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Making Money with Your Content Site
Interview with Durant Imboden, EuropeforVisitors.com
Durant Imboden works full-time as editor and publisher of several award-winning travel related web sites, including EuropeforVisitors.com, named as one of Forbes' Best of the Web. PowerHomeBiz.com interviewed Imboden to discuss his strategies for creating a successful content Web site. 

Interview by Isabel M. Isidro
Managing Editor  - Power Homebiz Guides

The Web is a writer’s medium. The ability to self-publish on the Web creates a whole new set of possibilities for journalists. However, knowing how to write and knowing how to make money from writing on the Web are two different things.

Durant Imboden, founder of the award-winning EuropeforVisitors.com, is a writer and netpreneur who knows how to create good web content, and at the same time turn his writings into a source of good income.

Imboden is a former literary agent, freelance writer, and editor of Playboy magazine. He began his online career as manager of the Writing Forum when MSN launched in 1995. He moved on to become editor of Venice for Visitors and Switzerland for Visitors at The Mining Co. (later to become About.com) in early 1997. A travel writer since 1996, his publishing credits include novels set in Europe and a nonfiction book, Buying Travel Services on the Internet. Together with his wife, Cheryl, Imboden currently works full-time as editor and publisher of the several award-winning travel related web sites.

Aside from EuropeforVisitors.com, Imboden’s sites include Writing.org, Venice for Visitors, Switzerland for Visitors, and Austria for Visitors. His sites provide more than 3,500 pages of original articles, with traffic currently exceeding 300,000 visitors per month. EuropeforVisitors.com was named Forbes’ Best of the Web, proving that even a small home-based operation can receive acclaim for excellence.

PowerHomeBiz.com interviewed Imboden to discuss his strategies for creating a successful content Web site.

PowerHomeBiz.com: You created your first web site in 1996 with Writing.org. Then you added a host of European travel websites (EuropeforVisitors.com; VeniceforVisitors.com; SwitzerlandforVisitors.com; AustriaforVisitors.com; and The Baby Boomer's Venice). What were your inspirations for creating each site?

Durant Imboden: I started work on Writing.org late in 1995, when I was under contract to Microsoft as manager of MSN's Writing Forum. I'd been using the Web for a few years, and I thought a writing-related Web site might help to generate interest in my MSN forum.

The Baby Boomer's Venice was my first travel site. I created it on the spur of the moment in 1996 as a test bed for a review of FrontPage 1.1 in Boardwatch Magazine, which at that time was a magazine for online entrepreneurs and users. The site was listed in Yahoo and several guidebooks, and it's still around--although nowadays it's mainly a feeder to my newer and much larger Venice for Visitors site.

I created Venice for Visitors at The Mining Company, which later became About.com, in spring of 1997. My wife's Switzerland for Visitors--later Switzerland/Austria for Visitors--began at roughly the same time, and I expanded my beat to include all of Western Europe in 1998.. Our contracts were terminated in September, 2001 after I'd raised questions about About.com's accounting practices and other contract issues. (Those contract issues are now the subject of a major class-action lawsuit, Levinson et al. v. Primedia et al.)

My wife and I owned the copyright to nearly all of our About.com content, so we relaunched the sites under the Europeforvisitors.com umbrella in October, 2001. They've been flourishing and growing ever since.

PowerHomeBiz.com: What were your expectations when you started any of your sites? Were your sites simply a venue to present, discuss and perhaps find like-minded enthusiasts on the subjects that you are passionate about - writing and European travel? Or did you begin the site thinking that this could be a way to earn money?

Durant Imboden: Writing.org was never conceived as a way to make money. I hoped it would benefit the MSN forum that I ran from 1995 to 1999, but I've always financed it out of my own pocket. (I don't run ads on the site because nearly all writing-related ads are for vanity presses or scams.)

The Baby Boomer's Venice wasn't conceived as a moneymaker either. As I mentioned above, the site was built in connection with a software review, and I kept it going afterwards because I liked the subject matter and I hate to throw anything away!

The Mining Co./About.com sites were created as for-profit editorial ventures. I've been a professional writer and editor since the 1960s, and The Mining Co./About.com seemed to offer an opportunity to "monetize" editorial content on the Web. After Cheryl and I were fired from About.com, I decided that it was time to leverage my 30+ years of editorial and publishing experience by doing on the Web what guidebook author-publishers like Karl Baedeker, Eugene Fodor, Temple Fielding, and Arthur Frommer had long been doing in the print world--i.e., creating a strong personal brand and controlling the publishing process.

PowerHomeBiz.com: Do you manage europeforvisitors.com and your other websites full-time? Are your websites your main source of income?

Durant Imboden: Yes.

PowerHomeBiz.com: What are the ways you earn money from your sites? How do you leverage the content of your site?

Durant Imboden: We have two revenue sources: affiliate commissions or referral fees, and contextual text ads from Google's AdSense network.

PowerHomeBiz.com: Given the importance of affiliate programs in your revenue mix, what are your criteria for selecting an affiliate program to join for any of your site?

Durant Imboden: Our main criterion is whether a program adds value for the reader. Our readers are looking for things like car rentals, rail passes, and hotel bookings, so having related affiliate programs is good for both our readers and us. At the same time, we try to include a few programs that may not be huge moneymakers but make the site more useful, such as travel insurance and local sightseeing tours.

We're very picky about the user experience--not only on our site, but also on affiliate programs' sites. And we've had to drop a couple of programs (including one well-know European hostel program) because they've turned out to be deadbeats.

Finally, we use affiliate programs that serve an international audience whenever we can, both to please our readers and to diversify our revenue sources. (About half of our hotel bookings come from Europe, and most of our hotel commissions are paid in euros. Such diversification protects us when international travel to Europe is down and when the U.S. dollar falls against European currencies.)

PowerHomeBiz.com: Managing one website is hard enough, and you have five. How do you make sure that each and every site remains on par with the standards you have set in terms of quality and in keeping with your goals?

Durant Imboden: Writing.org and The Baby Boomer's Venice don't require much maintenance. And our other sites (Europeforvisitors.com, Veniceforvisitors.com, Switzerlandforvisitors.com, and Austriaforvisitors.com) are really just one big site with separately branded subtopics.

It does take time to create and maintain content, but I'm a fast writer with efficient tools like Microsoft FrontPage 2003 and Adobe PhotoShop Elements that make the job a lot easier. And don't forget, this is my full-time job.

Of course, quality isn't just determined by editorial content--it's also based on how you present that content. We try to avoid the overcommercialized look and feel of big corporate sites like Travelandleisure.com and Condé Nast's Concierge.com, where the amount of space devoted to ads and affiliate promotions can make it hard to find (let alone read) the editorial content. We also give thought to how quickly our pages load. When we were at About.com, the in-house publishing system often added 50 Kb of code to 5 Kb of text when our pages were served. That's a good way to drive away readers with dial-up connections.

PowerHomeBiz.com: What is your strategy for creating content for each of your sites?

Durant Imboden: Our goal has always been to create "evergreen" content that can stay online permanently with occasional updating. Lately, we've been doing in-depth "saturation coverage" of European destinations, cruises, and other travel experiences. Nobody else is doing anything like this.

When we write an article about a destination, we make a point of including links to tourist offices, museums, public transportation, maps, and other third-party sites. Linking to other sites is one of the World Wide Web's fundamental principles, and it's also a great way to become a "resource hub" that attracts repeat visitors.

In general, our content strategy might be termed "long-term" rather than "short-term." As our site grows from its current 3,500 or so pages of content, each page will add a trickle of direct or indirect income to the existing revenue stream.

PowerHomeBiz.com: Your websites appear to be a family endeavor. How is your wife involved in your sites? How are you balancing your family life and business?

Durant Imboden: Cheryl does some of the writing and photography on the site. She also handles most of the proofreading and--most important--the financial planning and bookkeeping.

Balancing family life and business has never been a problem for us. For example, I share my attic office with the computer that my son uses, and I might be editing an article in FrontPage while my son's friends are huddling around his PC and our dog is snoozing on the attic couch. Also, it helps to be in a business that involves something we all enjoy: travel.

PowerHomeBiz.com: How has your sites grown through the years? Give some milestones/achievements of the sites.

Durant Imboden: In just over two years, Europeforvisitors.com has grown to an average of 300,000 visitors and more than a million page views per month. It has a higher Alexa traffic ranking than Travel and Leisure's Web site and all but a handful of European national tourist offices. We've also had some great reviews and coverage in publications like USA Today, the Washington Post, and Forbes (which twice has given us its "Best of the Web" award). Such media coverage doesn't necessarily drive a lot of traffic to the site, but it's good for credibility with readers, PR people, and other media.

PowerHomeBiz.com: Please share any lessons or tips you've learned on how to create a successful content website.

Durant Imboden: Find a topic that you love and can stay interested in, and which is capable of being monetized. That's the hard part--not all topics will produce good income.

Focus on value to the reader, and make sure that your pages offer easily digestible "spider food" to the search engines. The Webmaster guidelines at Google, http://www.google.com, are well worth reading.

Have enough technical knowledge to feel comfortable as a Web publisher, but don't get wrapped up in technical issues at the expense of content. (Your readers don't care if you're building your site with FrontPage or PostNuke--they're just looking for information in a format that's reasonably attractive and easy to read.)

When looking for ways to earn money from your site, don't sacrifice long-term credibility and growth for short-term profits.

Finally, if you have a day job, don't give it up too soon--and if you've got a working spouse who can supply the family with medical insurance and other benefits, so much the better!

 

January 20, 2004

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