The Survivor Bias in Web Publishing (and the January Revenue Report)

A while ago, one of my Facebook friends stated that courses and programs meant to teach you how to make money online are all scams.

Money can only be made by having a “proper job”, he claimed. No one really makes money from publishing content or promoting affiliate offers. It’s all a scam, intended to pull in innocent people looking for “easy money”.

I had a good chuckle when I replied and said that he’s wrong, and in fact, I was one of those people who actually made good money from websites. I didn’t go into detail on Facebook, but I’ll say this here:

Considering we made a profit of more than $15,000 a month for the past two months, I am pretty sure I make more money than he does with his “proper job”. It’s not “easy money”, for sure, but it is a legitimate business.

I know several other people who are making a good amount of money from websites. You probably know a few of them because they report their earnings and sell their own courses. Jon Dykstra now makes $70K in monthly revenue on a regular basis. Morten Storgaard regularly makes more than $25K a month from his main site. I mention Jon and Morten because their methods are the most similar to our own and so I’m happy to recommend their courses. They are also great guys all around. Here’s a link to Jon’s course, and a link to Morten’s course.

If you’re new to web publishing, I’m sure the numbers sound very exciting. And they are.

I just looked at our numbers, when preparing to write this post. Even with our less successful sites, we’ll be able to recuperate the investment and make a 50% profit after three years. And that’s without taking into account selling them. There’s only one site that isn’t making enough to cover the initial investment, and that’s our YMYL experiment site.

The other sites are either profitable or on their way to becoming profitable. Of course, assuming nothing goes wrong with them in the next 2-3 years. And by profitable, we’re talking anything between 50% and 400% profit within three years of publishing the content.

This brings up the question –

Why not put YOUR money into niche sites?

I’ve seen many variations on this question in forums and online webmaster groups. Someone has money available they wonder whether creating or buying websites would be a good investment. After all, so many people are making a lot of money, why can’t they be one of them? 50%-400% within three years sure sounds much better than the ROI in Real Estate or ETF’s.

As much as I like to encourage people to follow their dreams and get into this business if you’re considering this simply as a way to invest, my advice would be: Don’t.

Unless you know what you’re doing you can easily lose all of your money.

What if you were to buy a great online course, like one of those I just mentioned above? Wouldn’t that guarantee success? Buy the training, invest the cash and make a fortune, right?

After all, success stories are all over the internet. Dozens of bloggers share their revenue numbers and these numbers are very impressive.

Here’s the thing though. There is a strong survivor bias at play here. You are looking at data from very specific cases, chosen specifically because they were so successful.

What’s the survivor bias?

Also known as Survival Bias or Survivorship Bias, this phenomenon refers to getting to conclusions based on a narrow subset of cases that have made it through some sort of baptism by fire. From Wikipedia

Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.

Here’s a one-minute video about why you should not fall into the survivorship bias trap.

Marketers often rely on this bias. Take weight-loss diets, for example. Whatever the plan, app or method, you’re not likely to see a message saying something like “95% of those who followed our diet have lost more than 20% of their body fat and retained their goal weight for five years”.

Why? Because I’ve never heard of any diet that actually shows anything remotely near that level of success. According to actual studies, if diet marketers were to use real statistics, it would probably look something like –

50% of people who followed this diet managed to lost up to 15% of their body weight during the first year. Only 1% managed to keep that weight off five years later.

Would you buy that diet plan?

Probably not.

So, instead, they are going to rely heavily on the survivorship bias and show you only their most successful cases. In fact, this is what I’m seeing on the main page of WeightWatchers.com

A screenshot of Weight Watchers page showing success stories

These stories are probably all true. I have no reason to believe they’re not. And yet, they don’t necessarily reflect your actual chances if you’re about to get on the weight watchers plan. The page showcases five success stories, implying an average weight loss of over 60lbs. They also imply that every one of their members is successful. So will James there! He doesn’t show any weight loss just because he’s only just rolled into the program.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually think Weight Watchers is great. It’s one of the best weight management plans out there. They promote a real change in lifestyle using evidence-based behavioral tools. Kudos to them for not being just another fad diet. All I’m saying is that their main page creates the illusion that each and every one of their members are likely to lose dozens of pounds. And I suspect that’s not always the case. Surely some people fail to achieve that kind of weight loss. If I may hazard a guess, I’d say most don’t.

Ok, let’s get back to web publishing.

Does that mean you shouldn’t get into web publishing?

Obviously, I think web publishing is pretty awesome. I make a good chunk of money every month from publishing web content.

My point is this –

When considering a potential future investment in websites, don’t rely solely on online success stories. For every success story out there, there are hundreds of people who tried and failed. That shouldn’t put you off trying, but it should deter you from pouring money into this business before you know for sure that you can leverage those funds to make a profit.

What are your chances of making it?

What makes me think it’s hundreds of failed sites for each success story? Isn’t that a pessimistic take on things?

Over the years, I’ve seen so many people trying to get into this business. Like many other bloggers and web publishers, I often get people around me asking me to “teach them” how to do this. As if all I have to do is sit down with them for a couple of hours and then they’ll be on their way to establishing their own magical source of passive income.

Back in the day, I used to think they might be able to. With a chosen few, including my brother-in-law and a couple of friends, I actually gave it a chance. I sat down with them for a few hours each, telling them everything I knew. Or at least, as much of it as I could in a few hours. In one case, I tried to help so much that I bought a domain for them and installed WordPress on that, to give them that initial push.

That didn’t help. Not a single web page ever came to be from these efforts. Well, there was that generic “Hello World” WordPress post on that one site, but that doesn’t really count.

It’s not just my friends and family though.

The Niche Pursuit Project Stats

Spencer Haws is a successful web publisher with a fantastic blog at NichePursuits.com. If you’re reading this post, you probably already know him and his work, so let me cut to the story at hand.

In 2018 Haws launched a new site, to be used as a public case study once it became established. The Big Reveal came in June 2019 and not surprisingly, the site was successful, making over $1,200 a month, with a very impressive growth curve. Spencer Haws knows how to create successful sites, and that’s great. But did that level of success reflect what others could have achieved?

Here comes the interesting bit.

Back when he launched the project, Haws encouraged his followers to join the journey by creating a website around the same time. As he candidly revealed his methods and encouraged them along the way, you’d think the shared sense of camaraderie and the opportunity to pick the brains of an experienced guru would make this a great opportunity for people to succeed with their first site, right?

Well, here are the numbers.

Over 1,000 people signed up for the project. They actually took the time to make that first step. They were asked to provide monthly reports of their progress, to be published along with Haws’ monthly reports of the case study site. The numbers of incoming monthly reports dwindled month by month.

Can you guess how many people still reported as participants 10 months later? 800? 500? 200?

The number was actually 25.

And not all of them were making money or even had a fully operating website at that point. Haws shared a table with the numbers in the post, and it makes for a sobering read. One person got his site to more than $30K in revenue per month (albeit with a significant investment in both content and links), and two others made it to just over $4K. The other participants reported smaller revenue numbers, with most being under $100 a month.

In fact, if you average the numbers and take a total of 1,000 participants, you get to $1.86 in monthly revenue 10 months into the project. And that’s in revenue. When you take into consideration that quite a few people probably went through the first phase of buying a domain and buying some hosting, we can safely say that most people lost money.

Of course, it’s possible that most of them made tons of money and just never bothered to keep on reporting. I somehow doubt that. People love to brag and had they been making money, they would probably have kept on reporting.

Don’t let me discourage you

Honestly, that’s not the purpose of this post. I still think web publishing is totally awesome. In fact, if you keep reading, I’ll be sharing my own very positive stats in a few paragraphs.

If you have a passion for business and a passion for web publishing, I still think this is one of the best business models out there.

You actually can build a hugely successful business, bootstrapping a small initial investment into a cash-generating empire. 

All I’m saying is that you should walk into this with your eyes wide open, fully knowing the odds and the risks involved. Specifically, if you have a cash sum to invest, don’t go pouring it into a website unless you know what you’re doing. Only invest large sums after you’ve seen some success of your own, and know how to leverage that investment.

Don’t let the online success stories fool you. Yes, they are all real (to the best of my knowledge). No, it doesn’t mean this is an easy way to make money. Yes, you will have to go through a major learning curve and then work hard to make your web publishing business a success.

And you should really like and enjoy this game. It’s anything but a passive investment, and you’re unlikely to continue if you don’t enjoy web publishing.

Our January 2021 Mini Report

Now that I’ve done my best to explain why I think you should be careful, let’s get back to the fun part!

Time to get to the dopamine-inducing traffic and revenue report. Starting with a quick recap –

I’m Anne and together with my husband we own and manage a portfolio of 15 content websites. Our team includes three editors, six VA’s, and over 60 freelance writers. We publish around 400 new posts every month, investing a total of around $30,000 into our business.

During 2019 and 2020 I published detailed traffic and revenue reports, detailing our journey from making zilch (and losing quite a bit) to the current point where we make more than $15,000 a month in profit.

I no longer publish detailed reports, simply because I don’t have the time for that anymore. Instead, I try to publish one post on Yeys every month and tuck an overview of the previous month’s stats at the end of that post.

Traffic and Revenue for January 2021

We’ve had a great Q4 in 2020, with traffic reaching record highs of 897,260 pageviews for our niche/content sites in December.

Revenue in December was super high thanks to those famous Q4 RPMs. We made a total of $47,435 from our sites in December. And yes, I still can’t believe I’m actually typing that. That is a LOT of money.

We knew RPM rates drop in January by around 30%, so we were mentally prepared for lower figures. We figured we’d be lucky to get $35,000, which would still mean we’d be in profit.

What we didn’t anticipate was the boost in traffic. Our content sites reached a total of 1,347,343 pageviews in January!

January traffic chart

And so, despite the drop in RPM rates, our overall revenue remained high. Almost as high as December, at a total of $46,205.

January Revenue

Note: One of our sites is a much older forums site, so we’re not including him in the traffic chart, as it would obscure the traffic growth of the blogs. We do include that site in the overall revenue calculation. It receives just over one million pageviews a month, but RPMs for forums are lower, at around $5-$7. I’ll let you do the math.

Why such an increase in traffic? In Setpember we started increasing our monthly production volume. Most of the additional traffic is probably thanks to that – Number of posts by month

There as one  anomaly in January’s traffic. One of our sites that typically gets 15-18K visitors a day, had a post featured in Google Discover. On a single day, we had 120K visitors to that site. The effect lasted for a few more days, still pushing the numbers up, though not as dramatically.  This chart shows the effect of oogle Discover Fortunately, our server held up with no issues. That was definitely a nice bonus. Interestingly, the Google Discover audience didn’t do anything for our Amazon revenue, but it did bring in an additional $4,000 in display ads revenue on that day.

You could argue that being featured on Google Discover skewed our stats for January. Fair enough. For me, this is just part of what happens when you put enough posts out there.

So, there you have it. Things are going well so far in 2021. I hope they’re going well for you too! Leave me a comment and let me know.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jasper

    Very good takeaways here. Realizing that it could not work out is important, but you shouldn’t forget that it could work out beautifully as well! You explained it perfectly 🙂
    Congrats on your amazing January stats. So amazing to see that incredible spike!
    Have you ever dabbled in rewriting and/or improving content that has lost its rankings? This is something I’m working on right now and curious to hear your experiences!

    1. Anne

      Hi Jasper,
      I’m glad you liked the post! Yup, this is definitely a very lucrative business model and the potential is there.
      So far, our content improvement efforts weren’t too successful. They didn’t justify the amount of effort/time/cost put into them. We find that investing these resources into new content brings in more traffic. This is partly because we have a solid workflow in place for creating new content while improving existing content requires more thought and attention to detail. However, we keep trying different angles for that as well. One of our editors is now working on a project where she’s focusing on improving content that’s not evergreen in nature and dropped in the Serps over the last couple of years. We’re testing to see whether updating the content to 2021 will help regain our former rankings.

  2. Sharon

    Interesting read. While I completely agree with not everyone making it, I think there are usually reasons for that – primarily they don’t really go all in. I started getting serious about blogging and building an online business with a group of others who were all 100% in as well and we all reached our goals and became professional travel bloggers. We didn’t all follow the same strategies either. Since then, I have kept having the same experience – the people who really go in with it, don’t make excuses, learn, get things done, have all had at least the success you are talking about above with Spencer’s site.
    Does everyone who tries to be a professional travel blogger make it? Of course not. But IMO thats because the vast majority of them don’t actually try to be. They start a site, some social channels and then share and work on what they want without real strategy and without really putting everything into it. I’m betting thats what most people were like who signed up for spencer’s thing too.
    People quit easily. Starting my business is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s really hard to keep working hard on something with no guarantee. I can see why many don’t “survive”. But I don’t think it’s because it’s not possible.

    1. Anne

      I totally agree, Sharon. Perseverance is key to succeeding in this business. Probably with any business or any project where you don’t have an “External boss” to whip you into work. I think that’s why actually enjoying this is so important.

  3. Andrea

    Hi Anna,

    Always nice to have a read to your articles whenever you got the occasion to publish them.

    I totally agree with the bias. When I started (will be 2 years in July) I thought it would be way easier than it is. It is far from being passive and now (despite being a beginner still and having a very basic business model= ads + affiliate, mainly ads) I still barely manage to keep up with if it was not for the little reward (400-500$/month for my first website – despite it all goes on writers). This is a hard marathon and requires determination and systems in place especially when you start out (especially considering that many like myself have also a full-time job on top).

    Nonetheless, this makes your (and fingers crossed mine one day) life easier: it is so hard to start and keep going (at the very beginning) that requires a determination that only (we have the numbers now!) not even 25ppl out of 1000 (2.5% or less) have –> less competition!

    Well done for your skyrocketing revenue!

    Cheers
    A

    1. Anne

      Good point, Andrea! People think that because anyone can do this from their bedroom, there must be an infinite amount of competition. The fact that it’s harder than it seems actually means less competition for those who are willing to run the marathon (loved that metaphor!)

  4. Martínez

    I have a question, which is related to whether or not you should go into web publishing as a real business. I think, most of your revenues rely on two companies. Mostly Google, and sometimes, maybe a little bit of Amazon.
    Ezoic, Mediavine, AdThrive etc. all rely on Google Ad Exchange. If you get banned at Google Ad Exchange, Ezoic, Mediavine, AdThrive etc. cannot serve you, because there would be almost no inventory which is not going through Google Ad Exchange.
    And, Google can ban you at any time without prior notice and without you having done anything wrong. They can ban you for “invalid traffic” and they won’t tell you any details. Your appeal will be denied. And then, that’s it.
    “Invalid traffic” could be a potential competitor, who just keeps clicking on your ads. Could be a competitor, who send bot traffic to your site. You have no control on this.
    I am an active web publisher with good revenue (going from 1k USD to 2K USD per month, at the moment – still as side hustle) and I had no problems with Google so far, but I read a lot of real stories of people getting banned from Google and losing all their income.
    This is a major factor which is holding me back from scaling up the business. Better to take the 1k/2k USD and invest it in the stock market compared to investing it in good content, but being in danger to get this “investment” banned next month from Google, because a competitor tried to harm me.
    I have no fear to lose traffic, because I have the best content for my niches. But a real fear that my “business” could be shut down by a non-governmental person of private company by choice without a real reason.
    What do you think? What would happen to all your income, if all ad-providers would stop serving ads to all of these sites, because there was “invalid traffic” on one of your sites?
    (One thing, I really thought about is to create a separate legal entity for each website, because in this case, if one website is shutdown, it does not affect all the others)

    1. Anne

      Hi Martinez,
      Sorry about the late reply! Got caught up with a bunch of urgent stuff. Fortunately, none of it related to being kicked off any networks 😉
      You raise a good point. However, in all my years in this business, I can’t recall when I last heard of someone having their entire AdEx portfolio shut down like that. Amazon, sure. Specific networks, yes. A Google Adsense account, yes. But not all of AdEx. As far as I know, properties are separate entities there. I could be wrong though.
      IMHO, as long as you keep clean sites, so scrapers, no thin content, no deliberate bot traffic, no fake news/violence/drugs/betting, etc – in short, no blatant red flags – this isn’t a major worry. Working with reputable networks like the ones you mentioned provides another layer of protection. They routinely review your websites for issues and in my experience, they detect issues as they come up. They will stop serving ads before AdEx does anything. And with them, you have someone you can work with on fixing any issues. What’s more, they have contacts with AdEx, so if your site gets banned and it’s entirely a mistake, they should be able to help you out. They probably won’t do this for a small site, or for a site that really was having at fault. But I have a feeling they will for an established site in good standing that has a lot of traffic and was wrongfully banned.
      I’m not sure separate legal entities for the sites will help. Unless you mean for these LLC’s to have separate accounts for everything. So, with 10 sites, you’d have 10 accounts with your ad networks. It would also mean 10 tax reports (we do ours with a CPA, so that’s costly), 10 separate logins everywhere etc. IMHO, that’s too much hassle for a very slim risk.
      I hope this helps. Don’t get me wrong. This is a risky business, for sure. I’m not saying the scenario you suggested can’t happen. I imagine it can, but I think that as long as we play fair, have no issues and keep good working relationships with reputable ad networks, the risk is minimal.

  5. Evan

    Great post Anne!

    I think a lot of people fail in this industry because they have no relevant skills and aren’t interested in developing them.

    There are a lot of ways to be good at this: being a great writer, being organized and good at systems, a good manager of people, good at data & analytics… but you have to have some kind of tangible skill you can put to use here to create some value.

    I think a lot of folks want to buy a website, buy keywords, buy content, buy editing, and make free cash — just doesn’t work like that.

    1. Anne

      I totally agree, Evan. In fact, I think we all have to be Jacks (and Jills) of all trades, as well as masters or some. People who want to buy websites, keywords, etc. can easily waste money that won’t get them any traffic.

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