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Monday, September 27, 2004

The VisitorVille Mayor Speaks

Robert Savage is the inventor of VisitorVille, a visualization tool for web server traffic. (In VisitorVille, people arrive in buildings by using a bus – the buildings represent pages of your web site, and the bus represents the location visitors come from, such as Google.)
Robert took the time to answer my questions via email.


Robert, tell us a bit about yourself. What did you do prior to VisitorVille? What is your role in VisitorVille now?

In the 80’s, I lived a Renaissance Man life in Italy and France. In the 90’s I tried out the Corporate World. My last normal job was with McKinsey & Company. Then I started World Market Watch Inc in the mid-90’s. WMW publishes 1Jump, a corporate information software tool. That work is a bit dry, and I needed to infuse some of the old Renaissance Man into my life, so I’ve relished the creativity that VisitorVille has brought with it. I elected myself the Mayor of VisitorVille a couple of years ago. Like a regular mayor, I oversee all the operations of this virtual “stats town”. But I’m also very hands-on with the citizens, as I’ve found that’s the best way to stay connected and engaged with the product itself.

In one sentence, what is VisitorVille?

VisitorVille is software that does for web site statistics what SimCity did for gaming: Makes it multi-dimensional, visual, and interactive.

Who’s this software for?

Anybody who wants to understand what’s actually happening on their web site by using the creative part of their brain. It’s a completely new tool, and as such perfectly complements the older, more traditional (read: dry & boring) tools that people have been using and have gotten used to.

When did you start thinking about visualizing statistics in such a way? Was there any “light bulb over the head” moment?

Five years ago, as I pushed my niece aside to monopolize her Rollercoaster Tycoon game, I realized that it was a perfect metaphor for visualizing activity on a website. I had been using traditional web stats software for years already, and this was a big leap forward from that. It was, in Renaissance terms, an epiphany :)

Who’s part of the team creating VisitorVille?

We’ve got about a dozen civil servants (employees of VisitorVille) involved. I think of them as ’employeneurs’ – employees who have an entrepreneurial bent. I like to find mad geniuses who are also able to hold down a regular job.

How well is VisitorVille doing at the moment, and how large is the paying user base?

Being a mayor, and thus a politician of sorts, I’m not going to give you a straight answer here. But I can say that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Right now, we have the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Capitoline Hill populated, but there’s still a whole lot of real estate that is waiting for citizens to move into.

Did VisitorVille evolve into more than you initially expected? What were the biggest surprises so far?

It’s been an evolutionary process, indeed. I could not have imagined all the functionality that we offer now when we first started out. We deliberately did not start with a business plan, prefering instead to let it all evolve organically. And giving the product, and ourselves, that freedom to innovate has worked out very well.

The biggest surprise for me is seeing how it provides insight that was not “planned" for it to provide. This whole visual approach opens the door to a lot of intuitive information that is not quantifiable.

Do you think everyone interesting in web statistics can make use of VisitorVille, or is it filling only a niche of the market?

It’s truly of use to anyone interested in web statistics. To use a medical analogy, it’s important not only to have an X-ray machine, but to have a CT Scan and an MRI too. To me, traditional stats programs are like XRay machines, while VisitorVille provides a whole new dimension that’s analogous to the CT Scan and MRI. Sure, many will say “All I need is an x-ray machine”, which is fine if the only problems you have are broken bones.

What do you think of the whole blogging phenomenon? How well does VisitorVille work together with blogs?

Before blogs, the web was still in a Gutenbergian phase of development, with the most important function of the web being the ’printing’ function. But blogs are a “de Tocquevillian” evolution, with the publishing function making way for the humanistic essay.

VisitorVille works very well with blogs, as I think you have found out, especially when you employ a few tricks to allow new pages to be automatically included.

What are the biggest problems you need to overcome in marketing VisitorVille?

There are two challenges: 1) Prejudice. Just like society at large has racism, VisitorVille suffers from ’cartoonism’ – the moment anyone sees a cartoon, they think the product isn’t serious. This snap-judgment tendency that many people have keeps them from looking beneath the skin of the product and realizing how professional and useful it is. 2) Resistance to change. To use the medical analogy from above, many people don’t see the need for additional diagnostic tools if they are dependent on the X-ray machine.

I’m an affiliate myself, promoting your product because I like it. What can webmasters expect from your affiliate program?

They can expect to make a lot of money. People seem to like money, and we’ve designed the affiliate program for these people. Most affiliate programs will pay a one-time commission when a sale is made. VisitorVille radically departs from that by paying an ongoing monthly commission (30% at that) for as long as the citizen remains a member. In addition, we offer a 10% ongoing commission on second-tier signups.

In terms of web maturity, where do you think we are in 2004 – and where are we going?

In terms of web maturity, I think we’re all still petulant children. But in a larger sense, I think the web is following older historical phases, only at a faster pace. Specifically, I see the period from 1991 until the Bubble Burst as the Gutenberg era. Then there was the Renaissance, where companies rose from the flames. Now we’re in the metaphorical 1900’s, in the “de Tocquevillian” era (note how I skipped over the Age of Reason). Now we’re also in a Civil War (versus Spammers). Soon there will a Gilded Age, and another crash.... but I’m just a mayor, not an oracle.

Could you name three web sites you like and regularly frequent?

[He’s reading this blog, but the praise made me blush. -Ed.] Being a road cycling fanatic, I also read And I refresh Google News about once every 5 minutes.

What can we expect for the future – are there any major VisitorVille updates coming?

We have some Top Secret things under development right now in VisitorVille, about which I don’t have appropriate security clearance to discuss. However, one thing I can say is that we will be introducing many more reports to go with the few dozen reports we currently offer.

Do you have some final words for this interview?

I’m just sorry it’s over. I could have talked all day.


More at the official VisitorVille homepage.


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