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Monday 5 February 2024

Googling Retro-Forteana

Bing Image Creator (prompt = "black hole dinosaur Large Hadron Collider")

 What do the following have in common: "supermassive black holes", "Large Hadron Collider", "big bang theory"? If you said they're all fashionable science topics that large numbers of people might search for on Google, then that's the answer I wanted. If you type any of those phrases into Google, then among the top 5 or so results you'll see one from the website which (if you click on it) includes my name as one of the co-authors. I only spotted this recently, and while it hardly amounts to "fame" (since no one ever notices the author's name in situations like this, except the author themselves), it did start me thinking.

Google is where this blog gets most of its visitors from, after an initially flurry from my RSS and social media followers (all six of them). The result can be anything from under 50 views (as with a couple of my most recent posts) to over 5,000 (in the case of my luckiest half dozen posts). Years ago I set up Google Search Console to keep track of the blog's search performance, and then promptly forgot all about it. But I just had another look at it, and tried typing some of its suggested search terms into Google to see how they fare (just to clarify my methodology: I used a desktop rather than mobile browser, in incognito mode so it didn't know who I was, and I'm only counting hits from Google's main list, not the differently formatted items such as sponsored links, images, Reddit, Quora etc).

Suffice to say the blog doesn't score well on anything a normal person is likely to search for! Of course, it comes top for "retro-forteana", but only because it's a name I made up myself. Of the terms suggested by Google Search Console, it only makes the top 5 for "esoteric mathematics", "dinosaurs in the 16th century" and "spooky action at a distance in German" - all of somewhat specialized interest, to say the least.

At the opposite extreme, the three examples from I gave earlier really are the kind of thing the general public might search for. Those particular articles were joint productions with other writers, but there are a few other (admittedly less search-worthy) topics where the result is all my own work, such as "What is a parsec?" and "Blue stars".

"Blue stars", in fact, is the first search term I found where my article comes right at the top of Google's results. But if you want something more fortean, try "Beginner's Guide to Time Travel". As a search term it's a little contrived, but it has the benefit (from my point of view) that Google's first non-sponsored result is my article of that title on's sister site LiveScience.

As well as this blog, I've got a website which I'm also monitoring on Google Search Console. The only remotely popular search terms it does well on are "Astounding Science Fiction" (a pulp magazine of the 1940s and 50s, for which my site places around third in a Google search) and "Heart Sutra in Japanese" (a chanted text used in Zen Buddhism, for which Google puts me just inside the top 10).

If you expand the second of those to "Heart Sutra in Japanese with English subtitles", then Google puts me right at the top - not with the website this time, but a video I uploaded to YouTube just a few months ago. Despite its good search performance, this hasn't had many views yet - but give it time! A much older video of mine, "Dirac on Einstein" (which also comes top in a Google search) is now up to 127k views - the one and only time I've seen a six-figure number in any of my online statistics!

One final thing, which I wouldn't have mentioned (honest!) if I hadn't just spotted it in the Google Search Console data. But another term my website scores highly on is "Andrew May astrophysicist". I'm not sure which is more surprising  - that my website comes out at number 1 ahead of LinkedIn,, LiveScience, Twitter, Amazon, Icon Books and BBC Science Focus - or that all those other sites are referring to me as well, not someone else of the same name!

Bing Image Creator (prompt = "science fiction Heart Sutra astrophysics")


Kid said...

Sometimes it's difficult to know exactly what attracts visits to a blog. I might do a new post that, going by the stats, only gets 25 hits, but the overall visits for that day might be in the 1,000s. I suspect what happens is that a lot of readers use an old link to access my site, then trawl through to read the latest post. This means (if I understand things correctly) that my latest post - because it's not the one that they jumped straight into - doesn't show as having received many visits. That's my theory anyway. Whether it makes any sense or not, I'll leave to others to judge.

Andrew May said...

Yes, I find the statistics confusing too, Kid, and I've given up trying to understand exactly what's going on. For example, if you come back for your second visit today to see this reply to your comment, will that count as two visits, or is it clever enough to know it's the same person and just count it as one? Never mind, though - it's better not to think about it too much!