9/24/2007

Story of a Successful Web Site

It was about June of 2000. Robbe Morris and I were working together at an outfit in Maitland, FL called Sprint TeleCenters. We did most of our programming in VB 6.0, or VBscript. (Uggh!)

I distinctly remember that I was probably a bit more into Web programming at the time than Robbe was -- I was on the SOAP distribution list, avidly reading all the rants of the likes of Dave Winer and Don Box. They were excited about what they were doing with SOAP, and I was excited. When I'd talk to other people about XML, often I'd get comments like "Why on earth would people want to mess with all that glop!" and so on.

One day, I said to Robbe, "Let's start a developer website with articles". Now this is a guy that, at the time, I don't think had written a line of HTML in his life. But, he liked the idea. His Significant Other came up with a crazy name: "eggheadcafe". I thought it was great (and of course, so did he) so we decided to run with it.

Within 2 weeks, Robbe was coding more advanced classic ASP with VBScript than I ever had done. He had grand plans - he got a server and set up colo hosting, we got the domain, and eggheadcafe.com was born. We started out with a very simple UI (it seems quite garish in retrospect, but what did we know?) and we started publishing some articles. The basic theme was "HOW TO" - with code samples. We knew nothing about standards, nothing about SEO (Search Engine Optimization). All we knew is that we thought we had a good idea, and we were going to run with it.

Here is a link to the Wayback Machine's copy of our site in Dec, 2000!

By the end of the year 2000, we had already done plenty of experimentation. Later we started putting in advertising. We never made any real money, but we kept revising the formula and experimenting and getting metrics with Webtrends or whatever other scripts were available. So, it was really all a big experiment at the time.

Then about 2004 we added Google Adsense, and saw some immediate results. For the first time, we were getting contextual advertising that made sense, and users were clicking on the ads. Checks started coming in each month.

The site has gone through at least 4 major iterations that I can think of, the last one being a major conversion to ASP.NET 2.0 that Robbe engineered, and we've spent a lot of time monkeying with the UI, with advertising, and with how to get good metrics.

But the overriding premise -- which has not changed at all since our inception in 2000 -- was to provide GOOD CONTENT. We decided early on that we wanted to be more of a "boutique" site than a "big, everything" site.

By 2005, eggheadcafe.com was bringing in a monthly income equivalent to a full time professional career -- for not one, but two families. It's continued to grow, up to today. We've always avoided what I refer to as "in your face" advertising - you know what I mean -- those interstitials, the popups and popunders, the ads that move across the screen and blot out what you're trying to read that drive you nuts, and the double-underlined contextual ads that pop up some irrelevant keyword-based window that you have to stop and figure out how to get rid of. Yikes! What are people thinking, man?

I really cannot understand how some companies believe this kind of in your face advertising will make them more money. In fact, at one point I was going to compile a list of all the sites I'd recommend "not to visit" because their ads were so offensive. People come to a site because it has content, and they return if the content is good and useful. If you have unobtrusive advertising that blends well with the content, and people are interested, they will click on the ads. You do not need to interfere with their visiting experience at all to have advertising that works. In case you may be interested in what advertisement features users "hate the most", I present a table of the worst offenders from a respected study:


  • Design Element / Users Answering "Very Negatively" or "Negatively"


  • Pops-up in front of your window  95%

  • Loads slowly  94%

  • Tries to trick you into clicking on it  94%

  • Does not have a "Close" button  93%

  • Covers what you are trying to see  93%

  • Doesn't say what it is for  92%

  • Moves content around  92%

  • Occupies most of the page  90%

  • Blinks on and off  87%

  • Floats across the screen  79%

  • Automatically plays sound  79%



And, while we are certainly interested in keyword analysis and SEO, that's never been our primary focus. We want to provide content. That's the right formula!

So, the formula for success is simple:

1) Create good, useful, unique CONTENT. If it is a subject that you yourself are excited about, so much the better.
2) List your site with major search engines and blog directories. Use a sitemap xml file.
3) Put in quality advertising - not "too much advertising" - that doesn't interfere with a quality user experience.
4) Keep good metrics and test, and keep what works.
5) Don't be afraid to experiment.
6) Don't give up -- it can take a long time to develop a successful site.