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Distrowatch’s statistics don’t mean popularity.

Thursday, 4 October 2007 distrowatch linux

Distrowatch’s HPD stats are often bandied about to make out one distribution is “the best”. But do the numbers actually equate popularity and why do some care so much anyway?

Distrowatch is a website that tracks the releases of dozens of Linux and BSD distributions. Each distribution has a page on there. And there’s a table on the main page (see: inset) showing how many page views each of those information pages gets per day.

I have no problem with the the table, but I’ve serious reservations over the way people interpret the data. The table doesn’t represent anything outside Distrowatch, i.e. in the real world.

And why? It only tracks web traffic on Distrowatch.


And that should be all you need. It should be for others lauding HPD figures to prove they mean something… but that’s not how the world works. Here are a few reasons to show that “popularity” isn’t equal.

Search: DW overperforms on small distros

Search for Ubuntu now. In 2022, you’re well into the second page before you see Distrowatch. Ubuntu has too many communities, and spin-offs, all of which are more popular and relevant than DW when searching for Ubuntu, and that’s fair.

Now search for PCLinuxOS, or MX Linux. Distrowatch is a top-5 result.

PCLinuxOS vs Ubuntu on Google

That was back in 2007 when this was originally written. It’s even more true today. As Ubuntu matures, Distrowatch is pushed further into the dust.

The effect is amplified if you’re looking for reviews (which DW carries). The more obscure, the less chance of something outperforming DW, the better DW does, the more traffic that page gets.

Fanaticism

Put simply, some distributions have users that like it too much. They’re willing to be militant in the ways they promote their favourite distribution in the hope that they can get it more attention — including organising community members to visit polls, the Distrowatch page and other sites to inflate it’s statistics.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just a positive campaign — it would still wreck the DW stats — but for the most part where there are people promoting, there are people smearing any criticism. I was attacked by the leadership of one distribution when I dared mention Ubuntu while reviewing theirs.

I stand by my argument: Giving example of something done better does help people differentiate between distributions and it also helps developers see what they should borrow for their own distribution.

You could argue that fanatics are everywhere and cancel each other out, but I don’t see many RHEL users doing the same. They’re probably too busy…

So what can you use these statistics to show?

Not much; not accurately.

They’re a representation of traffic (source unknown) to pages on a website. That’s it. If you claim more than that, you’re lying.

But why does it matter? Mostly because new Linux users deserve better. I’ve spent over a decade pulling people back from the edge just suggesting that they try a mature distribution and get the associated benefits from it. As much as some people hate the big players, they have existing user bases that want to help you, and many have paid support options too.