In this article, we're going to give you a mix of news and commentary. First up will be some news and insights into how TBG continues to change and grow, and then some thoughts on where the Internet as a whole is going, which may be down a very dark hole, pun very much intended!
First, what's changing at TBG? Well, our really long-term followers will need no reminder that TBG hasn't always looked like it does now. Founded in 2013 with a "homemade" website that truly needed some help, we've grown over the years as readership has grown. In 2015, we hired a fantastic web development team to completely reenvision and rebrand the site to what it is today. But to keep up with the times, you can never sit still.
So today, we've rolled out a host of enhancements that will hopefully improve your experience going forward. The biggest change is the addition of an SSL certificate to encrypt all traffic on the site. This protects the integrity of our site from hackers, but more importantly protects all data submitted by readers on our forum. Simply put, if data isn't encrypted, it isn't secure. When you see an https web address and the green padlock on any website, including ours, you know you're in the clear. Note that this is not free to us - in fact, we paid a significant one-time installation cost, and we'll be paying $100 a year going forward, to secure the data on this site. We could have gone with a free certificate as many sites do, but these are always going to be lower quality and less secure, so we opted for the higher-quality solution.
The second major change we've implemented is an embedded YouTube extension for our content management system, which will allow you to view our YouTube reviews and how-to videos without ever leaving the site. The first such embedded video is our review of the SilverStone PM01-RGB Case. Over the years, we've been asked countless times by our readers to add video content, and now that transition is complete. We have the physical camera setup, the video creation software (thank you Cyberlink!), and the virtual web setup to provide that content to you. Other changes to the site are more minor, but the one we're most excited about is the ability to parse our buyer's guides into sub-sections, as you can see in our updated Peripherals Buyer's Guide. As part of our commitment to generating content, not pageviews, we long ago decided that all our buyer's guides would be displayed on a single page, rather than the five or six pages most sites use to publish such content. That meant more reading and less jumping around for you, but it also meant some of our longer guides were getting a bit unwieldy. Well, this has now been addressed.
That's it for the news, now we'll give you a short dose of commentary. The first thing we'd urge you to remember is that whenever you're reading or viewing content on the 'net, someone had to sit down and create it for you. Yes, there is some AI-generated content out there, but if you're reading sites like TBG, you probably aren't spending a lot of time on sham sites that provide that type of junk content. For all legitimate sites, supporting real people doing real work has been an evolving challenge. Since the inception of the World Wide Web, most sites have relied on advertising income generated by banner ads. Way back in the late 1990s, you as the reader could even make money by viewing content, and some enterprising folks figured out that they could use simple code to create fake clicks, enriching themselves and depriving advertisers of actual viewership. Oh, how times have changed. Based on our internal metrics, we know that advertising rates (measured by RPM) have stalled. We also happen to know that about 25% of our readers use ad blockers. This actually isn't as high as it might be if so many thoughtful readers didn't whitelist us, but it's an example of the kind of challenges facing websites in an era when content consumers want nothing but the content.
The fact that advertisers are backing out of the 'net while users are running more ad blocking software is not a coincidence. In fact, having run this site for over four years and observed trends in website development, advertising and affiliate policies, and ad-blocking patterns, we're pretty sure that a reckoning is coming in the next 2-3 years. Simply put, major websites will no longer be sustainable based on advertising alone. Within that relatively short timeframe, we believe all websites that generate regular, high-quality content will turn to one of four income models. The first is affiliate income. This is actually TBG's main source of income, and a growing source for sites like Anandtech and Tom's Hardware. The affiliate model only works for sites that are focused on consumer goods, and we predict all affiliate income will dry up as Amazon becomes not just the #1 retailer on the 'net, but essentially the only retailer on the 'net, at which point it will no longer need or want to advertise. Amazon has significantly cut its commissions twice in the past two years, and we're already seeing most of its competitors in the tech world drop their commissions to zero (this includes Microsoft and Best Buy, with Newegg being close to zero), which to us is a sign that they're waving the white flag.
Second, there's sponsored content, which you're going to see more and more of, an example being TechSpot. Many times, this is simply advertising in the format of an article, but it could also be content written by a journalist but directed by an advertiser. We recently entered into an arrangement with SilverStone Technology Co., Ltd. of Taiwan that we think is relatively unique: they sponsor our Do-It-Yourself PC Buyer's Guide, but don't actually write or direct our content in any way. Their sponsorship is in fact based on how many of their products our readers buy, rather than how much of their marketing content readers read.
Sites that cannot survive on affiliate or sponsorship income alone will turn to the last two methods of generating income: membership or donations. A few major examples of the membership model can be seen at The New York Times, which costs $200 annually, but also runs a huge number of ads, and Consumer Reports, which costs $35 annually and runs no ads. We suspect that most subscription-based sites are going to have to lay off the advertising to appeal to their readers, but the NY Times can get away with it because it's a big deal in the publishing world. We don't know of any tech sites that are technically subscription based, but if there are any, they likely give their readers a pass on ads (or their readers simply block them). Recently, the Boston Globe ticked off the tech community when it blocked readers who ran in incognito mode to avoid the article limit for non-subcribers. We're actually with the Globe on this one. If they've determined that the only way to continue providing quality content is to increase the number of subscribers, people reading in incognito mode are free riders who aren't worth wasting the server capacity on. Even if just one in a thousand decides to subscribe, that's better than none in a thousand.
The donation model is closely related to the subscription model. Donations can either be collected directly - again, Consumer Reports is an interesting example of this (it's technically a charity, and runs both a subscription campaign and a donation campaign), as is The Tech Report. But many content creators now use Patreon - even some major tech sites have turned to it, such as HardOCP. Patreon bills itself as a membership service, but in reality, when membership has an optional cost, it strikes us as a donation. And ultimately, whether a monetary transaction is a membership payment or a donation really comes down to semantics, unless it's tax deductible (as is a donation to Consumer Reports, but not to the vast majority of websites).
In the end, what we're seeing is the natural consequence of the Internet's much vaunted ability to serve as the great equalizer. When the age of web advertising ends, centuries' old organizations like the New York Times will be on essentially the same footing as the funny cat site run by that kid down the street - competing not just for your eyes, but for your dollars, which are by nature limited. And that will mean that in the not too distant future, there'll be a whole lot less new content published than there is today, and there may in fact be fewer websites all together. You heard it here first, folks... the World Wide Web is shrinking, and is taking professional journalism with it... and there's nothing anyone can do about it. More and more content will be user-generated, available only in walled gardens like Facebook and Snapchat, where the only ones making money are the portals, not the content creators. It's just another example of capitalism's constant cycle of creation and destruction. Until that day comes, TBG will continue to turn out what we believe is quality content that you'll enjoy reading. You can do your part by following a link or two when you're looking to buy your next bit of tech!