Monetizing A Programming Blog

Don Demsak brings up the question of making money off blogging. This is appealing to me, not so much because I like blogging but because I make, in most years, the majority of my money by writing. So, although you wouldn’t know it from the quality of the writing on this blog, I can actually write a sentence that doesn’t begin with the word ‘So,’ and a paragraph that conveys a complete thought without just petering out in ellipses, and so forth and so on…

I blog for several reasons, but already for a primarily professional one — blogging games the search engines which, in turn, are now the de facto first step in finding “experts” to hire. If you blog about one topic (programming) regularly and you blog about another, esoteric, topic (e.g., the Sabre Global Distribution System) irregularly, you will still get an unusually high response for a search for “programming and Sabre.” That’s money in the bank, my friends. Honestly, being the #1 Google return for “programming Sabre” has directly earned me more money than I have made in 15 years of writing for magazines and speaking at conferences.

Even for no other reason, this is enough to make blogging essential to being an independent technologist / programmer.

We’re forbidden from speaking of our AdSense revenues, but we can speak in general terms:

  1. A couple lattes per month
  2. A couple lattes per day
  3. A monthly car payment (for those who don’t drive paid-off ’92 Honda Civics. For those who do, let’s say ‘a health insurance premium.’)
  4. Your mortgage
  5. A new car

I’ve been blogging for 3 1/2 years now and, while having flirted with category 2 for a few specific weeks, have otherwise always been in category 1. I haven’t fretted about moving ads around on the page, so much, as I tend to think that might make a difference, but not a categorical difference (am I wrong?). Instead, I’ve tried various strategies that I thought might make categorical differences: a rigorous publishing schedule (twice daily posting for a month), longer posts, short link-oriented posts, permanent articles, etc. Short link-oriented posts do seem to have a positive effect and might suffice to move from one category to another.

What I wonder, though, is:

Can a blog centered on programming or the programming industry be a category 3 (Car Payment) or higher revenue source?

Reviewing Software Development Tools? Nope.

For instance, let’s say I wanted to monetize a professional-level comparison of Visual Studio, Eclipse, and IDEA. What are my options?

  • Blog about the topic
  • Directly sell a, say, 1500-word review as a PDF, or an Amazon “short”
  • Sell a 1500-word review to a magazine
  • Public whitepaper it — sell a 5,000 word analysis to one of the major “analyst” companies, who in turn, sell it to vendors and F500 companies
  • Private whitepaper it — sell the analysis directly to vendors and Fortune 500 companies

Of those, a magazine review is a solid category 3, subcontracting a whitepaper is a solid 4, and a private whitepaper could be a 5 (but requires an infrastructure that includes a sales force, not blogging about driving a Honda Civic, no t-shirts, etc.). (Also note that the effort increases and not just by word count. A whitepaper analysis is both broader and deeper than a published review.)

If I were to blog such a comparison, I have no reason to believe it would make me change from a Category 1 to Category 2 because, for blog advertising, traffic == money and traffic must be built over time. I find it likely a monthly comparison of products could create at least a Category 2 blog, but on the other hand, it’s still competing with the Category 3 “write reviews and sell them to magazines.”

The problem with reviews is that they don’t have a “long tail,” and the long tail is the only alternative to high traffic for making money off advertising.

Are books an exception?

As we sit here, I’m surrounded by stacks of books that are contending to be shortlisted for this year’s “Jolt Awards.” There are a lot of good books that won’t make the shortlist. As an Amazon affiliate, I could write reviews and get a cut of positively-reviewed books that are purchased due to a click-through from this site. This is a more direct pay-off than advertising and, when I’ve done such things in the past, I’ve had at least one month of Category 2 (couple lattes a day). Programming books have a long(-er) tail and I am in the fortunate position of receiving review copies of far, far more books than I can possibly mention in my column. On the other hand, taking an affiliate cut directly from a review is against the quaint ethics that were taught me when I first doing this stuff professionally. By today’s publishing standards, though, it’s a laughably minor infraction (… fighting temptation to vent on sordid industry … must … fight …. )

However, even very worthy books like Michael Scott’s Programming Language Pragmatics (yes, it’s an affiliate link) are highly unlikely to sell 10,000 copies total. Wouldn’t I be smarter to say that Harlan Coben (Tell No One) writes very tight plots, has the very rare gift of infusing genre thrillers with just a touch of detached humor, but suffers slightly from the “one more twist” disease? Or to say that Call of Duty 2 is clearly superior to Perfect Dark Zero?

Assuming that affiliate-link reviews are a route towards monetization, wouldn’t it be smarter to review popular books, movies, video games, etc., rather than programming books? Of course, this assumes that one can build authority as a reviewer in a mass-market media, but the upside of doing so is vastly greater than the upside of having authority in the programming niche.

Other routes to traffic…

You despise dotnet247, don’t you? You Google for an API and, without checking the link, you click through to that d***ed newsgroup scraper (hey, what about a Greasemonkey script that nukes those returns?). However, the idea of a Website with user-donated content that covers a programming topic in depth … could that achieve Category 2 or even Category 3, do you think? A Wiki on programming the Tablet PC, or Language Integrated Query, or Indigo or something like that?

Unfortunately, while I think you could grow traffic, you’re still challenged by the relative unattractiveness of the programming market for advertisers (I think). Wouldn’t you do better creating a Wiki on digital cameras, or XBox 360 games, or DVDs, or whatever online-purchased mass-market product you happen to have an interest in? Wouldn’t I be better advised, for instance, to create a “GPS User’s Guide to Visiting Hawai’i” Wiki than producing one on Language Integrated Query?

Or you can sell bits…

“Write an Amazon short,” has been sitting in “Deferred projects” list since I heard about the service. Has anyone done this? I think I’ll shoot them an email right now…

(done)

…Or, it’s trivial to write a PayPal callback to your own PDF…

…Or, you can pursue the MicroISV path…

Well, one way or the other, it’s time for me to sign off, walk the dog, and then go for a swim.

Drive safe and hau’oli makahiki hou!