So your new puppy is here and you’ve taken some time off of work to look after him. You’re sat eating cheerios deciding what to spend the day doing whilst at home – after all the puppy hasn’t had his vaccinations yet so you have to stay in. Why not create a site in 30 minutes for fun, and then garner half a million clicks in 24 hours?
That’s what I did, and that’s how Random Useful Websites was born.
Those who are casual readers of our blog will know that me and Mat love nothing more than making pointless websites, the word ‘useless’ is slung around a lot during our conversations. Yesterday morning was different though, over breakfast I decided I was going to make a quick site today, but I wanted it to be useful instead of useless.
After a quick (very quick, see: 10 minutes) brainstorming session with Mat, I realised I had tons of useful sites in my bookmarks that I was using for inspiration – but acquiring this last had taken me some time. If you ever look at something you’ve built (in this case, my bookmarks) and realise others would find this information useful, then immediately you’ve found value. It didn’t take long before I was putting a list of these links in to a database and deciding on how best to share them.
The internet loves random. Why? Because random is fun. It’s easy to just give a list of links away, but people will often skim them and instead of judging a book by its cover, they’ll judge a site by its URL – which isn’t really fair. For this reason, we decided a user should simply click a button and be thrown in to a random useful website (guess how we came up with the site name). This way users could actually take a look at the site (not just the URL) to see if they liked it. If they didn’t, well never mind, close the tab and press again (people also love to procrastinate and kill time when they should be working – a la Reddit).
All-in-all, me and Mat spent about 30 minutes discussing the idea and 30 minutes creating the website (including buying the domain, creating a bootstrap design and writing the code behind it – LAMP, for anyone wondering). Seeing as this was a quick bit of fun, I told Mat I’d eat my hat if it got 10k clicks in 24 hours. Luckily I didn’t shake on this, or I’d be in hospital dying of Overhatitus right now.
Small, one-page, quick-rewarding sites like this are great for social news and social media. People’s attention spans are short (why do you think Twitter only allows 140 characters), so a site like this was certain to attract a few people. Our first port of call was simply to setup Twitter and add some social buttons (Tweet + FB share) so that people could easily share, if they were so inclined. Once the site was ready, it was time to start spreading the love.
The first submission was to Hacker News, arguably my favourite site to visit and my homepage. The site was submitted to the Show HN section and quickly received some love, but for unknown reasons it was removed. Nevertheless, it stuck around long enough to be picked up by Hckr News – the spin-off aggregator of Hacker News, which started giving us some traffic. It was good fun as we started seeing the click counter go in to the hundreds.
Next we submitted to /r/internetisbeautiful – a subreddit for sharing fun sites from around the internet. We double checked the rules to make sure we wouldn’t get deleted, and expected around 100 upvotes maybe, and a handful of comments. This was how it went at first, but we quickly topped the subreddit and by the end of the day, we’d garnered over 2,300 upvotes, made it in to /r/all (not the front page at all, but still) and the comments were coming in quicker than I could reply to, reaching 170 by days end.
We were also picked up by a couple of feed sites, and got a mention on the boingboing sidebar which helped out a bit – things escalated from here as a few big Twitter accounts gave us some love.
We had briefly discussed the idea of submitting to Product Hunt, but we decided it didn’t really match the profile of something we would expect to see on Product Hunt, so we decided against it. We were a little surprised later when we started seeing a lot of traffic from Product Hunt in our analytics, turns out someone else thought it would be worthy of submission and did it themselves, tagging us as creators. We decided to just ride the wave and see what happened, and we’re glad we did, it shot quickly to the #1 spot on PH for the day and gained a lot of votes.
At the start of the day, I said I’d eat a hat if we got 10k clicks, and I sure as hell wasn’t expecting more than around 50 users on the site at any one time. We kept our eye on Google real-time analytics and we laughed a lot when we saw almost 500 users:
This wasn’t the peak, unfortunately due to timezones, Mat had headed to bed for the night and I got one of my regular migraines (loss of vision and ear splitting headaches) and had to head to bed mid-evening – so I’m not sure what the peak was right now, but it was a lot higher than 477!
After 24 hours, we’d amassed almost 500,000 clicks from over 50,000 users, 2000 upvotes, 100s of comments, #1 spot on Product Hunt, a large amount of social shares, 80+ emails and a lot of good laughs at how successful this 1 hour project became.
What does this all mean?
What this shows is that if you can create something simple and useful, you can drive a lot of traffic to it in a very short period of time with almost no work. The internet is a powerful thing, and once you understand what it likes, it’s easy to make something that caters to it, and the internet will quickly reward you if you’ve done it properly.
This project came about because I saw value in having a good list of bookmarks that often takes years to accumulate, and I had the knowledge that other people would find value in this too. By taking this knowledge and coupling it with a simple site with an easy URL, it was easy to create something that is still getting thousands of clicks an hour even after the initial rush.
What did we learn?
Social news sites extend further than you think
It’s easy to discount Hacker News because you think your site isn’t ‘techy’ enough for their readership. Likewise it’s easy to discount Reddit (or various subreddits) because you think it won’t get much attention. What’s important to remember, is that other sites take content from Reddit too, some exclusively (I’m looking at you 9gag and Unilad…). The site was featured on Boing Boing (from Reddit) which gave us some good traffic, and although Hacker News removed the post for reasons we don’t understand, their aggregators such as Hckr News still picked us up and sent us a few hits. Social news sites aren’t just a source of traffic from that site, aggregators, bloggers and other news sites will use them not only to find links – but to gauge what’s popular right now on the internet.
Launch in a community where you can get feedback
The great thing about launching on a platform like HN or Reddit, is that you can get comments. Thanks to the comments, the following fixes were made:
- Fixed an issue where iOS Safari cached the buttons results
- Added a lot more websites which were recommended
- Fixed some design issues
- Added a feature so you don’t get the same sites ‘randomly’
The above, and more, were all discovered thanks to Joe Public simply letting us know via PM or comments on our posts. It’s important to act on feedback, and also publicly thank users for giving feedback – which encourages more. You never know, you might get some great ideas you hadn’t even thought of.
Don’t sweat the details at first, it’s all about the MVP
I’m infamous amongst friends for never launching projects because I can’t get them perfect, my projects folder is huge, my list of released projects is miniscule. This site went against my usual ethos, once it was working and seemed to have no (or very few) issues, it was launched. In some ways, the added pressure of fixing things on the fly and thanks to user feedback was great motivation to simply crack on and make the site the best it could be.
Technical one – pick www or non-www and be strict
Because we didn’t enforce www or non-www to the site, our Twitter counter displays two different values depending on whether you’re using www or not. It’s only a small issue, but it’s quite annoying that some users might see under 50, whilst others see up to 300.
Why did we do it?
Why not? Like I said at the start, I was housebound all day anyway as I had to look after this little monster:
Having projects take off is not only fun and great for your ‘virtual portfolio’, it’s also good motivation as it’s a reminder of just what the internet can do with something it enjoys. Personally, I think a 1 hour site that generates this amount of clicks/hits is a good success to add to our portfolio, and potentially has a future.
Yes, we could have added advertising to the main site. Yes, we could have added affiliate links in to the ‘random sites’. Yes, we could have added ads in an iFrame or even done something shady with ads in the pages you visit. We didn’t, simply because it wasn’t the goal. However, it would have been easy to do any of this to make a good bit of money quickly – and that’s something to take away. If you can create value and make it simple/easily accessible, the internet will reward you.
Wrap up – is there a future?
Does our random website have a potential future? Well we’ve had almost nothing but great feedback (in emails by the hundreds, comments by the hundreds and votes/shares by the thousands). It was never intended to be bigger than a 1 hour project, but as we’re starting to see future potential for the site, watch this space.