I was doing one of my periodic check-ins last week, looking at traffic and ad revenue and all of that for the sites. There was a time that I did it almost daily, but obviously my priorities have changed a great deal over the years. I should probably look harder, because the story isn't great.
At the end of last year, the story was that traffic was up, but revenue was flat. That's not a great story to tell because it means more people doesn't equal more money. That's important to me this year because I've replaced equipment and I'm spending a little more on hosting as I've moved to a cloud provider (though this month should be less after optimizing some things). Sure, I do this stuff because I enjoy it, but as a technologist and someone who enjoys extra income, I certainly don't want to move in reverse.
I looked at the data more critically, and I'm finding that the reason for the slide isn't because of ad rates. Actually, for the ads being displayed, they're paying more than they did last year. The problem is that not as many people are seeing them. That's because many are viewing on mobile devices which don't display the ads, and others (on CoasterBuzz at least) are viewing the mobile interface, which has crappy mobile ads that don't pay much. If all things remained constant, and everyone was going to the site on a browser on their computer, ad revenue would likely be 80% higher. That's frustrating.
There are several things outside of my control. I can't stop people from using mobile devices, and I wouldn't want to. I can't control what the ad providers do either. This doesn't leave me with a lot of choices, so honestly I haven't thought much about what I can do. The irony is that I had a lot of pride around just how fast I was able to make the mobile version of the site. If your connection is solid, you can barely tell you're connecting to anything.
This is the point where I start to rant. I don't enjoy the app culture. I mean, do you remember the old days on your desktop computer (when you didn't have a laptop), when you had to buy software, install it, and when you finally had the Internet, you could install updates to the software that was broken. But when the Internet did come a long, so much of what you could do didn't require downloading anything at all. You just opened your browser and you did stuff. In fact, this is largely true today. Most of the "apps" you use are just Web sites. You never have to update them, you can share links to various points inside of them, and it's awesome.
But the phones (and tablets) are the old desktop model. You don't need CD-ROM's, but you do need to install stuff. Then when they realize it's broken the next day, there's an update and you have to get that before you can use it. And if you want to use it but don't have it, you have to go to an app store and download it first. You can't just type in a URL and go. You certainly can't share that "page" in the IMDB app with your friends either. This experience completely sucks, but it's mostly embraced by everyone. It's totally bizarre to me.
From a development standpoint, it's a mixed bag. I mean, professionally, if you can crank out mobile apps, it's an enormous career opportunity. But if you're largely independent or small, as is the case for me and these little sites, forget it. I don't have the time or money to build this stuff, to support two (or three) different platforms, plus the site. Even if you go hybrid with HTML-based apps, the last 10% of the effort ends up being specific to each platform, and takes the longest.
Businesses go there anyway, because it's where the people are, unfortunately. But I can tell you from experience that getting something on to a mobile platform is so much more expensive than the straight Web.
In a lot of ways, this is just further proof of what I've seen happening the last few years, that ad-supported content and community is not a very good game to be in. I just don't have any clear ideas about how to address the problem. Of course, if The New York Times doesn't know what to do, I think I get a pass.