Interviewer: Peter Houston

Peter Houston: How did your sites get started?

James Stables: The founder of sites like Hot UK Deals and Quidco actually approached Paul, my business partner, about launching a wearable tech site. He wanted to get some things started. But with those businesses being in the deals area, he thought the seed of the idea would be to do something around wearable tech deals.

Me and Paul had worked together and he came to me about doing it with him. We looked at from where we came from in tech journalism, and thought that deals weren’t the way to go. There certainly wasn’t enough interest and growth in the wearable area to make a website about it and essentially be an authority in a subject. That was very much our tagline in the very early days.

This was in 2014, is that right?

Yeah, 2014. So the Apple Watch hadn’t launched at that point, it was very heavily rumored to be. There were some smartwatches and obviously Fitbit was well on the rise and Jawbone and all these, so there’s plenty of interest. There’s plenty to write about.

We thought all the other tech sites out there are talking about wearables as part of their general tech beat, but there was no one out there really testing them in a deep, meaningful way. The idea of being an authority and being experts in this area in this segment, specifically, is what we wanted to do. That’s really where the idea came from and it just really took off.

We started in August 2014. By early 2015, we’re doing a million readers a month. By 2016, we had a high point of 4 million unique users in December 2016. It really was a rapid rise based on a perfect storm of the right product at the right time and just the right people, the right expertise, taking advantage of our knowledge in SEO and taking it forward.

But your background was in tech journalism, you were at Future before?

That’s right. I did eight years at Future on different technology magazines and then finished T3 as Features Editor. I did some iPad stuff with TechRadar. At the time of taking the wearable job, I was probably going through my fourth prospective redundancy. It was a bit of a no brainer when I got offered more money to to go and start something like this. I just felt it was the right thing at the right time.

So was that you starting that up with your partner, or did you have funding to start up?

We were given the investment to start. There was an individual who was interested in and he put up the investment. We had a small share of the business as an incentive to really push ourselves to make it happen.

So from wearables in 2016, you got 4 million visits. Then you went off to do the Ambient as well.

Yes. So around that time, we really wanted to expand and almost prove that we could repeat the trick. We were doing bits and pieces on the smart home on Wareable, because we saw this smart tech ecosystem, where you might walk into your house and your smartwatch says ‘I’m home’, connects to the smart heating, turns the thermostat up, that kind of vision.

We started with the tagline ‘Tech for your connected self’. Of course, the site’s called Wareable, we were doing wearables, but we also did other connected stuff around the home. It seemed like a good idea when we started and it did okay, but then it just didn’t really make sense on the site at all.

So we launched the second site, which is the Ambient, and that is, as I say, smart tech, voice assistance, connected home products. That’s still an extremely exciting area and one that’s growing all the time.

And then the last site you launched was Get Sweat Go?

Yeah, so we wanted to diversify again, and Get Sweat Go is a personal passion point of mine. When we started Ambient and Wareable, our bread and butter revenue was affiliate and studies to a certain extent. So we wanted to do something that wasn’t in technology. Technology is so competitive, and everyone is so SEO-focused. We were really swimming as hard as we can just to keep up with the competitors. We wanted to do something that was a little bit different.

Get Sweat Go is a sports-focused site and the Get is about buying the things you need to do your sport and fitness hobbies. Then the Go element was to try and look to travel in the future and different affiliate areas, really, and different areas of growth, where we could have this product side, which is very much bread and butter for us, product recommendations, and then the opportunity to splinter off into this travel piece,

The three sites that you’ve got there, how do you see them connected?

A couple of things. Expertise, or authority, is the heart of everything we did, and we continue to do, even more so now. So being a trusted source of information connects all of those. In technology, it’s about explaining things to people and making sure they are making a good decision. I don’t see that as any different for any other site we ever launch.

It’s about educating and just being a guide to people who don’t have the time or the expertise to make that decision themselves, making sure they’re getting good stuff, making sure that they’re happy in their hobbies or their health and fitness, in terms of Wareable and Get Sweat Go, the stuff they’re buying in their home. It’s just about being a trusted source. That’s what we’re all about.

And then connected to that is the buying decision. I think people hear that a lot. If you are trustworthy or trusted enough to recommend something to somebody, then that is one of the key revenue drivers for publishing, to take that affiliate revenue, where possible, offer people the best deal where it’s available, or provide an easy link to getting something that’s independently verified from a trusted source. And then that’s something you can profit on as well, so it’s good for everybody.

Your revenue, I guess, is primarily affiliate ecommerce revenue?

It certainly was when we started. We were 80% affiliate driven, really. So much so that we didn’t run ads for first few years at all, we just went on affiliate 100%. That has changed over the years. We were so successful at the beginning that we owned the search, essentially, for all of our niches. It was easy to pick up loads of readers who were looking to buy, probably hovering over the order button on Amazon or another store anyway. Affiliate was just easy to come by.

Amazon have cut the rates over the last year since the pandemic, despite them making record profits. They’re passing less back to publishers. As of March 2020, we were sending twice as many people to Amazon year on year and earning half the amount. So it’s been a huge hit.

Luckily, we’ve gone a different way with our advertising and that has picked up the slack. We’re fortunate enough to get a big boost in traffic, and now we can monetize that traffic quite well. So, in a way, we’ve come out of it unscathed, but it’s obviously annoying when you look at the balance of revenue. 50% more eyeballs, 50% less money, that’s not good economics, whichever way you look at it

That’s the kind of plot twist, if you like, in your stories, from that high point where you’re launching Get Sweat Go, I think the way you described that was that you flew as close to the sun as possible without actually flaming out. What happened?

So second of April 2019, everything has been going really well. I come into work and traffic on both sites is 50 or 60% down on what you would expect many people to be on the site at that time of day. That’s the Ambient and Wareable, Get Sweat Go hadn’t launched at that point. So obviously, that’s the thing you don’t want to see, but there can be loads of reasons for that.

We just sit out for a few days, and then it becomes clear that these people aren’t coming back. Our site traffic is 60% down, so you start fiddling about. There’s lots of red herrings, possibilities, ideas that you go through, but you check the rankings and where we were on page one, position one, position two, we’re now on page three, page four of Google. It’s just a complete SEO wipeout overnight.

This obviously happens to plenty of SEO-driven businesses, but the curious thing was that usually there’s a big Google update. Google says, ‘we did an update’, or the SEO community confirms there’s been an update, and you’ve been deemed to not be of sufficient quality to deserve your spots and you lose rankings. It’s just the way it is.

There was no update that day, so we were really left scratching our heads thinking, what’s happened? For it to happen to both of your sites within the business, we just didn’t know where to go with it really. We started a long process of fixing everything, technical audits, editorial audit, and so that’s April 2019.

By the end of that year, things hadn’t picked up. We were writing things, they just weren’t ranking at all. You write news or features, and they just weren’t getting read. What you call your evergreen stuff, that stuff that you rely on, is 60-70% down. You hit these critical mass stages as well, where you’re just not tipping the balance in terms of affiliate. It’s not like 50%, less readers is 50% less affiliate revenue, it’s more like 70-80% less revenue. We were essentially losing money hand over fist.

We had Get Sweat Go in the works and had an editor. We’ve always prided ourselves on hiring great people, and offering them very competitive rates. We always do right by our staff and we have a very close knit team, but by the end of that year, we were losing money to the point where we just couldn’t continue.

We had to give notice on the office, and pretty much all the staff had to be made redundant. We kept a couple, but by February 2020, the last couple had to be laid off as well, so it was back to how it started with just me and Paul.

How many people did you have at the peak?

We had seven, plus myself and Paul. That was in London, and we had two in San Francisco. I would count them all as friends, as well, people who we’d worked with through the years that we really rated. They were a dream team for us. We were going out there and getting people that we wanted, because we were doing good things, successful, we offered good money where we could.

To sit those people down, look them in the eye, and say ‘we can’t keep you on’ was just… You can imagine how painful it was. You mentioned that I said that we flew so close to the sun. I think we started to recover in March 2020 and the rate cut for Amazon was April or May. Had we suffered that rate cut and the loss of revenue on the traffic and revenue we were making in February, we wouldn’t be functioning today.

We were probably within eight weeks of really closing down because we just wouldn’t have been able to function on that revenue. Our ads supplier, went into administration, and looked like we weren’t going to get three months of ad revenue anyway. It was just so close.

This is all just as the pandemic really kicked off.

Yeah, just as the pandemic is kicking off, February 2020 into March 2020. Perhaps ironically, it was the pandemic, possibly, that was part of the recovery, in a way. We fixed everything technically.

Did you ever figure out what actually had happened?

No. I think absolutely every search-based business probably has gone through something like this, to a certain extent. We went through the technical aspects of it. Then we really had to look at ourselves and what we were doing and really go back to that expertise and trust, what they call EAT now, is one of the biggest currencies going in SEO: expertise, authority and trust.

I think, when the pandemic hit, Google upped the power of authority and expertise in response to the pandemic, trying to get good information out there, and I think it was almost what part of our recovery. Although whatever caused this problem was lurking, perhaps fixed, at least we had this expertise and authority thing going for us.

I think it was dialed up around March 2020. That was a massive part of this snowball effect of recovery. Because it wasn’t like we came into work in March 2020 and everything was just back to how it was in March 2019. It was a slow, slow recovery. We started to see things getting read, things jumping into the Most Read, and getting into the top story spots, and Google Discover.

Everything just came back to life over a period of five or six weeks. I certainly think that dial up of authority and trust effectively started that process of recovery.

I guess the boom in home shopping, because it was the only kind of shopping anyone could do, also made a difference?

I think so, yeah, definitely. A lot of people say that it would be the focus on personal health and fitness that drove part of that recovery as well, that people were working out at home and they wanted a watch or whatever. They were thinking about their activity and making sure they were getting enough exercise in lockdown, so they’ll want smartwatches, Apple watches, whatever. Certainly the interest level was there that really helped us.

But you could see organically that, on the search pages, we were back. It wasn’t just a bigger pool of people who were essentially filtering onto the site. We could look at the first page of Google and see we were back. It wasn’t just a general interest or captive audience, although that did certainly make a little bit of a difference.

But whatever was causing us to be demoted, we were freed from the shackles as it were. We were able to almost reclaim spots that had been lost, which is really pleasing.

Is search still the most important driver for your business?

100%. We’re a 90% search business. For anyone in media, bar some obvious exceptions, ithat’s really one of the key ways to monetize still. The only way to scale is to is to be present like that. If you’ve got a great brand, and get people direct, then great. Obviously, there’s certain brands out there who use social, but for huge swathes of the media landscape, search is what drives people to you. You are, in a way, beholden to the whims of the algorithm.

Do you worry that it could happen again?

Yeah, everyday. Things like the big freeze over in the US had a big impact on search traffic that week. When you get the fallout from the last weeks of the Trump administration, it hugely affects traffic. People are too busy looking at other stuff to go and do their smartwatch shopping. It has an effect. You look at the date and think, ‘oh, where is everyone?’ Then checking the SEO sites for if there has been an update?

We have lots of pay-for tools to tell us whether we’re up or down. We have been negatively affected by changes in the algorithm since. There was one in December 2020 that certainly wasn’t positive for us, but you keep driving forward with your technical development, editorial development, ideas, improvement.

It’s part of the ebb and flow of things. We can handle that, that’s no problem. But to be wiped out like that, it’s scary. It could happen again. It could happen to us tomorrow. I think it could happen to any search business tomorrow. You’ve just got to keep doing things right and diversify as much as possible. It’s tough.

How does that work for you guys? Who’s the expert in what?

It’s just the two of us. We still use experts, they’re just not exclusively our experts anymore. Again, it comes back to this EAT metric. It’s not a measurable metric, but this idea of expertise, authority and trust. We want to use people who have proven to be experts, even if they write for other places, that, in fact, helps us to a certain extent, because they deem as more of an expert, because they’re writing about wearables and smart home in more places.

We still strive to go out there and get the best people. It’s just that we now do that freelance rather than having them 100% of the time. From a business perspective, that is actually probably beneficial to us, because we’re carrying less weight as a business. We’re more agile. Part of the big problem with where we were when we hit this huge upset in 2019, is we had an office, we had a big staff, and that made us heavy and unable to weather the storm. We won’t be caught like that again.

Having come through what you’ve come through, what would your advice be to an independent publisher that was trying to survive?

That is difficult. I mean, there’s obviously diversify. That’s general common sense, really, but in terms of where we were, any business that looks like ours, we started the business on expertise and authority. I do believe that’s the biggest currency going in search, in SEO now.

If you’re a small publisher, I’d say you really have to use your niche, be great at what you do, and drill down on that expertise. Give Google a reason to list you amongst the big players, the incumbents, the nationals that we have to fight against. The behemoths of tech, but then also the newspapers, the Guardian, they’re all just so aggressive, SEO wise, and have such huge teams.

But we hold our own, because we’re doing this in-depth, no stone uncovered, and just doing those hard yards that they just don’t have the time to go into. Because we have this small sort of structure, me and Paul, we’re the only two people in the business. We’re SEO, advertising, monetization, we’re development. Every part of the business, we’re central to.

I think at any business or publisher, whoever is at the leadership level of your business, make sure that they are over everything and see it as a big picture and have all those parts of the business functioning as one.

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