I've been lucky enough over the last few year to work on occasion for an excellent video game review Web site (Gamesfirst!). Over those last few years the site has garnered a lot of critical acclaim and industry acknowledgement, but not a dime. This lack of funding isn't caused by a lack of readership, or for lack of trying. Gamesfirst! has been running ad banners almost from its conception. But making hits and sessions turn into money is the holy grail of webmasters everywhere.

1 Million Viewers Served?:
Why Making Money off of Web Content is Harder than Making Money off of Hamburgers

"Here in the year 2000 precious few sites have had any measurable success
selling content on the web" Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics

Websites can be had, made, and viewed by just about everyone in the US. Most websites fall into one of these four categories: personal, educational, business, and what we're concerned with content driven sites.

So what's the difference: Well personal websites are only interesting to family and friends of the web author and they aren't meant to be seen by just any old web surfer (they look like Bob Longman's Web Page). Educational pages are for the most part easy to discern, the .edu is a dead giveaway, these sites aren't technically allowed to make money and are run by schools and universities (they look like this, University of Idaho). Business pages are either web store fronts like Amazon, or informational websites for traditional businesses like Midas. Then there are content driven sites, they come in a million different varieties; but at their core they're entertainment. I consider my Urban Legends site to be content driven.

It's pretty easy to put together a site with stuff that people want to see (but this can turn into a full time job), getting people to view it is a harder problem (this can turn into a full time job too), but making it financially worth your time is an entirely different matter (this can be the most frustrating full time job ever). So the question is, how can content driven sites earn money?

There are two basic ways: advertising and pay-per-view/download:

Advertising- Once a site gets so many sessions (around 100,000+ a month), sessions meaning individual viewers, large internet advertising companies (like DoubleClick) might start paying you to run ad banners (Top 10 ad banners this week). Sounds easy but it's not, only the biggest websites get those kinds of hits. Smaller websites can get banner ads and the hope of ad revenue, by signing up with affiliate programs. Affiliate programs basically farm out ads to small sites that are similar in content (like enic). Affiliates are notorious for not paying, not paying on time, and going out of business before paying their sites (look at this petition). Adablity and Webtomorrow are good places to look for the lowdown on these programs. For sites with the least traffic click-through ads are the most they can hope for, getting paid a small amount (maybe $0.10) for every person that clicks the ad and ends up at the commercial site. Iboost has a great article on click throughts. 

Pay-per-View/Download- During the first years of the world wide web the idea of e-dollars was hot, today it is a fading memory. DigicashUS and other businesses thought that they could make it easy for web consumers to pay for all things internet. It was going to be easy to click and drop a few cents here to read and there to get an article or download a comic. But these companies came a little too soon, before there were enough web surfers or enough good quality content to buy. Scott McCloud is a fan of the the pay method, but only when the content is worth spending a few bucks on. Today it is still hard and somewhat unsafe to use credit cards to purchase goods on the internet, and until these problems are over come not many sites won't bother with this option.

While webmasters have at least 2 options for reaping monetary benefit from their web endeavors, most of Recent "beautiful failures" such as APB News and AGN (and to some extent Salon and numerous others) illustrate how top notch content and steady sessions don't mean success when selling content on the internet. All the while pornography sites manage to sell bad, dated photos to millions of web viewers everyday.

As I see it, the problem stems from a number of things-
New (untested and unfair) advertising practices
The fact that the internet is inventing itself as we create for it
There is no efficient way to safely exchange small amounts of money
Consumers that have already spend too much money just getting on the internet

The future for web content is still bright. Advertisers are spending more money that ever and more and more companies (like Sony with the PS2) are planing on selling content like movies, games, and music over the internet. Even Napster is making moves to start changing a flat rate of $5.00 a month for downloading privileges. Perhaps cheap short subscriptions are the answer (but we only have to look to the pornography business to see that it's already working).

Selected Readings:








(C) 2000 Sarah Wichlacz