When the Internet started up, it was fairly easy to find a following, which is probably why you can read Allpar today; we started in 1994 and got our domain name in 1998. The Web was a smaller community, with few spammers and scammers, and corporations were generally oblivious.
The first major threats to independent publishers were, in my opinion:
- Pay per click “search engines” (GoTo.com was the leader before Google) which meant that if you had deep pockets, you could “outbid” better sites. Fortunately, Google came and wiped them out.
- When the Open Directory became a “must do.” Fortunately, though it went from being useful to being impossibly hard to deal with, today it’s largely forgotten because new sites just couldn’t get in and bad sites often weren’t kicked out. Today, by the way, they still listed “DaimlerChrysler” as a category.
We still have payment for visibility, but it’s not so bad. We have other problems, though.
Those with more money, time, or technological resources do better at climbing up the Google list, which is pretty much essential now; few Americans use other search engines. Allpar used to be in the Google top five for almost any search term, and today we are lucky if we are in the first twenty; Wikipedia and large publishing companies find it easier to get the top score. Google’s demands change frequently (various forms of metadata, formatting, etc); you really need to have a content management system, for one thing. YouTube videos are almost always ranked above good content. Guess who owns YouTube?
A more general threat to small publishers (and large ones) is the rise of Facebook and other social media; they eat time and attention, and are leaving many forums as ghost towns (see this thread at TAZ). To succeed in content, you now have to do social media well, which is easier for companies who can hire social-media professionals, and pay for Facebook ads — and those who have very simple messages.
The growth of social media is a conflict for the companies we cover; they invariably have their own social media now and some stories end up there first. In short, it’s additional competition, from people who really, really want the stories to be exactly as they write them.
Niches can get overcrowded. Allpar fared best when Chrysler was at its worst, because it was the only straight, informed source of Chrysler news. Today, it’s much harder to get a story quoted, posted on Facebook, etc.
Finally, there are the ad blockers. I am conflicted there, because the ads are so intrusive and nasty, but it’s how the site pays for me to not work full time on something else. I’d love a system where you can get paid a few cents by a quick click on a browser button, or a pay-per-page system, for the full Web.
The wide range of challenges drags me in too many directions at once. I spent some time getting us into Apple News, which really doesn’t do anything, because Apple News shows you items they think will be interesting, based on large-corporation media, but makes it hard to use your own favorites. I tried Google News but they just rejected us over and over and over for mysterious reasons. And then there’s social media, essentially a full time job or at least something I’m not suited for — but it takes my time since every story needs to be Facebooked. We have long-standing RSS feeds but relatively few people use them.
In the end, we’re not doing quite as well as we used to — but we are still here. Where do we go next, and how do we do it?