Show me the money.
EbizMBA just posted a list of the Top 25 Most Popular Blogs on the internet. It’s pretty interesting, definitely more accurate than any one of the previous single metric systems. Obviously it’s tech heavy and it doesn’t account for which sites on are a downward slide and which ones are on their way up. Shouldn’t it matter how old those inbound links are? Gawker has been around forever, but it’s clearly no longer the definitive source for celebrity news yet the old, stagnant number of links makes it seem like it is. But let’s put all that aside for a minute and consider this:
What if we’re ignoring the most important part of the equation?
I asked this same question at SXSW to Henry Copeland of Blogads, who put together an excellent presentation on such misleading metric systems. Actually, I posed it to the losers who were bloviating on topics they had no authority to discuss but that’s a different story. What about money? Isn’t that what this is all about? Or are we all setting up websites so we can meet friends? In the end, let’s be honest, isn’t the point of traffic to translate it into dollars?
So then I am not being unreasonable when I assert that these rankings need to provide proof. We need to see the fungibility of their traffic. Can you take Crooks and Liars 150,00+ visitors a month to the bank, or are they providing a public service? Shouldn’t the ratio of visitors to ad revenue count for and against these sites? Let’s say you have (and these are absurd ratios obviously) a relationship with your traffic where 1 visitor translates to $1 in earnings, aren’t you more popular, and better than a site where 1 visitor equals 30 cents? Doesn’t that say something about the quality of your traffic and isn’t that significant? Movies would have larger audiences if they gave the tickets away for free but that wouldn’t mean much. Real businessmen and women measure by results, not feel good numbers. Just like Hollywood ought to measure their box office numbers in the context of how much it cost to make and advertise, websites should rank based on their traffic in terms of how it relates to revenue. To suggest that all sites do this equally or there is some natural law governing visitors and ads is simply not true.
Michael Lewis understood this in Moneyball as far as baseball worked. Team batting average, stolen bases, fielding percentage–these are all worthless metrics. They don’t really mean anything, they just make us feel good. Pure traffic is EXACTLY the same thing. It doesn’t mean anything–wasn’t that the whole point of the long tail? That shit is going to change; the idea that these numbers will stay the same is hopelessly idealistic. Do you really think that in 10 years some site about cool firefox hacks and laptop batteries is going to be the tenth most popular blog on the internet? Billy Beane figured out what was important, what translated into wins. The internet needs to look at the problem the same way or this is all a big circle-jerk fantasy.
My opinion is that money has to be incorporated into the equation, and I would say immediately. But perhaps it should be something else. All I know is that pure traffic and inbound links are meaningless without context. We’re kidding ourselves if we think RSS subscription numbers are in anyway more illumination. For the most part, they run zero-sum with traffic, so what do they really tell us? SEO isn’t going to be able to game revenue. And it might be cliche, but money talks and the rest is bullshit.
The web isn’t any different.
From what I’ve seen, the most successful websites in terms of the profit metric are developing niches that have widespread appeal and original, meaningful, lasting content that. This provides not only the traffic but the means to keep traffic flowing to your site and relevant ads to make your writing profitable (like if you’re reviewing books, providing affiliate links to those books, or relevant products to what you advertise on your site). Developing web communities through message boards/commenting systems is a bonus, because you have a loyal group of readers who will buy and vie for your products, and contribute decent donations to help your site work on a profit.
However, if CTR is the main way of gaining revenue from the Internet, it all depends on traffic. Most people who visit your site or mine or anyone else’s won’t be coming back, but these will generally be the people who click on your ads since there are more of them than the long-time contributors to your community. The only way to earn more money right now other than through advertising and donations is through subscription or paid membership–not exactly the most popular way to gain readership.
One possibility is to provide not just meaningful goods through ads and products, but meaningful services. Podcasts, videos, embed ads into there is one step, but it still exists in the Internet bubble. Create opportunities for others to work in and you’re more likely to profit. Just like Rudius provides opportunity for new writers to gain a foothold in the publishing world, other sites can also provide opportunities for people to succeed in traditional fields without having to worry about endless bureaucracy one must face in the non-Internet world. This is perhaps the most lasting way to profit from the Internet.