to n29 despite getting 15 more upvotes and 8 comments in this period. Number of people browsing it was about 70 realtime.

August 27 17:42

Story was still n3 on Show HN with 427 points and 179 comments.

Here are breakdowns by Overall, Referrals, Device and Geo by Google Analytics for this period

Hacker News Books Google Analytics Hacker News Books referral breakdown Hacker News Books device breakdown Hacker News Books geo breakdown

Key Learnings

  1. Time it right. HN has a lot of US traffic so I'd target the reading times for US visitors. In my case Friday, 8:30am EST was the right timing.
  2. Build a healthy newsletter list. This is in my experience the best way to connect with your users and is the confirmation that your service is worth it and people want to engage. There is only a short window of opportunity so I had built a modal popup asking people to subscribe. I am not a big fan of modals, but they work, and getting as many people as possible to subscribe is critical. Despite getting some angry remarks in the comments it was totally worth it - 540 people on the newsletter list in less than 7 hours. Unfortunately I didn’t measure where the users came from (popup vs. bottom of page div). By the way, today the newsletter has more than 900 subscribers!
  3. Make sure you can survive the load. Caching is key. You can expect a steady 500-600 users realtime for several hours at about 150-160 requests/minute.
  4. Your website has to be mobile-friendly, almost 40% of the visits came from mobile or tablet.
  5. Being linked from a highly-rated HN story has an immediate impact to your Google search rank. While the website ranked steadily on page 3-4 before the posting, it immediately started appearing on page 1 for keywords such as “top books on hacker news” and “hacker news books”.
  6. There are network effects - shares on Twitter, FB and HN aggregators. About 10% of visits came from other referrers.
  7. Join the conversation on HN. I tried to answer any question, remark and suggestion and I believe it did make a difference. Be civil and don’t rant against people who complain. There will always be criticism (healthy and unhealthy). During the peak time a moderator (dang) joined the conversation and downvoted all the rants sending them to oblivion (last positions). I had not expected that HN cares that much about civility in discussions, kudos to them.
In part 2 I will write about how the newsletter performs and the earnings from Amazon Associates. Stay posted.

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