Blogging for Traffic and Bucks

The Wall Street Journal has dusted off the “Can Bloggers Make Money?” meme with a debate between Jupitermedia CEO Alan Meckler and Weblogs, Inc. co-founder Jason Calacanis. The upshot is that, yes, bloggers can make money but only really popular ones in certain niches. Nothing new there.

Aggregated with that at Memeorandum, though, is an interested subdiscussion about blog traffic as it relates to advertising revenue. Rob “Acidman” Smith laments that his traffic and Ecosystem rankings have both declined since he started blogging sober. Steve Graham responds that,

Most blog traffic is trash. I’ve written about it before, and it’s not exactly news. Everyone knows it. If you look at your stats, you’ll learn that half of your traffic–or a lot more than half–comes from search engines. People type in things like “nipple schoolgirl goat priest molasses,” and they end up at your site for ten seconds, and they leave, hopefully disappointed. Those people aren’t “visitors,” no matter how much you like to think they are. They’re just lost. And they don’t click ads. Even worse, you may be getting traffic because big bloggers link to you. That doesn’t make you a success. It makes you a pet, living on table scraps. When the scraps stop coming–when you say the wrong thing and stop toadying–those tasty scraps can stop coming, instantly, and then you find out how much readers really care about you.

That’s a little harsh but largely accurate. Older blogs, OTB included, especially benefit from Google-enhanced traffic spikes since our archives are deeper and the chances that some obscure thing we’ve forgotten we ever blogged about become the target of a search frenzy grow daily. Indeed, my biggest traffic month still remains May 2004, mostly owing to a weeklong avalanche of traffic that came when news broke that was Nick Berg was beheaded. The fluke of being ranked extraordinarily high for something like that or something involving a major pop culture phenomenon that happens to be in the news will dwarf traffic generated by the most insightful commentary on the news of the day.

This is why–in my opinion–blog advertising is WAY overpriced. Some big blogs probably have a high proportion of meaningful traffic; I would guess that Michelle Malkin is in that class, since she has relatively few posts up and she still gets visits. People go to her site because they know who she is. But most blogs are buoyed up by garbage traffic. So when you buy an ad on a site that gets a hundred thousand visits per day, you’re not getting what you think you’re getting. The people who stay long enough to see and click the ads probably account for thirty or forty thousand visits. And unless the blog’s audience is a narrow segment of society likely to be interested in your product, those visits have to be grossly discounted. Also, they’re repeat customers, so you’ll get the bulk of your clicks on the first day. After that, the dropoff is steep. A reader won’t click the same ad day after day.

There’s almost certainly some truth in that, although, in my own case at least, the clickthrough rates would seem to justify the pricing. Even “accidental” visitors actually do click on ads, apparently.

Sean-Paul Kelley points out that well managed groups like the Liberal Blog Network are doing quite well. Of course, if follows the trends at the BlogAds order page, it is increasingly the case that blogs focusing on celebrity gossip are dominating. Then again, the “trash” traffic Graham refers to are not trash for them; that’s what visitors are actually there to see.

Daniel Solove disagrees with Graham’s premise, contending that,

[A]t least some of the search engine traffic consists of people doing meaningful research and finding a post on point. I also believe that the temporary one-time readers you get when a big blog links to you still count for something. True, they’re not regular readers, but they’ve at least read one of your posts. And if even just a few turn into regular readers after each link, one’s audience grows.

True enough. Certainly a lot of search engine visitors are “accidental,” in the sense that they don’t get what they’re looking for, clicking through owing to the high page ranks of well-linked blogs and the strange word combinations that appear on, say, monthly or category archive pages. But I’ve had blog posts cited in major newspapers, network news programs, online columns, and elsewhere. Given that several of the posts in questions were old enough to have cycled off the main page, presumably most of them were found through search engine.

Graham’s larger point, that bloggers interested in making serious money from their writing should probably augment their blogs with freelance writing and/or pursuit of book deals, is almost certainly right. Blogging is often, to use Steven Taylor‘s taglines, a first, rough draft of one’s thoughts. It gives writers a chance to flesh out things they’re thinking about and get feedback. It also helps build name identification. Only a lucky few will ever make a living just posting things on a blog, though.



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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bhoe says:

    The other element affecting click-through ads is the ease with which they can be blocked through common browser extensions.

    Any saavy internet user rarely sees graphical ads and many of the google text ads can also easily be hidden.

  2. Mark says:

    For the record, searching on â??nipple schoolgirl goat priest molasses” does not return any links.

    I do what I can to help civilization…

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that Steve Graham may be discounting SiteMeter traffic measurement a little too harshly. I don’t really know the details on how they reckon traffic but it’s clearly not raw hits–it differs too much from my raw logs. I suspect that they’re taking search engines and other bots into account just a little.

    I don’t conclude this based on traffic at my miniscule site but on the change in traffic at my miniscule site. It cycles over time and it cycles in a comprehensible way. I doubt that would be the case if it were all bots.

    Now the real question IMO is whether the current state of TTLB reflects actual influence. Or influence in a more meaningful sense than the old algorithm. Since the Great Algorithm Shift I’ve languished in Marauding Marsupialhood.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Dave: Not sure on the Ecosystem. Clearly, a lot of sites that I think of as major as poorly ranked and many sites that I think of as minor rank high. My instinct tells me its measurement is not very good these days, owing to various “Linkrolls for Linkwhores” and other devices for gaming the system.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Mind you, I think the Top 100 (or so) blogs in TTLB Ecosystem are probably pretty accurate. But after that I really have my doubts.

  6. I stopped blogging on March 6, except for a single post I put up about the so-called Judas gospel. Yet I still get more than a thousand hits per day from Google searches. Having archives all the way back to mid-2003 does do that with Google.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Don: True that. Plus, you’re likely still on a lot of blogrolls, mine included.

  8. McGehee says:

    Everyone knows it. If you look at your stats, you�ll learn that half of your traffic�or a lot more than half�comes from search engines. People type in things like �nipple schoolgirl goat priest molasses,� and they end up at your site for ten seconds, and they leave, hopefully disappointed.

    True. If traffic were money, I’d still be raking in a steady if modest income years later from my Olson twins googlebombs.

    Then again, if traffic were money, I’d still be doing those damned googlebombs every week.

  9. Don Surber says:

    You and the WSJ guys know far more about this ad thing than I do. I am a blog amateur and keep the Google ad as a way to thank Google for hosting me.

    Left out of the equation: Books. Malkin, Reynolds and Hewitt use their blogs to sell their books and I gotta say, more power to them

    The only gripe I have is the anti-MSM meme from people who are MSM. Other than that it is a fun hobby