The Browser

Blogging for Dollars

How do bloggers make money?

Professional bloggers face pressure to produce quantity over quality

Last week, the blog search engine Technorati released its 2008 State of the Blogosphere report with the slightly menacing promise to “deliver even deeper insights into the blogging mind.” Bloggers create 900,000 blog posts a day worldwide, and some of them are actually making money. Blogs with 100,000 or more unique visitors a month earn an average of $75,000 annually—though that figure is skewed by the small percentage of blogs that make more than $200,000 a year. The estimates from a 2007 Business Week article are older but juicier: The LOLcat empire rakes in $5,600 per month; Overheard in New York gets $8,100 per month; and Perez Hilton, gossip king, scoops up $111,000 per month.

With this kind of cash sloshing around, one wonders: What does it take to live the dream—to write what I know, and then watch the money flow?

From the perspective of someone who doesn’t blog, blogging seems attractive. Bloggers such as Jason Kottke ($5,300/month) and the Fug girls ($6,240/month) pursue what naturally interests them without many constraints on length or style. While those two are genuine stars of the blogging world, there are plenty of smaller, personal blogs that bring in decent change with the Amazon Associates program (you receive a referral fee if someone buys a book, CD, etc. via a link from your blog) and search ads from Google. (The big G analyzes your site and places relevant ads; you get paid if people click on them.) Google-ad profiteering is an entire universe in and of itself—one blogger by the name of Shoemoney became famous (well, Digg-famous) when he posted a picture of himself with a check from Google for $132,994.97 for one month of clicks.

Blogs with decent traffic and a voice are also getting snapped up by blog-ad networks, which in turn package them as niche audiences to advertisers. On Blogads, advertisers can choose the “Blogs for Dudes!” hive or the “Jewish Republican Channel.” Federated Media groups blogs into subjects such as “Parenting” and “News 2.0“; there is also a boutique network for blogs that don’t want to cover themselves with ads called The Deck. These networks present blogs as “grassroots intellectual economy” and describe their audiences as loyal, engaged, and likely to see ads as not just ads, but useful bits of information. This may be a comfort to squeamish indie bloggers since it hints that putting ads on your site is not selling out but helping out.

While monetizing your blog may be easier than ever, all of this comes with an ever-present hammer: the need to drive traffic. This month, the writer/blogger/productivity thinker Merlin Mann opened a window onto his angst with an anniversary postMann is best-known as the creator of the Hipster PDA (index cards clipped together by a binder clip) * and his Inbox Zero talk (turn your e-mail into actions). In a post titled “Four Years,” Mann sketches out how his site, 43 Folders, grew from a personal dumping ground for his “mental sausage” into a full-featured destination for productivity nerds and life-hackers. In 2005, he experienced a key transition:

At some point that year, 43f became the surreal and unexpected circus tent under which my family began drawing an increasing amount of its income. This was weird, but it was also exactly as gratifying as it sounds. Which is to say, “very.” But, my small measure of something like success did not go unnoticed. In fact, the popularity of small blogs like 43 Folders contributed to the arrival of a gentrifying wagon train of carpetbaggers, speculators, and confidence men, all eager to pan the web’s glistening riverbed for easy gold. And, brother, did these guys love to post and post and post.

Mann’s problem was especially acute. His income was partially dependent on advertising, and ads are sold on a cost-per-impression basis. That is, the more traffic you have, the more ads you can sell (and also the more chances that someone will click on one of the Google ads or affiliate links on your site). But a site that teaches you how to streamline your tasks and free your time yet constantly shovels new posts, lists, and information at you is oxymoronic—and also kind of moronic.

Mann could have overlooked this contradiction, but he chose instead to live his advice. Declaring an end to “productivity pr0n,” Mann has promised fewer, better posts and rolled out a new mission statement: “43 Folders is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.” The further irony here is that Mann’s less-is-more strategy may prove to be more profitable. The usability guru Jakob Nielsen has long recommended that experts “write articles, not blog postings,” with the idea that demonstrating expertise is the best way to distinguish yourself from Internet amateurs and ultimately persuade someone to pay you for your insights. In Mann’s case, that might mean less ad revenue but more speaking engagements.

Once a blog hobbyist goes pro, he or she faces a daily pressure to churn out new material. In the wrong mind, that can lead to top-10 lists, recycled ideas, half-baked notions, lots of viral videos, and a general increase in information pollution. Is there any way out of this scenario? In 2005, Jason Kottke announced that he had quit his job to blog full-time and asked his readers to become “micropatrons” at a suggested rate of $30. He received $39,900 from 1,450 people but abandoned the experiment after a year. Kottke is vague about the reasons why he swore off micropatronage, but he suggests that he was worried that people wouldn’t donate year after year. In order to build a bigger audience and potential new donors, he would have had to do some of the cheesy things to drive traffic (i.e., “Top Five Best” posts) and/or become a cult of personality (overshare, start flame wars, social network relentlessly). These days, he accepts ads as part of the Deck network.

The bloggers at the vanguard of the post-quality-vs.-post-quantity debate are those who work for Nick Denton’s Gawker media. This year, Denton introduced a new pay system that gave his bloggers a base salary and also paid them a quarterly bonus based upon the amount of page views their items receive. Or to oversimplify, they were being paid by popularity. (To follow the complicated ins and outs of the “blogonomics” of the Gawker pay structure, read Felix Salmon’s Portfolio blog.) The memo explains the decision as an effort to reward and encourage more original, scoopy items, but, as Denton’s writers and ex-writers quickly pointed out, there’s not an obvious correlation between quality and page views. Despite a few exceptions, such as the Tom Cruise Scientology video, no one can predict a Web hit.

Do we get the blogs we deserve? We vote by click, after all. Perhaps we shouldn’t look at all those top 10 lists and Britney Spears photos. Successful blogs, such as Zen Habits, tend to balance the more fast-food type posts with longer, more complex ideas that will presumably keep readers coming back—although there are plenty of people who make a living posting dubious crap. Perhaps the escape route out of a hit-driven blogosphere is all of our newfound “friends.” The Internet has always been very good at counting page views but not so great at assigning value to what’s actually in those pages. Facebook, FriendFeed, StumbleUpon, and the sharing feature of Google Reader have their annoying, nudgy aspects, but they allow us to rely on one another to sort out what is interesting and worthy. Put it on a T-shirt: Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Bad Content.

Correction, Oct. 3:The article originally misidentified the Hipster PDA as a modified Moleskine notebook. In fact, that is a later variation on the Hipster PDA. The original idea involved only index cards and a binder clip. (Return to the corrected sentence.)