AOL’s Hyperlocal ‘Patch’ Network Triples Traffic in 2011, but What Does That Mean?

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AOL’s network of hyperlocal blogs, Patch, may have become more than a little controversial for its use of unpaid writers and rumors it’s lost ridiculous piles of money, but it’s possible that the audience doesn’t care — new figures show that the network more than tripled its traffic in 2011.

Reporting a 5% increase in traffic for December 2011 alone — a trend that bucks the traditional decline for local news and information sites during the holidays — comScore reports that Patch’s unique visitors increased by more than a factor of three between December 2010 and the same period in 2011. That makes Patch the fourth most visited regional and local network online — still behind Yelp, CityGrid and Yahoo! Local, but a significant rise from last year’s 10th place.

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Patch Media president Warren Webster said that the network was “incredibly proud of the role we play in our communities every day – and of the consistent positive feedback we receive from our users – so seeing this rise in traffic is very gratifying for our entire team.” The news is probably extra-welcome, coming as it does less than a month after Patch’s ad revenue was leaked online, prompting estimates of $100 million in 2011 losses for AOL on the property.

The increase in traffic may only be part of the picture, however. After all, Patch experienced substantial growth last year, with Webster himself admitting “the average Patch site is just over a year old.” Isn’t it possible the growth in Patch’s audience is just a reflection of the increase in content the network’s been publishing during the period?

MORE: AOL to Add 8,000 Unpaid Bloggers in 8 Days?

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.