It’s such a common refrain, that it’s become a running joke in startup circles. “How are you going to make money?” “We’re going to sell ads.” But happy flukes like Flappy Bird aside, the golden age of Web properties continuing to make viable revenues off ad networks is rapidly coming to an end. And no story describes this trajectory more clearly than Oregon-based Matt Haughey‘s recent write up on his project, MetaFilter.
For those of you who don’t know MetaFilter, it’s one of the original online communities. Far before social networks and blogging came into vogue, there was MetaFilter. Way back in 1999. And it’s continued to plug along over the past 15 years. Thanks to a passionate community, subscriptions, and a good chunk of ad revenue.
But now, that revenue outlook is changing. Drastically. And Matt has provided an incredibly transparent view into what MetaFilter has experienced historically—and what they’re seeing, today.
Now before you get all like that. Know that I don’t throw that “transparent” phrase around lightly. This isn’t some faux reveal. It isn’t some mandated requirement about sharing numbers. This is a granular and gritty look at what’s happening to one of the most well known sites on the Web.
There’s a study going around called Peak Ads, which describes a hypothesis that perhaps advertising already reached its peak and people are harder to reach these days as they are prone to ignoring ads. MetaFilter definitely saw a peak in revenue in late 2011/early 2012 and has seen a swift decline since. Today in May of 2014, we’re seeing revenue at levels we haven’t seen since 2007. There is a staff of eight people at MetaFilter these days, and back in 2007 it was just three. The situation is bad enough that we’re now having to staff down just to stay solvent. This is the story of how that came to be.
And for any startup that’s hoping to have ad revenue as part of its business model? This should be required reading.
Founded in 1999, MetaFilter, or MeFi, quickly earned a reputation as one of the most intelligent and civil discussion sites on the Web. A core group of sharp, technically savvy users discussed culture high and low, while a small group of moderators walked a careful line between policing abuse and allowing free expression. Early users included some of the key movers in blog culture, including Anil Dash, Jason Kottke, and Meg Hourihan. It served as the model for the best-moderated forums on Reddit, where actual content outweighs noise, trolling, and link spam. Its subsite Ask MetaFilter was one of the best places to ask questions on all subjects and get intelligent answers, from “What clever relationship ‘hacks’ have you come up with?” to “What have you learned through your career, major, or specialization that you wish the general public knew?” to “If you killed somebody, how would you dispose of the body without getting caught?” If, like many Slate readers, you’re considering a septum piercing, MetaFilter’s page on pros and cons is far more informative (and better-spelled) than Yahoo Answers’ or Body Jewellery [sic] Shop’s (both of which Google ranks above MetaFilter if you search on “septum piercing pros and cons”).
In short, MetaFilter is the sort of site that makes the Web better. But in October of 2012, something terrible happened, as recounted by Haughey.