Specialised sites and the problem of eyeballs


One of the issues with the web’s prevailing business model is that it’s eyeball-led: sites make money largely by getting users to watch advertisements. Each advertisement view, or impression, makes a very small amount of money, so the only way to make a big profit is by getting millions upon millions of impressions a day. If your site is too niche, it’s not going to turn a profit – unless it’s part of a wider network of niche sites, which are in total as popular as a mainstream one.

This works up to a point, but there are some types of information that the model can’t serve. For example, my dad was looking for information on replacing a headlight on a particular model of car this weekend, and couldn’t find it. He asked me for advice, and I replied that it probably didn’t exist. Again, unless it’s part of a wider network, the only way to make money out of a page about how to replace a headlight on a particular brand of car would be to charge for that information – and because the more mainstream sites have made people expect to receive everything for free, nobody will put money down.

The result is that if you search for car maintenance, you largely see generalised ads for cars or chains of car mechanic shops, or at the very least information that will apply to a large audience. If you want something that will actually help you with a very specific car problem, you either have to ask a question on a forum, or go see a mechanic in person.

Two social networking sites that caught my eye this morning, via Mashable:

AtLarge is a social networking site for airport users. According to Mashable, “If you’re traveling and need to find wifi hotspots, the availability of a 3G/GPRS signal or a place to charge up you mobile devices, AtLarge is ideal. The site is user driven, of course, allowing you to rate airports based on their level of Internet access and add tips and reviews – you might point out where the powerpoints are at San Francisco International, for instance.”

Zoodango, on other hand, attempts to connect professionals through real-life events at venues like Starbucks. Although Mashable says they’ve launched too early, the idea is sound (if not particularly new).

What both of these services provide is niche social networking, as opposed to the all-encompassing pack-em-in approach led by sites like MySpace and Facebook. We’re going to see more and more of these sites taking off – the challenge will be how to make money from them. An airport or professional networking site is one thing, but will we ever see smaller, more targeted networks?

This is a problem we’re trying to solve with Elgg Spaces, where anyone can sign up and get their own targeted social networking site. Later today we’re going to take the limits off and make the service completely free. But again, even this is the aggregated collection-of-niches approach; we’ve already got close to a thousand social networking sites running on the platform. Some of them will make money in their own right for their owners (who will be able to remove our network advertising for $99 a year), while others won’t.

At least the platform and the facility exists, but I think it might be time that the web found a business model that better represents its original concept and vision. I sincerely doubt that Tim Berners Lee saw the web as a tight network of about thirty giant, all-encompassing sites; it should be a sprawling mass of tiny, niche, individual sources. It would be nice to see that truly develop.

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