Escaping the Traffic Doldrums with an Upgraded Hosting Account

I noticed something was wrong when I clicked around on my site and noticed a lot of “Error 500 – internal server error” messages. Traffic had been pretty steady for the past few months, but as I later found out, my WordPress installation was gradually becoming more and more complex, using more server resources with every upgrade. So the humble little 8$ a month plan I’ve been using since 2012 was no longer enough to serve all the pageviews necessary for a site that over 100,000 people visit each month.

My host had subtly discouraged me in the past from upgrading to their “enterprise” plan, noting that tests comparing server response time between the basic and enterprise plans had not been done. I really appreciate how honest they were about that, but had I upgraded then I would have likely captured much more traffic in the months between then and now.

I never thought upgrading my hosting account would make such a terrific difference. This is what my Google Analytics account looks like for the period between last August and today, Feb 15 2015.

traffic-pattern-after-server-upgrade

I hit a record for most visitors in a single hour the very next day. It was partly coincidence, but without the extra resources my traffic stats would probably have remained unchanged from the previous day, since they seem to have been maxed out as it was. My site traffic over the month and a half since has been up an average of about 50%.

The hosting account I switched to was “enterprise basic” from my host, StableHost. It costs 20$/mo instead of 8$/mo and gives me 8x the processing power. Processor power is extremely important for a PHP-based site, which includes WordPress, Joomla or Drupal CMS based websites. However, a web host will rarely advertise their processor power, instead focusing on irrelevant shit like “1000 email addresses!” Or “Unlimited file transfer!”

Embedding a Video into a Joomla Article

This is an in-depth tutorial article about embedding a youtube video into a Joomla article. Topics covered are:

  1. Hunting down the hard-to-find Youtube embed code.
  2. Logging into Joomla and finding the right article
  3. Using Joomla Code View to insert the Youtube embed code.
  4. Verifying that the code was inserted correctly.
  5. Centering a youtube iframe
  6. Saving a Joomla article.
  7. Clearing a Joomla cache properly so as to see your changes immediately.
    Continue reading

Spring and Summer Search Boom and Bust

This is sort of a tradition now, a twice yearly look back at that most effortless river of traffic, organic search.

Last time I checked it was Feb 21. The traffic growth rate was high and uninterrupted. This time we’re introducing a bit more ambiguity.

period-2-traffic-growth

As you will note, search traffic growth took off during the summer of 2014, and tapered off toward the end of summer.

These were Period 2‘s statistics.

week of aug 18: 3115
week of feb 9: 6223
growth amount: 3108
growth per week: 124

And now, Period 3:

Week of aug 18: 3115
Week of Sep 28: 7904
Growth amount (34 weeks): 4789
Growth per week: 140

What’s up with Summer?

My most popular article by an enormous margin this summer was a summer-time only topic about keeping cool during hot days. It’s not terribly surprising to see traffic dropping off, although I’d hate for this drastic trend to continue!

But it won’t. Here is the same chart with traffic from just that summertime article overlayed in orange. Search traffic from the “keeping cool” article has disappeared almost completely, from its high of over 6,100 per week, down to last week’s 391.

trafic growth overlayed summertime

I’ve always been surprised that my sites never get that consistent weekly shape that most sites do. Maybe instead I’ll have a consistent seasonal shape.

 

Buying Websites as an Investment Vehicle

I joined a Mr Money Mustache Meetup group. MMMMeetup I’ve cleverly called it. On the hike we completed last weekend, I spoke at length about building, buying and selling websites.

lynn-creek-canyon

The investors among the group perked up when I mentioned that websites trade at a P/E ratio of 2. That’s a deal an order of magnitude better than stocks or houses, which trade at ratios of between 20 and 30.

I realise there’s a good reason that websites trade at such a high discount rate; they’re inherently much riskier than owning land, labor or capital. These are some of the risk factors I’ve identified in a conversation with one of the MMMMeetup members. 

Things that go Wrong with a Website

  • A site with traffic based entirely on search might be using shady practices to get search ranking. A google algorithm change can wipe out search traffic. This can be a death sentence for a site, which is why vetting beforehand is so important.
  • Server can get hacked and will require repair. Repair can take hours to days to fix fully. This happens fairly frequently with WordPress installs.
  • A static site might start to slowly lose relevancy and will need fresh content to remain competitive in its space.
  • A competitor site might be launched, taking a portion of your traffic.
  • A site relying on time-sensitive information will become out of date (news sites, science&technology, health fads) and will need to be updated
  • New browsing technology may require a site rebuild. The best example of this is the smartphone trend toward sites that work on any size screen. A more recent example is the move to SHTML as a more important ranking factor.
Not every sudden change is negative.
  • A direct sale advertiser wants to place sponsored posts or custom ads, doubling your revenue for one or more months but requiring an account manager.
  • Your site explodes in popularity and requires a server move and/or content delivery system.
  • A new affiliate program needs to be integrated site-wide

Where to Buy Websites

I’ve identified these 3 marketplaces as the best at this time.
  • Flippa.com – This is the biggest website exchange as far as I know. Lots of cheap sites but there’s a lot of “pump and dump” type sites for sale – buyer beware and know how to do your due diligence on a site before buying.
  • EmpireFlippers.com I don’t know that much about it but a colleague of mine says its the only one she trusts. I think this was built around a book or something.
  • Quiet Light Brokerage – premium sites, usually costing $1 million and up. Well vetted by the brokerage beforehand, and you have to sign an NDA to get on their list. Not that many sites come through this pipeline.
Craigslist has sites for sale too, although it’s not a great fit because Craigs is local focused. I’ve only ever seen one decent site for sale on craigslist.

Considerations for Vetting a Website

  • Start with using SEMrush. Its stats are much more useful than compete.com or alexa, which are popular but I wouldn’t bother with at all. This gives an indication of a website’s potential for passive income through search engines. Although the subject matter of the site will have a huge effect on its income potential – finance related sites for example can push credit cards and startup business sites can push hosting services, which both pay a positively massive commission.
  • Check the website with mozrank, open site explorer and Google Pagerank. What you’re looking for are high quality links and a decent track record. 
  • Also look into their demographics. I have 2 popular sites, one which caters to males in their 20s and another primarily used by men and women over the age of 55. The site for 20 year olds hardly pays its server expenses, the 55+ site performs amazingly.

Website Speed

The article Why Your Search Rankings Are Dropping (and 7 Ways to Fix It) reminded me how important website speed is. Thanks Tim for linking that! I won’t link to the article because it employs the greatest numbers of “neo-popups” that I have ever seen and I’m disgusted by it.

For website speed, I used W3 total cache for a long time, but it hasn’t worked well for me since I switched to multisite. For multi site I’ve been really happy with WP super cache which isn’t as powerful but is very easy to set up.

This was my site before I added any caching utility to it, tested with the excellent Pingdom speed test. I trust it much more than testing in my own browser, because I’ve got the entire site cached already. I can even test from a server in the state of Texas, where the bulk of my readers happen to be.

I think the correct interpretation of this test is that my main content loads quickly (score of 87/100) but my page size is way too big, loading ancillary content far too slowly (slower than 85% of tested websites.)

website-test-beforeLess than 5 minutes later, after a one-click WP Super Cache install and a 1-click test to make sure it’s working, here’s my latest speed test.

I had to manually add the settings to my htaccess because I locked that file down pretty securely after a recent server hack. I didn’t bother posting about it because I don’t want this site to turn into a  battered fileserver’s support group.

The new page is almost a full megabyte smaller, loads in a fraction of the time, and is now in the top 20 percentile rather than the bottom. My performance grade has actually shrunk, so perhaps it’s a completely worthless metric.

fgi-test-pingdom-after

Testing with this great tool is free! Go to http://tools.pingdom.com/fpt/ to test your own site and see how your numbers stack up to mine.

Link to free caching plugin: https://wordpress.org/plugins/wp-super-cache/

Writing Blogs for a Living

I blog for a living. Not for other people but exclusively for myself. I wrote my ass off for 8 months earning very little to build up enough of a content base to supply me with income to live off. It’s a significant barrier to get through which I think is why many prefer freelancing.

keyboard

I shove words into the ether constantly. I used to write more than one article a day but I’m now down to around 2 a week. Yesterday I wrote half a dozen real shitty ones on DollarEater.com. My best writing always starts shitty and then is endlessly edited. I find editing skills are far more important than writing skills.

I’m interested in hiring a writer to help out but have yet to find one that meets my criteria. I need someone who doesn’t need management, writes in the same style as I do, comes up with high quality original pictures to accompany posts, and will work for cheap enough that I can earn a profit from their articles. The perfect writer probably doesn’t exist so I shall continue to slog through myself.

The Writing Process

Most professional writers use a process called “freewriting” where they shove as much shit on a page as they can in a set amount of time, then wait for a day or longer, then brutally edit what they’ve produced. It’s like assembly lining your creative process. I wrote a guestpost on freewriting on BlogSexier. I’m hoping to read Steven King’s “On Writing” which talks about this plus other techniques.

Writing and Search Engine Optimization

Excellent writing is the most powerful tool – maybe the only tool – that SEO has left. I don’t seek out SEO education anymore. The important stuff seems to trickle through in the podcasts I follow – marketing over coffee & smart passive income. Much is learned first hand from my own experience running a bunch of different sites which is why I take any “pro advice” I hear with a grain.

I learned mainstream SEO when I worked an intern for 6 weeks at an online job board in 2010. It was a much different time. My job was just spamming press releases everywhere and it worked great. It was boring work and each day ran into the next. This way feels a lot better and it actually works a lot better long term.

I don’t employ anyone for my SEO because for me, SEO means words + pictures and see above for my problems with that. It can also mean social media which I mostly don’t like to do, and videos which are a lot of work but are totally worth it.

Cover picture related: it’s the 15$ logitech I’m typing on.

The Name Change

I’m sure my 0 or 1 readers can’t wait to learn why I’ve changed the name of this site from “just scraping by” to “indie personal finance.”

Just scraping by was exactly my financial position when I started this blog. My expenses exactly matched my income, and it always took plenty of effort to even get that far.

Since then  the internet pendulum has swung once again to provide me the final boost in traffic I needed to earn comfortably in excess of my survival number.

So “scraping by” isn’t strictly true anymore. I’ve got some elbow room now which is reason to celebrate by sprucing up my favorite place to write about my ideas and experiments in living cheaply, residual income and alternative finance. If you’re an RSS reader, you might have to update your RSS to the new address: http://indiepf.com/feed/

Basing Every Goal on the Survival Number

Last month earnings blasted through my “survival number” of 30$/day like a freight train. Consequently, I’ve found my motivation for working hard melt away, leaving only existential bliss behind.

But the taste of independence is too sweet to risk to days filled with nothing but naps, snacks and video games. Now that my most important milestone seems firmly in the rear-view mirror, I must plot a course to the next.

The most dependable source of traffic for me is search engine traffic. Many internet marketers, veterans of the Penguin and Panda massacres, would disagree and claim from their own experience that search traffic is the most fickle. But my tail is long and fat. Take away any one keyword and the effect on the whole would look like normal fluctuation.

In the week of June 3, 2012 – a month after I launched my site – it attracted a total of 172 visitors from searches. Over the next 63 days, this figure doubled. 147 days more and it doubled again. Search traffic doubled a total of 5 times between June 3, 2012 and today – November 11 2013.

Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.

My next goal is to meet my survival number with search traffic alone. Based on some numbers and graphs which I will not share here, I’m only 1/4 of the way there. In other words, this goal will require 2 more doublings which based on past history take ~100 days each.

Of course doublings should start to slow down dramatically at some point as the internet reaches its saturation point for information about buckets.

I like this new goal because it looks so similar to the last. Maybe I will base all future earnings goal on that same 30$/day number. It’s a “mind-sized” goal that keeps every number in sharp perspective.

Google Analytics Avg Visit Duration fix

Apparently google analytics data for average visit duration is deeply, deeply flawed. But there are cool hacks and fixes to get much better data.

In essence, the incorrect duration statistic stems from users who only view one page, then leave. Even if they spent 15 minutes on the page, they are counted as a bounced user with a visit duration of 0:00. To fix the issue, your website must be set up to track clicks of the back button and closures of the user’s browser.

The author of the tutorial for counting true visit duration saw their own site jump from 4 minutes up to 14 after applying the extra code.

I haven’t applied this fix yet to any of my sites yet – but it seems like a must.

See the full tutorial on Savio.no >>

“They are Appointed”

As the blogging industry matures into adolescence, an old boys’ club emerges. A new blog has a better chance of success when  “appointed” by the existing audience wranglers.

The same is true on YouTube where top dog user vlogbrothers gave this advice to an up-and-comer about how to succeed on the video sharing website: “Start 6 years ago.”

Despite the negativity, I believe this new west is still mostly virgin territory. It’s far easier to grab the attention of 10,000 eyeballs than one human resources manager.

Summertime Search Traffic Growth

These are notes for summertime traffic growth for the 3 blogging sites that have so far stood the test of time. I have other sites but these 3 are the most impressive statistic-wise.

I’m planning a 4th site themed similarly to these sites soon so this data will help me plan for future growth.

This is organic search traffic only, which is a minority segment of total traffic.

Time frame is from May 5 to Aug 24 2013 and is calculated by 7-day period. That’s 16 weeks total.

Note: For each chart, first and last data points shown are not used; they are incomplete weeks.

Site 1: Site “B”

graph1

week of may 5: 2169
week of aug 18: 3115
growth amount: 946
growth per week: 59

Interesting to note that SEMrush is showing this site losing search traffic over the last 2 months. No sign of that in the actual data….

Site 2: Site “G”

graph2

week of may 5: 20
week of aug 18: 203
growth amount: 183
growth per week: 11

Site 3: Site “J”

graph3

week of may 5: 62
week of aug 18: 218
growth amount: 156
growth per week: 10

Take-away

I didn’t realise Site B was growing so quickly. It had seemed to be plateauing compared with the other 2 sites, but by running the numbers the growth seems significant. It only looks like slower growth in the charts because the week-over-week growth represented as a percentage of pre-existing traffic has actually been much lower than the smaller sites. Babies grow the fastest, but that doesn’t mean they are the strongest.

Bonus Chart – Site “D”

Alright, here’s a bonus search volume chart for a mature site that is popular but rarely updated. This site is a loser in revenue but is kept up as an art piece. Interesting to note how stable the traffic volume is over time while fluctuating wildly week-to-week.

chart4

week of may 5: 414
week of aug 18: 363
growth amount: -51
growth per week: -3

Although it looks like this site is shrinking, the 16-week shrinkage of 51 seems to be just within the normal weekly fluctuation. To me this is a positive sign that a blog left to its own devices does not really shrink over time.

Blogging Dates!

You’ve probably read all about “cheap date ideas” – but we’ve gone full circle and are going on dates that pay us! 

blogging-date

We try to go on blogging dates every weekend. We take ours at the coffee shop but you could go anywhere with internet access. It’s fun to go out somewhere instead of doing this at home.

Sure each date costs 4$ in coffee, but we write so much on these dates that they pay for themselves in just 2 weeks – then for years after we will keep seeing benefits!

I’ve found that blogging dates are a great way to encourage ourselves to get out and write. It’s too easy at home to get tied up watching YouTube videos so we try to change up the environment and it really helps our motivation.

I use blogging dates to write my daily blog post and catch up on maintenance operations which I tend to put off. Today I spent it setting up the W3 Super Cache plugin which is something I should have done ages ago. Before I set it up my main website was performing better than only 42% of sites on the net. Afterwords, I was testing better than 99% of sites!

My fiance uses blogging dates to mass produce content for her beauty blog. She has a jobby career so she writes between 3 and 5 posts on our weekend dates and schedules them throughout the week.

I’d really like to involve more people on our weekly blogging dates – we just gotta find some people in our town who will commit to them! Maybe we can rename them to “blogging meetups” or something…

Web Server Hacked! … and fixed | $zend_framework hack

Relying solely on WordPress is getting more and more risky as it becomes more and more ubiquitous. It’s the same reason why in the early 2000’s windows became the Typhoid Mary of operating systems. Everyone was using it so it became the hacking target with the highest ROI for hackers.

My sites have been hacked before but never to this extent. Every single piece of PHP code on my second server had a long piece of encrypted code added to the beginning. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it weren’t for the enormous slowdown I saw on all my websites hosted on that server.

server-hack-traffic-damage

It took me 48 hours before I realized what was going on – it was actually my hosting company that pointed out the malicious code – and another 5 or 6 hours of work to clear it all up. It would have taken much longer were it not for the excellent work by Oomta, who wrote a piece of PHP code that you can run from your website’s root that will automatically clear out your entire install.

Right Click, and save as this link to download the full code in txt format. To use the code, change it from a txt into a php by renaming the file extension, then upload to your server. Then run the script by navigating in your browser to www.YOURSITE.com/killit.php.

I had about 8 wordpress installations on this server, so I had to run the script 8 times. The hack also seemed to add 2 additional backdoor scripts within the installations which I found using the (free) WordFence security plugin, and an additional administrative user with a black name and email address. Check for both of those things as well if you have been hit with the $zend hack. There could be more nasty little things they’ve added that I haven’t found yet.

I’m hoping to keep these sites going until wordpress can release some sort of update to prevent this from happening again. I’ll be watching like a hawk.

For my rich media ad A/B testing project, I’ll just have to throw out yet more data from the last few days. Today seems to be back up to normal, but I’m throwing out data from at least the past 3 days.

 

Should I allow Adsense Image ads?

In summary – yes and no. You want to try both ad types at the same time and see which one does better over a 30 day or longer trial period. Then eliminate the underperformer. 

I’m using this post as a very extended annotation in google analytics because for some reason it only allows 160 characters. What is this, 1995?

Anyway yesterday (June 4 2013) Google asked me to allow images as well as text ads on my highest paying slot, a 336×280 at the top of a certain website about buckets.  They came to me promising up to 30% increase in weekly earnings, which is the same as a 30% increase in monthly earnings actually, if you do the math.

The unit was making about 10$ a day. For comparison, rent costs about 13$ a day, so this is a fairly important ad.

This is the 3rd or so time they’ve come to me begging me to allow those image ads. I’ve always clicked no but I figured – why the heck not – and clicked yes this time.

Day 1 of Rich Media Adsense Ads

The next day was depressing. Ad revenue for the entire site actually dropped by half.

I looked to the internet for some advice – and wouldn’t you know it I found some.

Apparently image ads used to have not such a great reputation back a few years ago, but more recent experience seems to indicate that they DO improve earnings. They may actually attract less clicks but since a single image ad may be buying out 4 smaller text ads, the payout per click can be much greater.

But the people who know better than me advised, each site is different. Which is true. Some sites get better responses to images and some text. Google’s algorithm is only as good as the average.

There’s a simple solution – test both at the same time for an extended period of time to get some hard numbers.

A/B Split Testing

I’m using 2 easy to use, free tools that any adsense site should already have set up.

  • Adsense Ad Channels
  • The ad rotation feature in my wordpress Ad Injection plugin.

Instead of just serving one ad in this spot, it’ll be a randomized test between ad A and ad B.

  • Ad unit A: text ads
  • Ad unit B: text or image ads

These will run either-or for 4 to 6 weeks, and after the end of the period we’ll see which one pays off better.

Adsense Ad Channels

I have 2 ad units that are set to serve 50/50 to each visitor. My new one is text only (same as before) and my “upgraded” old unit is now text and image ads. Both ads are the same in all other ways, including placement and size.

I’ve set up 3 ad channels. One for each of these ad units, and a third that adds the 2 together.

ad channels

Hypothesis

Based on the reports from other people who have taken Google’s suggestion to allow media ads, I expect new relevant advertisers with image ads to trickle in over the next month. This test will allow me to get those hard numbers that I can confidently go forward with. I’ll be able to calculate a percentage and see how close I came to the alleged 30% claimed. Right now I’m at -50%, so we’ve got a ways to go.

However I expect that the rich media slot will earn more than the text slot by the end of the 30 day test. But there’s no way to know without doing the test right.

Results will be posted in a separate post. If I remember.

Concerns

I have a few concerns that could muddy the data.

This new ad unit has no experience, it’s like a level 1 warrior on final fantasy. The older ad unit has been running for 6-8 months. I don’t know if the new ad unit will perform at the same level quickly enough to be a good data point. I don’t know enough about how ad units work within the Adsense system to know how quickly my level 1 ad will reach level 6-8. It could be a day, it could be another 6 months. There’s no way to know unless I can gather data from a much longer period of time.

This is the kind of problem that would eat at Taran. It’s at this point I get lazy and just let things slide. I may not have the patience for science.

Notes to Self:

Throw out data from June 5 and before. June 6 2013 and forward is good data.

Blogging as a Business

Northern VoiceThis is the abstract for a speech I submitted to the Northern Voice blogging conference. It summarizes a 30 minute lecture into 500 words.

Update: My speech got approved and I delivered it during Northern Voice 2013, making it my first paid speaking gig. 

Every blogger defines success differently. Some want to spread their ideas, and others are building communities. A tiny minority of bloggers write primarily with income in mind – blogging as business.

I like to sell the idea of blogging as a business to people with my “one dollar per week” thought experiment. A well written article on a well selected topic can easily earn one dollar a week. Like a tireless little digital employee, it’ll earn that dollar a week for you year after year – for as long as the internet sticks around! If one article earns one dollar, 100 will earn 100 dollars. Once you’ve accumulated 1000 articles, you’re earning slightly more sitting on your couch than the average Canadian earns working 8 hour days.

Separating the hobbyist blogger from the business blogger stand the same things separating, for example, a professional chef from a home cook who prepares food for just their family. This article will discuss what I’ve learned to be the 3 three most important factors separating hobby bloggers from profit bloggers – market research, consistency, and monetization.

Market Research

The most important work you’ll ever do on your blog is done before you write your first post. Like in choosing a business niche in the offline world, we want to pick a market with plenty of demand, a product that we can sell or promote profitably, and without too much competition. Fortunately, we can research these three factors for our blogging business completely free in just moments.

Consistent Content

A blogger’s business is content creation, and the blogger with an income in mind must make their blog a priority by showing up regularly to create their product. How long would a bakery last, if someone didn’t show up each day at 3 AM to bake bread and greet customers? You might agree that our proverbial bakery store is doomed. Bloggers have it a bit easier, because the internet is “always open,” but the professional blogger must still show up at regular intervals to “take care of business.”

Making it Pay

Finally, a blog must have a way to turn clicks and pageviews into dollars and dimes. With herds of new people flocking online every day, bloggers have never had so many monetization opportunities. Advertising is still a big slice of total blog income, just as with traditional media like television and print. But unlike these “old media,” the advertising pie available to online publishers is GROWING at breakneck speed.

The blogging profession is still in its infancy. “Professional bloggers” are the butt of jokes and are often not taken seriously. As a result many bloggers may not take themselves seriously either. But blogging CAN be a serious business. You CAN make a living from it if you commit to it and adopt the right techniques. There’s never a better time to start building up your 1000 articles!