I always enjoy doing research on giant Adsense publishers and how they got started. Since it’s the main way I make money from my websites, I’m always curious about how they grew to their size and what lessons I can take and apply to my own sites.
Recently, I’ve been reading about a man named Jack Herrick. Since the day he ran his first website, he’s become one of the biggest Adsense publishers in the world.
The best part? He’s achieved such great milestones just one website at a time, with search as his main traffic strategy.
While it seems every content-based business model these days is centered around viral content and Facebook traffic, Jack is laser-focused on one thing, and one thing only: creating amazing content that will stand the test of time with Google.
And it’s been working… VERY WELL.
This struck a chord with me, since it’s the model I aim to achieve with my own blogs. While I’m nowhere near the level of traffic and income as Jack, it’s such an inspiration to see that such numbers are possible.
I’ve learned so much just researching his approach and mindset while building these two companies, and I hope you can get something valuable out of it yourself.
So here goes…
The story of eHow.com
Although Jack is usually the first name that comes to mind when you think of eHow, he’s not the one who founded it.
eHow was originally founded in the early years of the first web bubble, in 1998.
It wasn’t a typical “niche site” project started by a few guys. It was a full-fledged, VC backed startup with 200 employees. They launched with $36M in funding, including an investment from the top VC firm at the time, Hummer Winblad.
Why did it get so much attention before it was even launched?
The internet was young back then. What seems like a crowded market today was an empty market not too long ago.
We have a countless number of “how-to” websites today, but back then… the idea of a giant how-to guide on the internet seemed like a brilliant (and very lucrative) idea.
In 1999-2000, it was one of the most popular sites on the internet. The original founder and the CEO were even featured on Oprah.
On top of that… because they were receiving so much traffic and attention, the site received POWERFUL links from just about every large website on the web at the time.
But they made a huge mistake…
They blocked Google from crawling their website… purposely……
Because back then… SEO wasn’t this important thing that everybody paid attention to, or even knew about.
To the original founders, their thinking was, “Hey, why are we letting this thing called Google crawl around our site. A large percentage of people are going to start using Google instead of coming to our site directly.”
Instead of allowing people to go to Google, and risk the possibility of them clicking a different result other than theirs, they just blocked Google altogether.
They got what they wanted. They had one of the strongest link profiles of any website at the time, but they didn’t rank for anything.
They were doing well with the strategy…… but…..
Soon, the dot com bubble hit…
eHow was hit bad. Their operating costs were just too high, and in 2003 they filed for bankruptcy.
The bad decisions continued…
As the dot com bubble hit, advertising CPM’s were dying with it. Ads that used to have a $12 CPM dropped as low as $0.12 CPM.
As a result, they reverted to a pay-per-view kind of style on their site.
People had to pay to finish the rest of the article. When that stopped working, they required them to sign up and slammed offers down the customers’ throats throughout the registration process.
So if someone just wanted to learn how to cook an egg or something, that’s what they’d see.
That’s a good way to drive people away and make them never come back.
And in 2004, they only had 40,000 unique monthly visitors to the site.
Then came Jack Herrick…
Jack Herrick had been following eHow for a few years now. He used their site, and loved the idea of having a giant how-to guide on the internet where you can learn to do just about anything.
He called them up, and offered to buy the website, and the owners were more than happy to let go of it.
And guess how much he bought it for?
That’s an unbelievable deal if we look at how much eHow has grown today, but it wasn’t such an easy decision for Jack at the time.
He would be using the money he and his wife saved as down payment for a house. And content was seen as a dying business model.
Even his venture capitalist friends advised him NOT to buy the website.
It was a big risk.
But Jack had a greater vision for the site, and he went through with the purchase.
How Jack grew eHow’s traffic to 5.5M unique visitors per month
After taking over the site, he made some really big changes immediately by doing 3 things:
1. He removed all the blocks on Google’s crawlers.
2. He took down all the registration processes that blocked people from viewing their content.
3. He moved to a simpler monetization strategy: Adsense.
Within a few years, traffic grew to 5.5M unique visitors per month, and the site was profitable again.
Adsense was first made public in 2003, so they were blessed with perfect timing.
Remember this is in 2003. There weren’t hundreds of ad networks like we have today.
To find a way to monetize hundreds of thousands of pages with a HUGE variety of subjects would have been an impossible task.
With Adsense, they simply inserted a piece of code, and it would show relevant ads on EVERY page.
Frustrations while running eHow
As traffic grew, Jack realized that he wouldn’t be able to continue on with this model. It was turning into a content farm.
His goal was to create the world’s best how-to guide. But he was being moved further away from his goal with every article that was being published on the site.
They were paying $15 per article at eHow. And for $15, you get a $15-quality article.
Soon, the site was full of fluffy content, and Jack fell out of love with the business.
Also, search traffic drove their entire business, but at the rate it was going, things didn’t look good for the long-term.
But it was working at the time. So why fix something that isn’t broken?
Instead of changing the entire structure of how eHow operated, he decided to start a new site on the side.
And WikiHow was born in 2004
WikiHow played into Jack’s vision for a how-to site with ONLY the highest quality of content.
Jack wasn’t in this for the money. He was passionate about his dream to create the world’s best how-to guide for anything and everything on the internet.
WikiHow was the site that Jack fell in love with, and could grow it the way he wanted to from the ground up.
After deciding that this was the one thing he wanted to focus on….
Jack sold eHow to Demand Media in 2006.
Demand Media is one of the largest Adsense publishers in the world, and is now a publicly traded company.
Their own business strategy is quite creative and controversial, but that’s a story for another day.
They’re essentially a content farm. But what’s interesting is that that was their strategy since the company was first founded in 2006. They use an algorithmic approach to figuring out what’s a hot Google search and then write content for it (for cheap).
They’re taking advantage of their domain authority, but scaling it to extreme lengths.
But back to the story…
At the time, WikiHow was still struggling to get off the ground. eHow was a thriving business making a lot of money.
So why did he sell it? So that he could focus on WikiHow full-time. He could use the money to fund WikiHow. It would give him the financial security to not have to worry about money, while he worked on his new project… without having to take on VC investors.
Jack saw WikiHow as the future of the how-to business.
Although Demand Media was aware of WikiHow when they purchased eHow, they didn’t see it as a threat. It was a different model than what eHow was, and barely looked to be getting any traction.
What’s the difference between eHow and WikiHow?
The main difference is source of content:
– eHow’s content is purchased content. They pay writers and freelancers a small fee for writing their articles for them.
– WikiHow’s content is free. It’s a wiki (like Wikipedia). It’s open source. Anybody can add and edit articles on the site. People contribute articles to the site through their own passion and love for an open source web.
The second difference is quality of content
WikiHow determines to be the highest in quality for all their articles.
That being said, they’re a wiki! That means any person off the block can join and submit an article on their site. So a lot of them end up as crap.
But WikiHow has editors.
Unlike eHow, their articles get better over time. If anything looks wrong or outdated, it gets fixed. That’s a feature that eHow would find very difficult (and expensive) to emulate.
Lastly, company size
WikiHow is a very small, lean, and frugal company, and employs only around 24 people, whereas some websites with a similar Alexa ranking may have several hundred.
And they didn’t have to take any venture money since it was founded. That enables Jack to run the business much more freely and with a more open-mind, which is crucial for the open-source web.
Should you start your own wiki?
Here’s the question you might be wondering: “Why the hell would people want to write articles for my site for free!?”
I had the same question myself.
Basically, it’s for a purpose of contributing to something that’s greater than them. They want to help others, and create value in the world.
This question was asked on Quora and Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales left three words:
If you talk to people who contribute to sites like Wikipedia and WikiHow, and other wiki based sites, they have a passion and strong interest in it. It’s their hobby, and it’s fun for them.
So if you want to start your own Wiki, the biggest challenge is attracting the right people to come contribute to your site, if you were ever to start one.
The perfect business model
WikiHow’s business model might sound like a dream come true for most publishers. You basically have the entire world creating top-notch content for them, and all they have to do is slap Adsense on those pages.
They don’t need to hire writers, manage hundreds of staff, and can work out of the comfort of their own home.
Yes, WikiHow runs their business out of their home.
Here’s a video by Adsense featuring the WikiHow team:
They have one of the most desired business models in the world.
But it took a lot of hard work (and luck) to get there.
Jack states that the toughest part about running a public wiki site is getting it started. A lot of luck is involved.
How do you lure strangers onto an empty site that they’ve never heard of to start contributing and editing articles for you…..for free!?
It sounds like an impossible task.
Here’s what Jack Herrick describes his first few years were like running WikiHow: Depressing.
There just wasn’t enough people on the editorial and contribution side of things to get things rolling.
People would submit poorly written content, hooligans would vandalize the homepage (and even put up pictures of their junk), and there wouldn’t be enough editors to catch everything right away.
Imagine waking up, grabbing a coffee, and opening up your website and seeing a picture of a **** on the homepage.
Seriously………… it would demotivate anybody to just give up and curse the whole wiki model.
But Jack kept at it. For a few years.
IT WAS A FEW YEARS BEFORE IT WAS PROFITABLE. Not many people can go years working on something like this. It wasn’t making money, and it was frustrating to try and manage everything that people were submitting.
But he stuck with it, and made it work.
As more editors joined, they in turn invited more of their friends and colleagues. And it was like a snowball effect.
It took a long time, but WikiHow finally took shape.
What’s the big payoff?
Obviously, once you’re able to create this system, the machine works on its own. You have editors, contributors, and the entire world just creating and editing articles for you.
But Jack’s biggest payoff was seeing how much value was being provided by WikiHow.
It was having a community, and creating the type of content that CAN’T be bought.
You could never have paid a freelance writer to write something like that!
Lojjik Braughler, a WikiHow admin and editor, says: “Exact financial details are not disclosable. However, wikiHow is certainly a profitable company. It has used the same model from early on and it works pretty well.
What distinguishes it from many other companies is that although it turns a profit, profit is not its primary motive. It is an influence, yes, but the primary goal is building a high-quality how-to manual in multiple languages.”
And it certainly shows in their content’s quality.
The thing that impressed me most:
WikiHow would never have grown to where it is today without Jack Herrick. Without someone with Jack’s mindset…. the company would NOT be at the size it is today.
The most impressive thing I’ve learned about WikiHow was how they handled Google’s Panda updates. At the time, Google specifically went after these content farm type of websites with low quality content, and producing articles at scale.
Sites like eHow and WikiHow were hit pretty hard.
But while all their competitors were giving up, laying people off, and hitting the brakes on content production, WikiHow did the opposite.
They doubled down. They hired more people, and decided to FIX their low-quality content.
When their competitors were leaving the industry, they saw it as the perfect opportunity to double down and capture more of the market.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t hit. They were. But they’ve taken the necessary steps to realize what would work in the long term.
In addition to doubling down on more high quality content, they also hid their low-quality content pages from Google.
Once they revamped them, they would re-introduce them on the main website again.
It’s this long-term strategy that allowed WikiHow to bounce back as the how-to leader in the internet while others are still trying to recover.
Today, WikiHow ranks for just about everything. Whatever search you do, you’ll likely see a WikiHow page on the first page of Google.
Jack’s long-term efforts paid off. You can notice a huge difference in the decrease of other how-to sites that are showing up, and the increase in WikiHow pages that are showing up.
According to SimilarWeb, WikiHow is getting 130 million visitors per month.
90% from organic search!
Compare that to a site like BuzzFeed, who gets the same amount of traffic, but are working around the clock to make stories go viral, and maintaining their 500+ employees.
eHow gets 29 million visitors per month.
Proof that long-term efforts always pays off, and are far more worth it than growing quickly through whatever means necessary.
With so many pages on their site, maintaining quality is always a work in progress, but WikiHow is on the right track.
Some other stats on WikiHow
This is straight from the WikiHow website and doesn’t seem to say when it was last updated.
There are a lot of things to be taken away from the story of WikiHow. Here are some of the most important ones.
1. Building a site with a LONG-TERM strategy will always be profitable, no matter the conditions of Google.
So many people are too caught up with the possibility of their money sites getting “hit” or penalized. If you’re not doing anything “shady” then you shouldn’t have to be worrying all the time.
If you build your site from the ground up with strong, high-quality content, and acquire authoritative links from real website, then there’s nothing to “hit.”
Only then, a niche site can turn into a business that’s sustainable, and around for the long-haul.
Jack knew that eHow wasn’t doing things the way it should for a long-term strategy. That drove him to create WikiHow.
Even when things are working NOW… think to yourself if this is a long-term strategy or just a short-term play.
2. Be different from your competitors in QUALITY
Don’t just build more links than your competitors. Create content that blows them out of the water. If Google were to put everything on the first page side by side and analyze them, where does yours stand? If it doesn’t deserve to be number 1, then don’t be surprised if it isn’t.
Having much better content won’t just automatically rank you higher than your competitors instantly. That’s an often misunderstood conception about quality.
Having high quality content affects your rankings and traffic in the long-term. It’s only a part of the equation.
It becomes easier to get links, shares, and you can pull in more long-tail traffic. Who cares if the #1 ranking page is #1. If you’re able to create a monster of a page that pulls in 2x the traffic through long-tail searches, then you’ve already won and it’s only a matter of time before you outrank it.
3. Give it time, and have a vision for the site
It took years before Jack was profitable, and WikiHow finally started to take shape.
Most people in internet marketing give up after a month or two if they don’t see instant profits from their site.
Don’t just wonder why rankings for your main keywords haven’t moved in over a week. Instead, think of the long-term vision.
Where do you see the site being after a year? What’s your yearly goal for the site? At what point will the site be deemed as a success? What do you need to do in order to get there?
If you don’t even care about thinking ahead that far, then it’s not a good sign, especially in today’s SEO landscape.
4. Stick with your vision
When Panda hit, everyone was giving up. But Jack doubled down and invested in improving content quality.
Sounds like the obvious move when we read about it today, but back then… when traffic drops XX% overnight… it’s not an easy decision to make.
But his vision wasn’t to suck profits out of a content-farm business.
His vision was to create the best how-to guide on the internet. And that’s what allowed him to have this different mindset when Panda hit.
He wasn’t like, “Oh, okay that didn’t work. Let’s dump it and move on to something else.”
He figured out a way to fix it because he believed in his site’s mission.
5. Plan BIG
Make any niche site you start these days “worth the effort.”
Don’t go after tiny niches. Aim bigger. Doesn’t have to be as big as WikiHow, but target big keywords.
Think about the potential of your keywords, your niche, and your website. What’s the return on making that site a success?
If you’re interested in basketball, don’t just find a keyword like “how to jump higher” and base your entire site around it. Go bigger. Build a site around basketball training and dominate all the biggest keywords.
Make sure that whatever hard work you put into your site, the reward is worth it.
Should you start your own how-to site?
It’s pretty much impossible to compete with WikiHow and eHow now.
They have a few unsurmountable advantages:
1. They were early to the internet.
2. They have an absolutely insane link profile and domain authority.
3. They have a large team. They can crank out 1000 articles tomorrow if they needed to.
4. They cover anything and everything.
Don’t go out there and try to build the next WikiHow or eHow. I still talk to a lot of people who dream of it, but it’s definitely not a good idea unless you have some solid planning, and funding, in place.
While it’s an ambitious goal, content quality is IMPOSSIBLE to maintain when your objective is to grow at such a massive scale.
The only reason WikiHow was able to do it is because they’re a wiki. They’re an open source site that the world can edit.
And even so, they’re still having problems with it.
Instead… go specialized
Don’t just build a generalized how-to site about anything and everything. Make it about something more specific.
For example, a how-to site for dads, or for men only, women only, or for college students. What about a how-to site for surviving in the outdoors, or a how-to for minimalist living.
If you think in this way, there are a lot of different directions you can go, you still have a lot of room to grow, and it will be manageable to build on your own or with just a small team.