Continuing my series about my mistakes and successes on running a profitable website. This time, I talk about content.
This series is about how I turned my site from a hobby site to one that is a business. I hope to distill a series of practical suggestions that will help you get your website profitable. You may find everything I have to say completely obvious, certainly I do now having done it all! But maybe some of you will find this series helpful. In the first part, "The Beginning" I explained why I started my site. I guess the summary point from that article was:
If you have an interest, go ahead and start a site about it. It may or may not pay off, but you can't win if you don't try.
To make your reading experience more efficient, I have decided to put the summary points at the top of this and future articles. I guess that the summary points from this article would be:
The greater the legitimate traffic to your site, the more you can make from your site.
Make sure you have interesting focused information on your site.
Keep adding interesting information to your site and notify your readership when you add content. The content is the most important part of your site, and is the real reason why legitimate traffic will continue to grow.
When you first open the site, make a big splash by announcing your site to your community: post once wherever it is acceptable to do so.
Promote your site. Look for publicity how you can, e.g. write articles for popular magazines. If you can figure out how to get one of your own website articles referred to around the web or at popular locations, this is often a good boost.
Community websites tend draw more traffic (discussion groups and blogs), so consider adding support for one to your site.
There, you don't need to read the rest of this now. If you do, please note that I add a list of hyperlinks detailing this month's JavaPerformanceTuning.com newsletter contents at the end.
A couple of weeks after I opened my site, I already had more Java performance tips for the site, and I realized that if I just tagged them on to the tips page they would not even be noticed. At the same time, I had been reading up on websites and found out a few things. Primarily, there were two aspects to getting people to view a website. One was getting them to the site, the other was keeping them there. Or more specifically getting them to come back. All these sources of information were pointing out that "content is king". Of course content provision is only one type of service, there are other services like search engines, discussion sites, webmail providers, auction sites, blogsites and so on. The vast majority of sites are content provision, because they are the easiest to get running. They also have a big advantage for individuals: most niche subjects are not catered for by any commercial sites. That's because it is not worth their doing so unless the subject has enough people interested and enough capable writers to make the readership significant. In this niche area, you can thrive. And who knows, maybe you are at the begining of something about to take off!
I'd better take a step back and explain something: Why do I want people to come to my site at all? Well, initially, I was hoping that the more people that come to my site, the more likely it was that one of them would want to use my services (at the time consulting services). And ultimately, that hasn't changed - though the services I can provide have extended. But this is the crux, the most important point about making money from a website. The more people you have coming to the site, the more money you can make from it. Indeed, some ways of making money from your site only start to kick on when you have enough people already coming to your site. Note, that there are devious and unethical ways to get people to come to your site. I do not advocate any of these, and have never used any. I think that ultimately these techniques would backfire, and those extra users that are inappropriately directed to your site will not benefit you. So when I talk about getting people to come to your site, I'm talking about them coming legitimately, because your site provides something they are looking for.
For a site that provides content, the more interesting information you put on the site, the more likely it is that people looking for that information will come to your site.
In my case I knew that people are interested in Java performance tuning. And I looked around the web for information about Java performance, but I knew that I already had way more content than anyone else, since I had summarized all the existing content as well as adding my own. And this thinking was validated by Google - within three weeks of opening the site, Google had me listed in the top twenty results for searches on "Java performance". A few weeks later I was in the top ten.
So aspect 1, content, was taken care of me. What about getting people to come back? Well, I had new tips to list, and I wanted to point out they were new, and not have them lost amongst the thousand already listed. So it was an easy step to decide on having a monthly newsletter listing the new tips. Hardly a new idea, but important nevertheless. And by December 2000, two months after opening the site, I had a fabulous total of 48 subscribers to send my first newsletter to. I had extracted the tips from five new articles (and some older ones), a couple written by me. In fact, I had started writing articles at O'Reilly's instigation. They asked me for two to help publicize my book, one to come out a couple of weeks before book launch, and the second a couple of weeks after. I enjoyed writing, so I had carried on and also submitted an article to JavaWorld ("Optimizing Queries on Maps"), and they had published that together with Brian Goetz's article "Optimizing I/O Performance" in the same week. Looking at the sad spectacle that was JavaWorld until recently, that just shows you how much they have changed. They paid money for articles in those days. Good money. And such was the site popularity and the advertising return, that they could afford to publish two interesting articles in the same week. In fact, they did that most weeks. I hope the re-launched Javaworld is eventually just as successful .
Spikes And Tails
The JavaWorld article taught me an important lesson. The articles I had published at O'Reilly's sites had increased hits to JavaPerformanceTuning.com a little. On the day my JavaWorld article was published, my site hits tripled! The day before I had about 150 hits, publication day saw 420 hits. It was my first introduction to the world of referral spikes. Nowadays, sites pray to be "slashdotted", as it is now called (after the effect of having a popular discussion occur on slashdot.org about some page on your site). Back then, I suddenly found out that other sites make a big difference to the volume of traffic hitting your site. Well Doh! Okay, I kind of knew that in an abstract way, but I didn't really expect the "spike and tail". You get the spike when the other site publishes, then it tails off after a couple of days, but you still end up with higher daily traffic than before the spike.
My strategy since that starting month hasn't really changed. Maintain good content. Add content on a regular basis. I've added a number of different columns to our newsletter, so much so that we are now more a magazine than anything else. In fact all the columns I have now were identified pretty early on, in the first few months. But it has taken years to organize having them all available on a regular basis.
There are aspects that I haven't yet implemented which make for heavier traffic. For a content provision site, the main one is adding discussion groups, a secondary one is having a useful search engine. Blogsites (like the one carrying this article) tend to also get decent amounts of traffic boost, but require much higher levels of input - once a month blogging doesn't really attract traffic unless there are lots of bloggers each contributing once a month.
I blog on java.net and artima. It doesn't generate that much traffic for me, even when I write a very useful well referred blog (like this one on Java Case Studies). Mostly, I don't really set out to write my blogs for their promotion effects, because they are not worth it. Not cost effective for me. You see, an article by me published on my website actually brings in more readers than writing on any of these forums. I know this to be the case because I have the hard numbers, the references from the java.net & artima sites, and the number of extra readers I got each time I added an extra article to the newsletter output. On the other hand, I know of other sites who are desperate for a mention here because it makes a significant difference to their traffic.
In my opinion, where it is most worth writing other than your own site is at magazines that pay for your output. I'm not even talking about the direct payment reward. Between us, my colleague Kirk Pepperdine and I have written for many of the locations where a Java interest article could be published. The better they pay, the better the quality of response coming through to the JavaPerformanceTuning site. I have a theory about why this should be. It's quite simple really. They can afford to pay because they are making money from their articles, because of the quality or volume of their readership. And you get the reflected glow of that readership. Simple rule: if you are going to write somewhere else, write for the place that pays you the most. You'll probably get a double benefit from that.
The Slashdot Effect
But let's get back to site promotion. The primary way of promoting your site is valuable content. Search engines reference you, people reference you, sites reference you, all because you have some useful and relevant information. This leads to slow but steady growth in traffic to the site, as long as you keep the content interesting. Secondary ways include writing articles. One of the most useful ways is to get a discussion going about your content. Aim to publish something particularly newsworthy a couple of times a year or, very occasionally, something controversial. My biggest spike was when I published a list of performance tips from JavaOne 2003. Funny, because I publish almost the same volume and same quality of performance tips every month. But that time, the reference got propagated around the web a lot more, had a few discussions about it, and consequently got more references than any other article I've written. I got the usual spike and tail, just bigger than before.
Newbie Java sites have a tendency to post the opening to their site on every Java interest site that they are able to. And any big items also tend to get posted wherever they can. Announcers of new products, and new versions of products do the same. And it works (but do post in appropriate forums, not just anywhere). For the initial boost, post once everywhere. I didn't do this because I didn't think of it at the time, but I have since followed the stats for few sites that did. As long as the content is relevant and interesting, this is a great way to get a flying start. Just remember that you do get diminishing returns, i.e. it is not worth doing too often. (How do I follow other site stats? Well some publish them, which is very helpful. Some publish full historical stats, some publish recent stats only which requires regular visits to maintain your knowledge. Some will give you the information if you ask. Some have their stats listed by one of the automatic stat summary programs, and you can access those summaries if you know where to look).
Ultimately, keep an eye on your site-visit growth curve. As long as the growth is more or less steady, just keep adding interesting content. If growth starts flagging, is
there a good reason? (9/11 saw some sites take a dip in their growth curve for a few months). If not, you might need to do something to get it going again.
Next time, in part 3 "Site Design & Technology", I'll talk about the technical site aspects. Meanwhile, you might want to check our most recent newsletter (April 2004):