The Internet Fairy

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You might have heard that Californians are having a few problems with electricity.

For years and years, they said, “No power plants here,” but never stopped demanding more and more power. Since it had to come from
someplace, they bought power from other places. Eventually, the other places didn’t have a ton of power to spare either, so they
jacked up the price. After all, they were doing all the dirty work.

And the Californians said, “No, no, no. It’s your job in life to bear all the costs of pollution. We just want all of the benefits, and we’re not going to pay a lot for it.”

This is why power companies are going from financial health to bankruptcy in a few months and there are rolling blackouts. A good chunk of California doesn’t believe the law of supply and demand applies to them. They believe in the Power Fairy Godmother, who magically makes tons of cheap power.

Much the same is happening with computer hardware sites. Advertising rates have plummeted, probably for the excellent reason that no one usually pays any attention to them.

A few people have written me about a couple hardware sites tossing up the trial balloon of subscription payments, clearly thinking that this is a Bad Thing. The word “commercial” pops up here and there, and it’s considered a VERY Bad Thing.

In The End, You Pay The Bill

Internet sites are faced with a dilemna. They have to pay the bills, and none of the ways to do it are appealing to the audience.

There’s essentially three bills to an Internet site. People focus on the hosting/telecommunications costs. While not negligible, they aren’t huge.

The big bill comes from paying human beings for their work. If someone decides to essentially make running a website his full time job, under normal circumstances the vast majority of those doing so are going to need a full-time salary. Don’t you?

This dwarfs any hosting/communications bills the place might have.

The Third Bill

You can’t review products you don’t have. You can get them only two ways: you either buy them (which costs a lot of money), or you get freebies.

Unfortunately, the freebies usually aren’t free. Anybody who accepts freebies either has to deliver a glowing review at least most of the time, or has to be willing to be cut off from future supply any time they give an honest, but negative, review. We’ve been cut off a lot.

If you perused a hundred hardware websites, I think you’ll figure out what happens most of the time.

What You Want

You want independent, knowledgable reviews and other information that keep you informed and provide you with impartial buying guidance. At least that’s what you should want.

What You Don’t Want

What you don’t want (on the whole) is anything that would make this actually possible.

You don’t want to look at ads, much less patronize them (We’re just as guilty.)

You don’t want to hear about websites getting money one way or the other from manufacturers (even though some obviously do, and getting “free” review products is just the same).

You don’t want to hear about websites becoming associated with a manufacturer, even though the only reason for it might be that the product is good and worthy.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking any of the above. But if you take away all these potential means of support, the only other source of income is you, and on the whole, your attitude is “Don’t look at me.”

So long as the dominant attitude is “Don’t look at me,” one way or the other the places have to look elsewhere. Where else can they turn: The Internet Fairy Godmother?

Mind you, I’m talking about the “what” of paying. The “how” (and “how much”) is an entirely different story, and an extremely difficult one. But “how” is irrelevant if any “how” gets a “No.”

The Options

Advertising

You now need two, three or even more ads today to get the same revenues you would have gotten from one ad a year ago. Advertising rates have plummeted from about $5 CPM to $1 or less today. To some extent, it’s too many places chasing too few ads; for the rest, it’s lack of advertising effectiveness.

Any place dependent on a substantial amount of ad revenue can only:

  • Run more ads;
  • Run more annoying ads for which advertisers will pay more;
  • Gather and sell demographic information from the audience;
  • Get manufacturing sponsors and lose at least some degree of editorial independence.

All of these, one way or the other, place an additional burden on the audience. We’ve had people send us flaming emails telling us that they would never come to our site again because they saw a pop-up ad. We don’t even have any pop-up ads – that came from another site.

Computer Bake Sales

That’s pretty much what it boils down to. The problem with bake sales is that they don’t make a lot of money. It takes a lot of T-Shirts to pay one salary. And while you’re packing up T-Shirts, you’re not writing about things of interest to the audience – there’s only so many hours in the day.

Consulting

Just doing this job competently means you eventually gather some expertise about it. You can’t help but learn what is important and what isn’t in this field.

Let’s pretend for a moment. Let’s say Intel called up a website tomorrow and said, “Help! We’ve got to get the high-performance market back. Tell us what to do.”

And the website tells them, “Well, you have to put this, that, and another thing in the CPU, and make three changes to that mobo, and you should have a pretty good thing going.”

Let’s say they listen, and by golly, it is good, and Intel pays a hefty consulting fee for the work.

Would you consider that wrong? What would you think of the place reviewing that product and telling you the connection? Would your answer differ if other places also said, “Damn, this is good!”

If you think that’s bad, would you consider that more or less biased than a website getting freebies without saying they’re freebies?

It Doesn’t Count If You Don’t Admit It?

On that subject, I’ve noticed something quite disturbing:

If one website gets a freebie and admits it, and another website gets a freebie and doesn’t, who is more unbiased and honest?

It seems that a lot of people would say the second. Doing it doesn’t seem to matter – admitting it does. They’ll pile on the first website for “bias” but leave the second one alone, even though the second one is doing exactly the same thing.

Go to any website and read a review; jot down your impression of the review.

Now add the following disclaimer at the end of the review:

  • “The manufacturer of this product is a direct advertiser on this site;
  • The manufacturer of this product is paying above market advertising rates;
  • The manufacturer of this product is paying this website an affiliate sales commission.”

What do you think of this review now? You may not see all three at once – in fact, you probably have never seen any of these statements on any hardware site I know of, and probably never will. But these practices are NOT uncommon.

It really makes us wonder what’s more important: Being honest, or just looking it.

You Pay

There’s a magazine called Consumer Reports. It accepts no advertising; it accepts no freebies; it buys everything it tests.

That seems to be what most of you are looking for. That personally would be the ideal situation for us. But guess what? Since they don’t take freebies, you don’t get freebies. Even at the website, there’s some samples of what they do, but somebody has to foot the bill, and it’s the people who subscribe to them.

You Give

You can always beg for money, but this is not an inherently charitable activity. The milkman doesn’t beg you to pay the bill. He delivers something of value, and he reasonably expects somebody to pay him for it.

The Future

I think there’s going to be a tremendous winnowing out of websites in general over the next year. In the computer hardware area, you’re going to see a handful of commercial websites chock full of ads and sponsorships, with at least questionable links to manufacturers and advertisers.

You’ll see a load of essentially personal websites that might review something the person bought. There’s a lot of personal websites completely dependent on manufacturer freebies (with all the costs associated with that), but I think they’ll dry up as manufacturers focus their efforts on the big guns.

There will be very little in-between, and that’s what apparently most of you have decided you want.

You say, “I don’t want that?” When you say, “I want it free” in a time when advertising rates are low, that’s what you’re automatically voting for. By voting against any reasonable means of support, you are voting for that option.

The Point In Writing This

The people in California want lots and lots of cheap power, but didn’t want to pay for the price for it.

You have the same situation here.

Over the past couple months, we’ve been mulling over these options. Every website that’s being run on a fulltime basis is doing the same kind of mulling.

You don’t particularly like any of them? Neither do we. In our particular case, we don’t have the high overhead a lot of other places have, but we are significantly restrained in what we can do because of it.

For most other places, it won’t be a matter of being constrained; it will be a matter of continuing to exist or not. They’ll either have to follow one or more of those paths, or cease to exist.

We’re not preparing you for, nor planning, any paying mechanism. We’re not asking for money.

What we are doing is telling you the reality facing all the places you’re visiting now, and the options they will have to choose from.

We’re suggesting to those of you who will not pay, no matter what under any circumstances, what you’re going to end up with for your money.

Unless, of course, the Internet Fairy Godmother comes along and makes everything wonderful. If you see her, could you send her our way?

Email Ed

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