By Ben Arnoldy, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
A penny for your thoughts? Kevin Vahey has done a good deal better,
turning a personal gripe into $1,000 a year of supplemental income.
Mr. Vahey started a blog called "Charlie on the MBTA" that has become
a sounding board for Bostonians frustrated with the city's
After two months, he's gained 1,200 readers a day, the attention of
officials, and -- like thousands of others putting their interests online
-- a small revenue stream from advertising. "Yesterday I got the check
from [Google], and I said, 'Hmm, that's cool.' I don't feel like I did
anything," he says. He's not quitting his day job, but now he commutes
to it free of charge: "[The blog] pays my monthly pass."
Through systems like Google's AdSense, advertising now can be added
with the click of a mouse to the smallest of websites. The model will
soon be expanded to online videos with the announcement last month
that YouTube will share ad revenue with content creators.
The rise of what's known as contextual advertising has created a
21st-century version of royalties that's reaching deep into the ranks
of amateurs and hobbyists. It points to a future where many people
will moonlight online as small-time creators for a little extra
income, with a few finding fame and fortune along the way.
"A lot of people say it's sort of like a little investment. They write
something every night before they go to bed, and another page on their
website gets added. And the more pages they've got, the more chance
they've got of earning a little bit of money," says Darren Rowse, the
webmaster of http://problogger.net, a site that helps bloggers improve
He says he makes six figures a year blogging, when factoring in all
his sites and the consulting gigs they generate. "You put something
out there," he adds, "and it has the potential to earn money
forever. And in that way it sort of is like a royalty."
A little more than $1 billion, or one-fourth of all advertising
online, went to Google's AdSense program in the third quarter of
2006. Of that, Google shared $780 million with those running
AdSense. Approximately 3 million blogs now use AdSense, according to
the blog-tracking site Technorati.
What isn't known is how that $780 million was distributed over those
roughly 3 million blogs. But anecdotal evidence suggests that there's
a majority making nothing, a sizable minority bringing in at least
$100 a month, and a few making serious money.
This past November, a survey by problogger.net of 732 self-selected
respondents found that of the 625 bloggers using AdSense, 45 percent
were making at least $100 a month. Another survey of 104 bloggers at a
blogger summit last week in New York found roughly a third making that
money, not necessarily with AdSense.
Nearly one-sixth in both surveys made at least $1,000 a month. These
samples, of course, skew heavily toward the more committed and
"The vast majority of people are being read by the writer and his
mother, or in some cases not even by his mother," quips Sree
Sreenivasan, who runs the new-media program at Columbia University.But
for some, he says, new opportunities are emerging that are different
from the original Web bubble.
The anecdotal numbers suggest an economic shift based on what Don
Tapscott, co-author of "Wikinomics," calls the democratization of the
creation of content.
"People can participate in the economy in ways that were once
unimaginable. Not just moonlighting, but serious money," says Mr.
Tapscott. In the past, writers, musicians, and videomakers needed to
prove themselves as "home-run hitters" in order to get distributed and
earn significant money. "Now, bunters and single-hitters have a chance
to make a living," he says.
The AdSense system allows advertisers to bid on how much they'll pay --
in cents per click -- to appear on sites with certain keywords. In the
case of "Charlie on the MBTA," Vahey has seen ads show up from bus
companies - not surprising since he mentions buses frequently. He
makes money each time someone clicks on the ads.
With the cost of publishing online close to zero, even small ad money
can buoy creative output.
"The definition of 'big enough' has changed. In the old days, [an
endeavor] ... had to get an audience of billions to pay for that
scarce airtime," says Jeff Jarvis, a new-media expert who makes about
$1,000 a month from blogging. "Now, the definition of big enough can
be that it covered my costs, [or] it bought me a camera."
He notes with amusement that his son now makes more money from AdSense
than from his allowance.
Yet many bloggers and video bloggers are not driven by a desire to get
rich. Vahey did not start his blog to make money. And Steve Garfield,
one of Boston's earliest video bloggers, doesn't see a YouTube ad
model working for him, since he's more interested in forming personal
"I've gotten so much from giving and sharing my videos for free," says
Mr. Garfield, whose vblog is at SteveGarfield.com. "I've made so many
friends from all over the world."
Still, his approach has yielded some financial benefits, such as free
computer equipment, and freelance and consulting work.
It's not uncommon for successful bloggers to parlay their success into
consulting. And the top Web entrepreneurs often move away from AdSense
to direct relationships with advertisers, says Jeremy Shoemaker, who
has a photo of himself holding a check for more than $130,000 from
Google. He runs a number of sites, including a ringtones sharing
AdSense, which he describes as "a great product," does have its
limitations. The revenue can be unpredictable, the system encourages
visitors to leave a site, and owners do not have enough control over
ad content, he says.
Several highly successful bloggers also caution that there's no free
lunch. "I worked anything from eight- to 16-hour days over the last
three or four years just trying to do this," says Mr. Rowse. "And a
lot of people don't see that."
Copyright 2007 The Christian Science Monitor
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