Loved, gifted and broke

Hugh Pearman struggles with the realities of a personal website – he may have a loyal, growing audience, but is resigned to never making money from it.

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that I was wondering aloud in this column about the pointlessness of having a personal website. Not a blog, you understand, but an archive of things I’d written and been paid for, since that’s what I do. My schtick on that occasion was that I was a lonely voice in cyberspace, desperately trying to convince myself it was worth netting a few unknown visitors since this conferred some kind of false search-engine status and an illusion of immortality.

Since then things have changed. Today I find myself in charge of a commodity of sorts. OK, so it’s not exactly eBay, but visits to have been on the up and up. I know you’re gagging to know, so I’ll tell you. Last month, for the first time, the site registered more than 100 000 page requests, which is meant to be a truer measure of activity than the oft-quoted random scatter of hits.

So, an average of 3500 of my pages a day were allegedly being looked at properly by somebody or other in the world during May. There were even 880 last Christmas Day, for Pete’s sake. I don’t know how seriously to take these figures, but presumably they can’t all be robots or sad loners. I know that a lot of them are in America, and I know that many are real because they choose to register for update alerts. So there seems to be a genuine viewership out there. The question is: so what?

Take Prospect Magazine, the monthly read for intellectually minded people. It has an audited circulation of just 24 429. Closer to home for me, the Architectural Review sells only 21 000 copies a month. But how many people visit the AR website, where you can see features as pdf pages? The Audit Bureau of Circulations is silent on that.

So figures are meaningless unless you have some form of real comparison. My webmaster is the indefatigable Paul Clerkin, an architecture enthusiast and enlightened mischief-maker who runs a whole bundle of sites and portals like someone spinning plates. Yes, confirms Clerkin with his characteristic ruthless honesty, my numbers are excellent for ‘a very niche site with nothing apart from your writing to drag people in’. By ‘nothing’ he presumably means no free offers, discount pharmaceuticals, share tips or teenage sluts. I think he’s being unfair. I also have pictures, lots of them. It’s just that they tend to be of buildings.

Clerkin espouses the theory that niche websites such as his and mine show a pattern: if they are going to make any headway at all, they will spend a long time slowly gathering momentum until, for reasons more organic than technical, they suddenly enter a zone of explosive activity. This is particularly true if they are part of a group of inter-related sites that can feed off each other and their links to other such like-minded groupings. It comes as no surprise to find that webmaster Clerkin is well advanced in constructing just such an interconnected cyber-grouping, complete with a common search engine and mutually supportive discussion forums for countries around the world. He reckons he’s getting close to the zone. I hope he’s right.

My site has been around since early 1998 and has expanded to hundreds of pages, simply by virtue of my adding in bits of what I write and photographs, when I can be bothered. Six years is long enough for people out there to establish all kinds of links to it. Even the (free and voluntary) registration list, started at the request of someone in India, appears to have reached critical mass. It appears that as long as I keep updating the site, the traffic will go on increasing, and possibly that increase will become increasingly rapid, if you get my drift.

Which is lovely. But how do I direct this traffic? How do I make any goddamned money out of it? How do I stop people pirating chunks of it? Much better business brains than mine have tackled that problem and come away with sore heads. Given that the typical inquiry to the site is from a student wanting instant abundant material to help with his or her doomed thesis, I do not have a wealthy readership. I notice the traffic slackening during university vacations.

But there’s a more important issue. If, relatively speaking, so many people are now visiting my site, then I should tidy it up a bit, make it do more things, make it look fresher. Webmaster Clerkin is poised. It is time, ladies and gentlemen, for a re-design. Never mind the content or the economics of the thing, this is a matter of aesthetics.

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