Technology Crowd Sourcing BuzzFeed

Under the radar, Ranker quietly builds a huge online footprint


By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

August 11, 2016 | 7 min read

As far as time vampires go, social media is still a big-toothed giant. Going down the Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat rabbit hole consumes plenty of the coveted Millennial generation’s time each day. Listicles are particularly popular – those top whatever lists that garner a gaggle of opinionated responses on everything from the Top 7 Best TV Shows of the ’90s to the Top 10 Apps for Kids, and everything in between and beyond.

BuzzFeed is certainly atop the list generator podium, but Ranker comes in a quiet second, garnering plenty of views and most importantly, time spent on the site.

“The statistics that I'm proudest about is dwell time, like time on site, when people land on it, we outperform almost everybody. We are about equal to BuzzFeed, though I believe they get far more return visits in a given day, than we do,” said Clark Benson, CEO at Ranker.

The numbers he talks about are over one million unique visitors daily on mobile, according to their metrics, as well as 8.07 page views per visitor, which tops a list that features Forbes a distant second, and 4:20 time spent daily on the site, second only to BuzzFeed, according to Alexa (Feb. 2016).

Benson has run Ranker since 2009 and he has seen interest in the site rise every year, even as other like sites have received more hype like and Huffington Post — two sites that Ranker outperforms.

“We focus more on just really building a community, growing traffic, and having really good content. The only site that I've ever seen that has often beaten us has been,” stated Benson.

“I like to be the underdog. We really have been growing steadily for about six years, now. We are now pretty up there, as far as traffic,” he added.

Lists have been around since the first days of the internet, to varying degrees of effectiveness and annoyance. Benson saw a different way to address the ubiquitous list and make it more interactive through a smart use of data.

“I'm a list nerd. There's listicles and there's rankings. But I do think there is a big difference between the two of them. Listicles are like ‘fifteen people you wouldn't believe that are vegetarians.’ Where it's not like a definitive list, necessarily; it's kind of a bite-size way to digest information in list format. Then there are rankings, and I've always been a fan of rankings, and I've always been a fan of long definitive rankings — taking a category and sticking it all on there,” he said.

“I had the idea a good ten years ago,” said Benson, recalling his prior internet startup, eCrush, which he sold to Hearst in 2006. “What was bothering me was that there were lists all over the place but there was never a crowdsourced answer. It was usually just one person’s opinion, one editor’s opinion somewhere. You would occasionally see it in places like Yelp, who do sort of have crowdsourced lists, but the way that they build them is they take ratings, and back them out into rankings”

Benson’s idea came from the reviews on sites like Amazon, but there were so many that it took too much time to go through them.

“I don't want to parse through all of these opinionated text for answers, I just want to get to the meat of it with really ordered, numeric ranking that is participated in by many people. We took about two-and-a-half years of honing our algorithms and user interfaces to hit on something that really worked and scaled for crowdsourcing and ever since then, we've been off to the races,” he said.

While traffic to the site is strong, as is time spent, getting funding wasn’t always so easy, especially in Los Angeles.

“What we've never had a lot of has been capital,” said Benson. “There's just not many VCs in LA, but what has really mushroomed in the last, I would say, four or five years especially, has been, there's just a lot of accelerators and incubators, and general infrastructure solutions, and there's a bit more capital. It's still a very under-capitalized region,” he added.

“We have raised money. We've raised seven-and-a-half million to date, but it's generally been in smaller chunks at a time, so we've grown relatively organically, up to 43 staffers. We need to really invest more now in brand building, have the media industry know that we are as big as we are versus just consumers. I think our comScore showed that we get seventeen percent of US Millennials visiting the site every month,” he said.

Benson added that Ranker has built its success on crunching the numbers.

“Ranker has always been built on data. We put a huge amount of money into engineering, initially, because every item on every list on Ranker you think of it as more of a data object, versus a WordPress template, or something like that. With all that, we've collected a lot of data about consumer preferences at a really precise, and relatively large scale, and we've got some plans in the mix to do something pretty interesting with that data.”

Growing Ranker is a priority for Benson, and he sees the international market as the place to build, beyond the English language-speaking countries. Getting quality translations is key, but just finding where to grow and letting that populace know Ranker is there is a challenge.

“Given that pop culture has become so internationalized, and a lot of what we're covering is pop culture, and we've built the backbone of it to be able to translate the rankings that we have, very easily, it's really more sort of a marketing challenge than anything else. We've got the resources, now, as we've grown to do that. Internationalization is big on the list, for the next year,” he said.

Ranker’s popularity comes mostly from the entertainment world. Top movies, television shows, stars and athletes dominate the home page. If you want to know the top movies on the Olympics or the best USA original network series, Ranker is the place to go. What makes it more compelling than simply a user-generated or editor-generated list is the user interaction, from voting to re-ranking. It’s what lets Ranker stand out from BuzzFeed and the like.

“What they don't focus on is the crowdsourced participatory element of content. People re-rank (lists), so there’s no barrier. You don't have to log in to vote on the list. That's why we collect about ten million plus votes a month. The hardcore of our fans have a topical re-ranking, they'll make their own version of it, and then the algorithm for the master list is combining both votes, and re-ranks weigh a lot higher in the algorithm because they tend to be people who are really passionate about a topic,” he added.

Benson will continue to grow Ranker through partnering with brands and entertainment companies that make sense. Plus, the site will continue to value the input of the user, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options for growth.

“Ranker will have more high-touch branded integrations in the marketplace, actually live on our site, and being pitched to advertisers, using our data. Along with that, Ranker will have a really, really interesting data product out in the marketplace that has more of a B-to-B usage,” hinted Benson, paraphrasing a movie icon.

“I cannot really say any more than that, because we will sell no wine before its time.”

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