Here at The Car Expert, we currently have a dilemma, and I’d like your thoughts as to how we should deal with it.
This site provides a wealth of information and advice on buying, financing and running a car – information which could save you thousands of pounds (or dollars, or yen, or euros, or whatever), and it’s currently provided absolutely free to everyone in the world.
The archive of material at The Car Expert has built up massively over the last four years and will continue to grow, but ultimately the cost of running the site has gone up massively as well – as has the time it takes to keep it going – and it has to be paid for, one way or another. I very much enjoy helping people to get the best result possible, but I’m not a charity. This site is not my primary source of income and I have a full-time job.
The site earns income from the advertisements you see all over the place, as well as from sponsored articles. They pay the bills, but they are both necessary evils. I would much rather have no advertising and no paid content, but that’s not currently an option unless there is a kind donor out there who would like to write a very large cheque…
Both ads and sponsored articles also have other problems, which are explained below. But essentially, we either need to run more ads (and more intrusive ads) and more sponsored articles, or we need to find other methods to generate revenue. Most websites are facing the same dilemma, but most don’t publicly ask their readers what they want. It’s pretty important for the future direction of The Car Expert, and I’d like to know what you think.
How banner advertising works (on all websites)
All those ads you see across each page are there to generate income. We don’t directly source the ads you see; that’s done by Google or other providers. I create the space, and Google/other provider puts an ad for one of its clients in that space. The advertising you see will depend on your browsing history and cookie settings. Most internet ads work in this fashion.
For every thousand ads displayed on the site, we get a few pennies (literally). If you click on an ad and visit the advertiser’s website, we may get a pound or two (depending on how long you’re there, whether you buy anything, etc.). That’s how most ads on the internet work. At the end of each month, Google etc. pay us for the number of ads displayed and clicked on.
Advertising revenue is declining right across the internet, because people have started running ad-blocking software. So even though the number of visitors to this site has increased massively over the last few years, ad revenue is actually declining.
Regular visitors will notice that we regularly trial different ad formats and ad providers. Every additional ad slows down the site slightly, and is potentially quite annoying (obviously, since the point of an advert is to get you to notice it!), and too much annoyance will result people leaving the site and never returning. Basically it’s a balancing act between getting the best income for the least inconvenience. I try and avoid the really annoying ad formats, like popups and popunders (where an ad page opens after you leave the site), even though they do tend to pay more.
To make matters even worse for advertising revenue, I have recently upgraded the site from HTTP to HTTPS. What this means, for non-geeks, is that there is better security for email addresses that you need to provide when you comment or ask questions. Unfortunately, many ad providers don’t support the more-secure format and our ad revenue has fallen off a cliff…
(*update 08/02/16 – I have now reverted to HTTP, as the advertising revenue drop was too great, and until we work out a longer-term plan, the migration to HTTPS will have to wait)
How sponsored content is presented at The Car Expert
Sponsored content is tricky for all site owners, because advertisers specifically don’t want it to look like sponsored content. These days it’s known as ‘native advertising’, because the idea is that it should look seamless alongside the regular unpaid content. But this is an independent, impartial website and we do not want any confusion between an independent recommendation and a paid endorsement.
I strictly limit the number of sponsored articles at The Car Expert, and have also become much stricter about the quality of content accepted – especially if the topic is offering advice or recommendations that could in any way be confused with our own independent information.
All sponsored articles are clearly labelled “This article is brought to you by XYZ” at the top of the page (as shown above). I regularly get requests for this disclaimer to be removed, even with the offer of more money, but we do not do this under any circumstances.
I turn away sponsored content requests every week because the advertiser wants any reference to the article being paid for to be removed. As much as I would love the extra few hundred quid every month, I’m not interested in compromising the site’s premise to do so. Believe it or not, some marketers get quite abusive when I turn them down over this point.
So what do we do to keep the site going?
Well, we can run more ads, and run ad formats which are more intrusive so you can’t ignore them (I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of websites which use this approach). This would potentially bring in more money, but it slows the page loading times down and it puts people off, which means they tend to leave and not come back. So it’s not a great long-term strategy. Ad revenues are also continuing to fall because of ad-blocking software, which means placing even more ads on the page for those people who don’t block them.
We can run more sponsored content. The problem with these articles is that they are very rarely independent or impartial, as they are specifically designed to promote a particular product or service. I could easily increase revenue by accepting lower-quality articles or disguising the fact that they are sponsored, but that goes against the very point of the site in the first place. In addition, if Google catches a site presenting sponsored content as organic, it punishes that site heavily (basically the site would disappear from search results, which would kill 90+% of traffic immediately).
The last real option, and probably the inevitable future, is to create a paywall for some or all of the site so that you have to pay to read articles. There are several ways of doing this, but there are several drawbacks. Firstly, people usually hate paying to read articles, even if it’s only a few pennies and the information within could be extremely valuable. Secondly, blocking people from reading the site also tends to block Google and other search engines from seeing the site, so you don’t appear in search results. Thirdly, people don’t usually share articles on social media if their friends have to pay to read them.
Providing a metered paywall (where you can read one or two articles for free but then have to pay to read more) could mean that we could reduce the number of ads, if enough people were prepared to pay a few pennies. But the big question is, will enough people be likely to do so?
So I’d love to hear your thoughts. Would you be prepared to pay a small amount (probably less than 50p) to read a few articles, or certain types of articles? Would you be interested in a pay-once subscription and then read everything forever without having to pay again? Would you tolerate more ads in return for not having to pay anything? Would you tolerate more sponsored content if it means fewer ads and not having to pay to read articles? Do you have any better ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Owner and Editor,
The Car Expert