Five months ago I published what turned out to be one of the most popular posts ever on this site: A guide on how to reach 100,000,000 (that’s 100 million) unique users in just six months. The whole idea of the post was to show that people are “stealing” viral content, posting it on their site, and getting more visitors from Facebook than you ever thought possible.
I later published a follow-up article showing a reader of this website who made $100,000 in one week and I also dismissed some of the ridiculous claims by both Business Insider and a ‘Click Fraud’ video that was making rounds online. Now it’s time to do part three: What happened, and can you still make money with this model?
There’s no doubt that people have been building these sites in the tens of thousands since my original post. An editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek noticed this and came up with a clever title for their article:
It was funny to see all of the comments on the post were just people trying to promote their own “viral news” website as well. BusinessWeek actually linked to my original post as one of the reasons why these sites were sprouting up everywhere.
While I certainly can’t take full credit, there were (are?) a lot of appealing factors to building this kind of website, such as:
It literally eliminates the three biggest pain points that are usually associated with building a new site (getting it up, writing good content, and getting traffic).
Of course, that’s not to say it’s easy. Many, many people have emailed me to say that they started one of these sites and it didn’t go anywhere. Many others have tried to convince me to edit my original posts saying it’s not possible to make money doing this any more.
To start with, I did clearly state in the original post “Time Sensitive:” (it was even in the headline) so I don’t think anyone missed that. That being said, I still think there’s money to be made. A lot of money in fact. Maybe I’ve got some good examples coming up in this post.
Since Viral Nova was the focus-point of my original post, it’s only right that we point the spotlight on them first.
On my follow-up blog post on the subject I shared some screenshots of my interactions with Viral Nova owner, Scott De Long, on Twitter. Interestingly, a week or two later he tweeted that he was bored of running the website and would close it later that day.
A few hours later, the tweet was deleted.
His passion for the site must have re-ignited a month later when he allowed BusinessWeek to fly to his office to interview him about the site and his other online ventures.
That passion hasn’t stopped what is looking like a huge loss in traffic for the site, however.
While the numbers are still enough to make other Viral-style site owners jealous, they’re a far cry from where Scott found himself at the beginning of the year.
Alexa shows a different graph but also finds a huge drop in traffic for June and July. SimilarWeb.com also reports that Viral Nova has lost 75% of its traffic since the end of 2013.
Interestingly the drop of traffic has happened at a time where they’ve grew their Facebook page by more than 500,000 likes. Adding fuel to the fire that Facebook have made it harder than ever for these pages to get traction.
So does that mean this type of website is totally dead? If the poster boy for building these types of sites can’t handle the changes in Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, are competitors screwed too?
Let’s take a look.
Up first are Buzzfeed. While they aren’t building a brand that is as highly reliant on Facebook as VIral Nova are (they have a great Youtube channel, for instance) they still get a lot of their traffic from the site. SimilarWeb reports that almost 50% of all traffic to their site comes from Facebook.
It looks like they’ve been able to figure out why they weren’t getting the engagement they used to and have made changes to their business to combat that.
They weren’t the only site that had a drop and managed to recover from it. Distractify, whom I covered in the original post, also took a hit and bounced back.
I’m just using Compete again here so you can compare all sites in similar graphs. Other tools show these drops and rises with very similar charts.
Another thing I noticed was just how much the Distractify website has changed since they were first covered. A look on Archive.org shows quite a few changes over the past few months. Their homepage is now constantly adding new content as you scroll down the page.
Here’s a small screenshot so you can see what I’m talking about…
I really think ViralNova could take some notes here. Their site design hasn’t changed at all since I first covered them and no doubt normal visitors just clump it in with the copycats when they look at it. Trying to stand out as least gives you a more “brandable” approach and a site that people will come back to naturally.
Not just when (or if) they see your site on their Facebook news feed.
In the original post, my focus was very clear: Get traffic from Facebook.
While not all of these sites are solely getting Facebook traffic, Facebook is the basis for their other traffic sources. For instance, many of them get receive high traffic numbers from Reddit, StumbleUpon and even Twitter.
I would say that most of this likely as a result of first seeing the content through a Facebook post that has been shared by a friend or from a page that they Like.
Now, I know there have been algorithm changes by Facebook which reduces how much of this content is seen in your stream. After all, if you saw all content from all pages you Like then your news feed would quickly become overloaded.
You literally wouldn’t see anything from your friends.
This is going to be something that is constantly changing. The truth is that if you build a site like this you’re always going to be majorly in the hands of what Facebook do to their algorithm. For instance, just last week they announced new tracking of video content.
“People who tend to watch more video in News Feed should expect to see more videos near the top of their Feed. Conversely, people who tend to skip over videos without watching them should expect to see fewer videos.”
These algorithm changes have hit some fan pages hard. Ediz, the owner of Gym Memes (1.3 million likes) and Do You Even (630,000 likes) has been able to build a 7-figure business selling his own brand of gym clothes on his pages.
Here’s what he wrote in a status update after some of the changes:
The comments thread was fairly interesting with lots of page owners sharing what happened to them. The video he linked to though had absolutely nothing to do with what he was protesting. He was sharing the click fraud video that went viral but had no basis in reality.
I already tore it apart in the first follow-up.
A majority of the comments are angry at Facebook because of the possibility that they now actually have to start paying for the engagement they have been getting for free.
They didn’t get it easily – they have an active page they’ve had to build up – but I think they have an high sense of entitlement which isn’t justified. If you rely on Facebook for traffic to your business then you have to play by their rules.
I hate a lot of what Google rank in the industries I’m involved in, but just like they can’t pick their position on the news feed, I can’t pick mine in organic results.
According to SimilarWeb, here are the estimated traffic stats (and sources) for various viral-style websites. Please keep in mind that the social figures I share are a percentage of the social amount. So if a site has 50% social traffic, the Facebook number may be 90% but it’s only 90 as a percentage of that 50.
Other tools are of course going to show varying numbers and estimations – these things are hard to predict without tracking code on a site – so don’t take this data too seriously. What it should show however is a continued and very strong reliance on Facebook.
If you want to take this even further, you could input each of these viral-style website you find into BuzzSumo. While it isn’t perfectly thorough, it will give you a great idea of the most popular posts from each of the sites.
A great starting point for you to figure out what is truly going viral. Here’s the data for ViralNova:
How they still get to runs ads on content they don’t really own is still surprising to me, but they’re no doubt still cashing in on a huge scale.
I know I mentioned this success story in the headline but, in an ode to these viral sites, I also can’t deliver on my headline promise. I have no idea how much money Harold has made from his site in the last few months.
If you are really looking for millionaires from this model, the owner of Viral Nova is a good place to start (they estimated to do $400,000 in December alone). Distractify must have similar figures.
A couple of months ago I was contacted by Harold who gave me regular updates on his viral-site progress.
Harold was willing to share some great advice for ViperChill readers. He did want me to add that July has been a very difficult month for him and he needs to figure out how to get the site back on track.
What worked but may do some harm (I’m not quite sure yet)…
What we’re glad we did:
Thanks for your willingness to be so open and share the great advice here, Harold!
Azzam, who some of you may recognise from the regular comments he leaves on this blog, also recently shared his viral success with me.
Before you read his email please do note to keep your political views aside (Azzam wanted me to stress this). I won’t be approving any religious based or political comments. That’s not the point of this post.
Now that’s out of the way, here’s what Azzam had to say…
He hast yet to monetise the site as he’s still building his brand and working out the potential he has but it’s a great example of using hot news events to grow a site. Especially when you’re uniting like-minded people in the process.
Tim’s success story was also quite recent. It goes against what dozens of commenters told me on the first follow-up post: The train has left and there’s no opportunity to capitalise on this any more.
Luckily for Tim, he didn’t follow that belief.
When I say Tim followed a generic angle, I don’t mean that he just put together some basic website. I simply mean that of these three examples his is far similar to Viral Nova, Distractify and others. He doesn’t use an “angle” in the name of his site and simply promises “viral content”.
As I recommended in previous posts, Tim has made the focus of his site very much on headlines and pictures. He’s removed the clutter that other people seem to love to add to their site. Clutter that doesn’t help them get shares.
People notice your headline and picture first, so you better be dead sure they’re at the forefront of your site. Just look at the Distractify redesign if you need any more proof of this.
The person who will get rich looks at that Distractify traffic graph and immediately heads over to their Facebook page to see what they’re doing differently.
The person who will get rich is looking through the past posts of these much bigger sites to see which pages and angles got shared the most
The person who will get rich sees my BuzzSumo screenshot and puts every single one of these sites through it with critical analysis.
The person who will get rich reads that Distractify have made a ton of design changes and they head over to archive.org to see what they are and which ones they stuck with.
More importantly, the person who will get rich will actually do something after this blog post.
Of course, this model isn’t going to be for everyone. I’m not building one of these businesses myself. It’s tempting, but my SEO ventures are growing fast in terms of profitability.
The person who WON’T get rich is still planning to start even after reading my original posts on the topic.
I recently received an email from Jonathan. He has already spent $1,800 on his website but has yet to even launch it. As is common with a lot of people getting started out online, they want to figure everything out and have all the solutions before they take any action.
This is almost always guaranteed to result in failure. We’re not performing scientific experiments here or sending people to Mars where there are no room for erroneous actions. You can figure this out as you go along. In fact, it’s pretty much the only way.
I’m not trying to be harsh on Jonathan here but I really just want to reach through his screen and shake him and say “LAUNCH THE SITE!” because it’s the only way I know that he’s going to stand a chance of success. I already said this was time sensitive in the original post, and you aren’t helping yourself if you keep delaying action.
He’s not alone of course, there are forum threads dedicated to people saying they’re going to follow this model but they never actually start. People chime in every few days or weeks saying “who is having success with this?” rather than making that happen for themselves.
The final tip I want to give is regarding doing this for the long-term. Some people will be happy to try and ride this wave for a few months and see if they can cash in and make some quick bucks. Other people may be hoping to build something for the long-term.
If that’s you I would look more closely at sites like The Chive, Guyism and other related properties. The Chive hosted more than 20 million people on their site last month yet only 20% of that traffic was from social sites like Facebook.
And while Guyism has much lower traffic numbers, they also don’t rely on social nearly as much as the others covered today. If you looked at the figures I posted earlier in this article in detail, you will have noticed that Bored Panda are doing a good job of getting repeat, direct traffic as well.
Why is that happening? They’re building a brand and really connecting with their audience outside of the viral stories they post. They give away t-shirts and invite fans to send in photos and so much more. What that “more” is though you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
That’s the only way you’ll stand a chance. I wish you the best of luck…
Update: Viral Nova went live with a redesign 24 hours after this post. It looks like they’ve taken a lot of design hints from Distractify.