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title tags date featuredImage featured description type category project
What does it take to have a successful website?
personal
business
career
2019-04-22
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I look at some of the shared characteristics of five relatively popular online websites in their respective spaces to determine many of the key essentials in both content, structure, and revenue-earning strategies that one would need to develop their own successful website in the space of their choosing.
post
Business

In May 2016, I purchased the domain blakeadams.io, it would be the de facto online platform for me to share any/all creative works for public accessibility. I had just finished working on the MVP for my online meal recommendation and aggregation application, Mars and I had decided that I needed a companion website to share it and any future projects, and also to rant.

My first attempt was a very basic WordPress website which stood relatively unnoticed for nearly a year before I decided to roll my own solution in April 2017. At this time, I found myself perusing Financial Samurai's website and noted his emphasis on establishing an online blogging platform and decided to update my own website. As for content, I removed my previous Dear Diary rants and decided to revisit my Mars application and write about some of the interesting challenges I encountered in its initial development.

Once again, the website stayed relatively quiet until roughly Winter 2018 when I decided to yet again update it. Why? I was looking for opportunities and decided that my website could use an upgrade and since it appeared that React was in vogue, I decided to use this update as an opportunity to learn the library. But this time I decided to do a bit of preliminary research on the profile of a small pool of remarkably successful online platforms in a couple of the circles that I was familiar with to determine exactly the mold that I would need to actively pursue if I wanted this website to result in anything substantial besides simply a portfolio for showcasing my own work.

So I chose 5 websites that would represent the sample of successful websites.

  1. https://simpleprogrammer.com/
  2. https://www.financialsamurai.com/
  3. https://affordanything.com/
  4. https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/
  5. https://www.madfientist.com/

I was looking for websites belonging to persons notable in the space that they worked within (Software Development, Financial Independence) and who also used their website as at least a secondary business venture.

John Sonmez is the founder of the website, Simple Programmer, and the author of two successful books about navigating a career in software development.

Sam Dogen is the owner and founder of Financial Samurai a popular personal finance and financial independence blog.

Paula Pant is the owner and founder of Afford Anything, an online blog and incredibly popular podcast on life management, personal finance, and financial independence.

Peter Adeney is the owner and founder of the extremely popular Mr. Money Mustache, a blog about early retirement, financial independence and frugality that has generated a cult following.

Brandon Ganch is the owner and founder of Mad Fientist an online blog and podcast that also discusses early retirement and financial independence.

Upon review, I noticed that 3 of the 5 example websites involve a owner and founder with a background in Software Development, maybe I'm a bit biased.

First, I decided to note the content, features, and functionality of the above websites. This above all else is what draws traffic to the website, it is the value that the website presents to its visitors. This information is based on observation in Fall 2018.

First, let's look at the landing page for the above websites.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Introduction/Short Bio x x
Blog Posts x x x x x
Latest/Popular on Front Page x x x x
Social Media Feeds Twitter
Featured On x x x x
Subscribe x x x
Social Media Links x x x
Advertisement[1] Google Google

We've established that blogging is an important content feature for each website. In addition to the post content, what other content and features are available on the post's page.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Links to Other Posts (Related/Popular) x x x x x
Comments x x x x x
Subscribe x x x x
Social Share x x x x
Author Bio x x
Adverstisement[1] Google Google

Some of the websites also present content on a sidebar.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
About/Introduction x
Subscribe x x
Links to Other Posts (Recent/Popular/Related) x x x
Comments Feed x
Categories/Tags/Topics x x
Social Links x
Social Media Feed Twitter
Advertisement[1] Google

Next, I look at some of the different features that the websites offer in general.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Multiple Authors x
Forums x x x
Online Courses (Free or Not) x x
Newsletter/Subscription/Sign-Up Content Email Updates Newsletter Email Updates Email Updates Updates/Exclusive Content
Recommendations/Reviews Products, Podcasts, Books, Podcasts, tons more... Product Reviews Recommended Products Recommended Resources, Books
Affiliate Products, Services Pluralsight, Bluehost, Thinkful, 2000 Books, Interview Cake, Thrive Themes, 99 Designs, Drip, Pretty Links, tons more... Personal Capital, Fundrise, Wealthfront, Policy Genius, Esurance, Lending Tree, CIT Bank, Bluehost Bluehost, Card Ratings Bluehost, Uber, Xero, Card Ratings, SoFi, YNAB, Republic Wireless, Personal Capital, Mint, Betterment Dreamhost, Personal Capital, Uber, Card Ratings
About Page x x x x x
Podcast x* x x x
Interviews On Other Podcasts/Videos x x x x x
Music x
Video Series x x
Mobile App x
Contact Email Email Email Contact Form Email
Store Clothing, Courses, eBooks, Speaking, Consulting eBook Clothing, Courses

Note: Sometimes the website discloses their affiliate products and other times they simply mix them into their other recommendations.

What about their social media footprint?

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Facebook Page x x x x x
Facebook Group x
Twitter x x x x x
Instagram x
Pinterest x x
Youtube x x[2] x[2] x

Now for some of the interesting statistics regarding the above websites.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Year Founded 2009 2009 2011 2011 2012
Duration (As of 2019) ~10 Years ~10 Years ~8 Years ~8 Years ~7 Years
Page Views N/A 1.5m/month Page Views N/A 1.6m/month Page Views N/A
Visits[3] ~552k/month Visits 1.3m/month Visits 212k/month Visits ~1.85m/month Visits ~322k/month Visits
Income ~$65k/month[4] N/A N/A ~$33.3k/month[5] N/A
Blog Posts 753[6] 1539 205 550 45
Posts Per Year 83/Year 156/Year[7] 29/Year 78/Year 6/Year

Some social media statistics.

Simple Programmer Financial Samurai Afford Anything Mr. Money Mustache Mad Fientist
Facebook Page Likes 14.4k 3.7k 14k 107k 9.2k
Facebook Page Follows 14.9k 4.1k 14.6k 112k 9.9k
Twitter Followers 48.6k 27.3k 16.2k 106k 19.7k
Following On Twitter 22.5k 820 88 45 27
Twitter Likes 9k 829 4.1k 369 1.8k
Tweets 22.5k 17.1k 9.7k 3.6k 2.7k
Tweets Per Year 2.5k/Year 1.9k/Year 1.07k/Year 0.5k/Year 0.45k/Year

Now for the takeaways...

1. Branding.

Each website avoided branding around the name of the founder and owner.

Ooof.

However, my website was originally meant to be an online portfolio and platform for creative work and no consideration regarding branding was done.

I also didn't want to pigeon-hole myself into a specific niche or space that would prove to be too saturated or too empty to generate any meaningful attention.

My strategy is to operate in a very broad sense and observe what content has the most engagement and switch focus in that direction and perhaps branch off a separate brand while keeping this website as a centralized platform to experiment with different directions.

2. Time Expectations.

This seems like an obvious point but there are a few different points that we can consider from the age of the above websites. With an average age of ~9 years and lacking the full scope of statistics over their individual lifespans, we can speculate that their traffic has steadily increased over their lifespan as the youngest website, Mad Fientist has the smallest traffic footprint of the group.

However without a full view of the traffic statistics over the duration of their existence, it is difficult to determine their traffic peaks or more importantly, when their website began to generate enough traffic to become profitable.

Does this mean that 9 years guarantees a successful blog or website?

Not at all, most of these websites had a first-mover advantage in the space that they operated, mainly financial independence. It does mean that most incredibly successful blogs and websites started slow and required the diligent and consistent practice of screaming in the dark for a little while.

It's probably more akin to working out or learning a new skill.. It takes time and it's best to get started as early as possible. But also like working out or learning a new skill, you should always be considering the feedback that you receive, monitor your indicators for progress, and adapt accordingly. Otherwise, you risk spending a great deal of time not progressing in any meaningful direction (My own experience of working out).

3. Content.

With an average of ~618 blog posts and an average lifespan of 9 years, a good target estimate of content is roughly 68 posts in a year. However, this is skewed a bit as Mad Fientist focuses more on generating content for his podcast and as such his blog content statistics differ considerably than the other websites.

Afford Anything has also switched its focus to more podcast-based content in recent years but had already built up a considerable library of blog-related content before gradually switching focus. This appears to be a common strategy, to build up a large audience from their text-based content and parlaying that audience engagement into a successful podcast that usually follows a traditional interview/Q&A-based format and thus more opportunity for advertisement.

Generalizing this strategy, you should focus your content generation on one format and adapt according to engagement metrics and then eventually diversify your content once those metrics bear out some measurable level of success.

4. Audience Engagement.

Each of these websites incorporate social media to help build their audience and keep their audience engaged with their content. This includes anything from traditional social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They also use RSS services and email subscriptions to keep their audience informed about new content.

With an average of ~11.12k tweets over an average of 9 years, you're looking at around 1.24k tweets a year.

Their audience size? An average of 43.6k Twitter followers (skewed very heavily by Mr. Money Mustache's Twitter followers, you're looking at roughly 28k Twitter followers if you remove him as an outlier).

Facebook followers?

An average of 31.1k followers (once again, removing Mr. Money Mustache brings this average down to ~11k followers).

Their websites' traffic statistics average at ~850k visits/month. Removing outliers like the incredibly high traffic Mr. Money Mustache and Financial Samurai blogs brings this average down to a more conservative ~360k visits/month.

5. Profitability

These websites have an incredibly large audience, how do they typically generate income from this audience?

Only 2 blogs actively used Google AdSense banner ads to a noticeable degree. Most of the blogs appeared to work affiliate products and referral links into their content in some capacity. The websites who ventured into the podcasting world would also endorse partner products in designated ad reads.

Another very important route that many of the websites took to generate income from their content was marketing their own products to their large audience.

This includes:

  • eBooks
  • Online courses.
  • Clothing and accessories.
  • Speaking Engagements
  • Consultation/Coaching Services

Once your have an audience as large as described above; you have a clear indication that you're providing value in some capacity. At that point, it's simply a matter of packaging that value into a meaningful product or service that your audience would be willing to purchase.

6. The Website Itself

What are the bare necessities for a website based on the above?

  • A landing page that presents the most important content as the first to be seen:
    • This can be an introduction to the website and/or the author.
    • The blog itself organized in some meaningful manner (Most Recent, Popular, etc).
  • Or a landing page that is partitioned to present a snapshot of the content of the website in an aesthetically pleasing and easily navigable manner (Afford Anything, Mad Fientist).
  • Either way, the user can deduce the nature of the website and its content easily from the landing page and navigate to the content accordingly.
  • A blog or some text-based content that is added on a consistent basis.
  • Ability to comment and engage with the content.
  • Ability to share the content on common social media platforms.
  • RSS Subscription or Email Updates to keep visitors updated on content additions.
  • Link to accompanying social media pages.
  • An about page which provides information about the author and/or the website.
  • The ability to contact the author.
  • Links to other posts/contents on every available page to encourage continuous reading and longer engagements.

Once you've established the above. You could throw in some additional features such as online forums to foster a community within your audience.

Conclusion

Though the handful of examples above aren't exhaustive, I decided to pick a small sample size of five very successful websites that I was personally familiar with in different spaces that I was also familiar with. Profiling the above websites can provide a good idea of the target metrics and direction to steer your online platform. However obviously simply mimicking the features and functionality of the above doesn't guarantee success. Missing from the metrics and features is the value that these websites provide their audience, some of which is the result of camping out in a specific niche from the beginning and being the benefactor of a growing movement and rise of popularity of that space; all of which would be worthless if the content they provided was banal, uninspired, and unappealing from a readability perspective.

You can follow the structure based upon the profiles of the websites above. You can set goals against the their metrics to determine your own progress. But most importantly, what you can't simply replicate is the value that those websites provided, especially in the beginning, that grew their readership and engagement.

The Simple Programmer provided accessible software development and programming career advice when there was very little available besides basic tutorials and programming problems.

Financial Samurai provided information regarding the high income financial independence approach with a focus on passive income streams and different financial tools and investment vehicles.

Mr. Money Mustache went the opposite route, emphasizing frugality, intentional living, and ways to efficiently manage your typical life expenses en route to and during financial independence.

Afford Anything, though sharing several attributes with the previous financial independence websites, incorporated a focus on travel, freedom, and leveraging rental real estate and active/passive web-based revenue streams to accomplish that freedom.

And the Mad Fientist echoed very similar sentiments as the above.

Additionally, they both entered their respective spaces when their value could be easily recognized and differentiated. There are thousands upon thousands of financial independence blogs now. And most simply regurgitate the same general information, therefore it's very hard to be noticed beyond taking a controversial stance.

Most of those spaces are very saturated now.

It is for this reason that you need to recognize your own niche space or emerging and growing interest group and utilize the information drawn from these examples to build your own platform early enough to experience similar success. So as true in business, the nature of success in online websites seems to be the combination of some formulaic structure, valuable content, and opportunity. The first two being within your control, the third less-so.

However, that isn't to discourage you (or me). Simply concentrate on that which you can actively control and contribute to and hope that you'll be ready for when and if opportunity ever presents itself.

Notes

[1] - Advertisement means the presence of advertisement banners on the site component.

[2] - Mostly reposts of podcast recordings.

[3] - Many of the websites do not disclose their statistics so it's difficult to get a completely accurate read. I used https://www.similarweb.com/ to at least get a consistent statistic on visits.

[4] - https://simpleprogrammer.com/store/products/make-money-from-your-blog/

[5] - https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/29/mr-money-mustache-the-frugal-guru as of 2016.

[6] - There are many more blog posts on the Simple Programmer, I tried to narrow it down to those authored by only John himself.

[7] - Sam reported that he publishes 3 posts per week on average and 156 posts a year.

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