18 Month Progress Report

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 18 months since I launched ESL Jobs World. My active development has had roughly two phases, one lasting about two months in March and April of 2007, and another for two months in November and December of 2007. The remaining time I’ve let the site more or less take care of itself, with periodic checks to ensure it’s still up and running successfully. I’m about to embark on a new round of development, though, so I thought it would be helpful for me to summarize the current status of the site.

Traffic Overview

My traffic has been consistently growing month after month. It has been averaging about 30,000 unique visitors per month and 100,000 page views per month. The sources of the traffic are roughly 78% from search engines, 11% from links from other web sites, and 11% from direct traffic such as bookmarks or visitors typing the address into their browser. This traffic has all been organic. While I experimented with PPC advertising for a few months in late 2007 and early 2008, I didn’t feel the ROI justified the expense, and my sense was that there was significant click fraud as well. As a result, I have not engaged in any PPC advertising in well over six months, and will likely not pursue it for the foreseeable future.

Search Engine Results Overview

I have been trying to rank well in the major search engines for a few keyword phrases, most specifically “ESL jobs” and “English teaching jobs,” as my research has shown they are the highest searched terms that most closely correspond with the niche of ESL Jobs World. My results have been quite good, especially considering the length of time my site has been live compared to its competitors. For a search using “ESL jobs,” the site is ranked #2 with Google, #6 with Yahoo, and #3 with MSN. For “English teaching jobs,” the site is ranked #2 with Google, #2 with Yahoo, and #1 with MSN. These rankings have been fairly consistent month to month, with little variation. I periodically work to establish more inbound links using those keyword phrases with directories and related sites, which is the primary means to further increase their position.

Subscriber Overview

There are two types of users that can register with ESL Jobs World, teachers and employers. At present, over 1200 teachers are subscribed to a weekly newsletter that summarizes recent job posts, and over 1400 employers have registered to post jobs. Of the employers, slightly more than 10 percent are active every week, and about 300 jobs are posted every week. Growth of both registered teachers and employers has been steady and consistent, which is a necessary condition to ensure a healthy community and the future success of the site. Every week, about 2% of the unique visitors to the site choose one of the forms of registration. Increasing this percentage is a key objective.

Income and Expense Overview

Of course, the bottom line is how much income the site is generating. At present, it earns about $400 per month exclusively from Google Adsense. Its only direct expense is $10 per month in hosting charges. I briefly experimented with Kontera and AdBrite, but did not feel either was a good fit for my particular niche as the ads they served were not well targeted. Of course the overall ROI of the site is strong, but it’s nowhere near the original goals I set when it launched. Fortunately, there a number of areas that I can pursue in the weeks and months ahead to significantly increase its monthly income.

Using feedback to improve my projects

I thought I’d take a detour from discussing the development of ESL Jobs World and address a strategy that has helped me in the past on similar online projects. It’s really quite simple, but very effective when followed.

Ask for feedback, and then act on that feedback to make improvements!

A few specific tips that I have used in the past to make this strategy actionable:

Get email addresses

This is very basic, but without doing this step, you basically have no way to have a conversation with your visitors. Whether it’s via a registration process or a newsletter subscription, make sure your site has some glaringly obvious way for people to give you their email address.

Confirm email addresses

In addition to being good form for opt-in marketing and staying on the right side of the law, you have to make sure your process to get email addresses requires confirmation. It goes without saying that a bad email address is of no use. Whatever your method, make sure visitors get an email with a confirmation link.

Ask specific questions

Asking “what should I do to make my web site better” is pretty broad, and “do you like my web site” is pretty much useless. Asking “what can I do to improve my registration process” is much more focused and as a result much more likely to get a useful response.

Ask about competitors

One of the questions I love to ask is “What’s your favorite web site in , and why is it your favorite?” It’s great to be able to find out who the competition is, and what’s helping them stand out.

Ask about best/worst

Another favorite question I ask is “what do you like best about ? What do you like least?” If you ask that question enough, certain themes should begin to emerge that can help you focus your efforts on what to improve.

Ask one question at a time

Nobody likes paging through gobs of questions. If someone feels like they’re filling out a census form they’re going to delete your request for feedback in a heartbeat. Pick one question, ask it, and leave it at that.

Don’t be a pest

Don’t spam people day after day with questions. They’ll get annoyed and will unsubscribe or unregister or worse. I typically reach out about once a month. Don’t be a pest, and people will be far more likely to respond to your questions.

Follow up for clarification

If you get a response and you’re not quite sure what they mean, say so. One of the things I like to do when I get a suggestion is to ask for examples from other web sites where it’s been done well. You’d be surprised how frequently someone will kick back a few links for you to review.

Follow up on changes

If you get feedback and make changes, let the person know and ask them for their opinion. Sometimes you’ll get a nice thumbs up, but sometimes you’ll learn that you’re not quite there yet. You need to know.

Always say thank you

You’ve just asked for help, someone has actually gone against the odds and been kind enough to respond, and then you don’t have the common courtesy to say thank you? Do you think that person is likely to help you again? Exactly. Always say thank you.

Analyzing both major and niche competitors

I now have an actual live domain name attached to my hosting account. My next step is to get a little more specific about the type of content that should appear on my web site, as well as its general look and feel. My answers to these questions will help me determine what tools I’ll need to use to build the site, and also help me flesh out my ideas about my next steps for moving forward.

Reviewing the big name competition to determine best practices

To start, I like to look at some of the successful big name companies in my general category. For online job listings, Monster.com and Career Builder are clearly on top. My thinking is that these folks have probably invested a huge amount of time and money tinkering with different formats to figure out the right way to connect employers and job seekers. By observing their overall approach, I can benefit from their investment and shorten my own learning curve.

For example, a common theme is a fairly clean home page with a really big search box front and center. Both have a white background and use fairly subdued color palettes, although Monster is a little flashier. The focus of the home page is also pretty much exclusively geared at job seekers–both sites have a different “front door” for employers.

Another key distinction is that they also both offer more than just job listings. There are articles geared towards helping people figure out the best strategy to find a job, and even how to choose one career over another. Both have a salary calculator tool. And they each have a method for visitors to request a periodic email when new jobs that meet their criteria have been posted.

Assessing the web sites already in my niche

After getting a good sense of what the large players are doing, I also want to look at the smaller sites operating successfully in my direct area of ESL Jobs. Identifying common themes across this group will help to ensure I meet the minimum bar of what the current market expects. I can also use my visits to see if I can find any opportunities where I can offer something to differentiate my own site. In particular, I will look to see if there is anything that the big companies are doing that the niche companies are not.

To find these top competitors, I simply head over to Google and type in my keywords. The top 10 web sites returned are the ones I will survey. A quick pass shows how incredibly different they are from one other. Judging by some of the dates on their job posts, they are also experiencing very different levels of popularity and success.

Looking deeper, the majority of their home pages seem to be incredibly long, requiring scrolling down repeatedly to view all the information. For a first time visitor, I think this might be a bit overwhelming. In contrast, the big name companies have most of their home page on a single screen, a feature I plan to emulate. The colors and fonts of the niche players are all over the place as well, with only a few having what I would consider to be a clean design and the others being incredibly busy. Most have a fairly dated appearance compared to the current web sites of the big companies.

Somewhat surprisingly, only a single site had a large search box at the top of their home page, and only two had a clearly visible way to receive new job postings by email. It was interesting to note that quite a few provided the opportunity for a teacher to post a resume that could be viewed by interested employers, a feature I had not even considered. In an odd twist, one of the top 10 sites didn’t even appear to be functioning, as a lot of its links generated script errors.

As far as providing material above and beyond just job postings, quite a few seemed to be part of much larger sites with content that ranged all over the map. A few had articles on teaching conditions in various countries. A few had tips for finding a job. None had a salary calculator.

Learning lessons from the big and the small

My time spent evaluating both the large and niche players helped me narrow down the features and appearance of the web site I intend to build. It’s interesting to note that while much of what I assumed going in turned out to be correct, a good bit was a complete surprise to me. It underscores the benefit of taking the time to really understand the market before jumping into it.

In summary, I determined that my minimum bar for success is a clean, compact, professional look with a big search module at the top of the home page. To really stand out, ESL Jobs World will need to present more than just job listings, but also tools to help teachers find their next job. I need to separate the teacher part of the site from the employer part of the site. I need to have an easy to find email newsletter to notify teachers of new jobs. To really cover all angles, I also need to enable teachers to post their resumes so that employers can review them. Finally, providing supplemental content not found elsewhere like a salary calculator would really help to differentiate me.

All in all, a tall order, but at least now I have a target in my sites.

Selecting and registering a domain name

With the topic of my first web site decided, I now need to figure out what to call it. Like any business, picking a name is a critical decision. Unless you have a huge marketing budget to give meaning to a somewhat nonsense word like Dell or Amazon, my thoughts are that your name needs to tell people exactly what your site is about. For example, if presented with a name like Festigle or Discount Pet Food, both in the same line of business, which one is easier to figure out? Exactly.

In the Internet world, of course, your business name is also your domain name. And just as in the real world, your business name needs to be unique in your market. As the Internet is global, that means your market is global, which makes it much more difficult to find a unique domain name that accurately describes your niche that hasn’t already been taken.

Choosing the right keywords

Fortunately there are a lot of methods that can help you select a domain name. The first area that I like to focus on is keywords. Keywords are the basic building blocks that define the topic of your web site. For me, the keyword that describes my general topic is jobs. There are a lot of keywords that describe my niche, including ESL, EFL, TESL, TEFL, and TESOL. A combination of these keywords would make for an ideal domain name.

Of course, not all keywords are equal. Some will be more popular that others, meaning they are more commonly used when people use search engines like Google or Yahoo. Using a more popular keyword will be more helpful in attracting visitors to my web site, as its more likely it will be the keyword someone uses when they search.

There are a number of tools that will show you the popularity of keywords. One, The Keyword Suggestion Tool, will show you the rank of a series of keywords across the major search engines, in addition to a lot of other information. Entering in ESL jobs, EFL jobs, TESL jobs, TEFL jobs, and TESOL jobs, I discover that ESL jobs is far more popular than the rest. As a result, I’ll try to create a domain name that includes those two keywords.

Considering top level domains, hyphens, numbers and length

One factor in choosing a domain is selecting its top level domain, or TLD. There are a number of TLD’s, including .com, .net., org, and .info. I’m a huge fan of the .com TLD for a commercial site, although the others are valid for certain niches. On balance, though, I’d always go with a .com. The .com TLD most strongly resonates with people, and demonstrates–at least in my opinion–that your web site is legit. If my ideal domain name was taken in .com and available as .net or .org, I’d forego the ideal name and look for another that was available as a .com.

Another consideration is the use of numbers or hyphens. For examples, it would be possible to register www.esl-jobs.com or www.esljobs1.com. Again, I’m a fan of keeping it simple, and unless there’s a compelling reason to use hyphens or numbers, I steer clear of them. I’ll keep looking for a unique domain name that doesn’t use either of these elements. There’s nothing wrong with using them, but from a style perspective, they don’t resonate with me.

Finally, the length of the domain name is a factor. The last thing someone wants to do is type in a horrendously long domain name. Granted, most traffic coming to a web site is via links, and so domain name length isn’t a deal breaker, but as a general rule, shorter is better.

Evaluating possible domain names

With keywords in hand and some guiding principles, it’s time to discover what domain names are available. In a perfect world, I would just try different www.keywordkeyword.com combinations in my web browser and a perfect domain name would be available. No such luck for me, as both www.esljobs.com and www.jobsesl.com are taken. That means I’m going to need to get a little creative.

I’m going to need to add a word or two to ESL and jobs in order to find a domain name that hasn’t been registered yet. One resource I like to use is The Most Common Words in English. My reasoning is that adding a common word will help ensure my domain name is easier to remember and spell correctly. It also feels better than just pulling out words at random. Of course the word needs to relate to my general topic, or the combined keywords are going to be confusing. Spinning through the list, I settle on word #195: world.

Going back to my browser, I’m pleased to find that www.esljobsworld.com is available! My search for a domain name is complete, and now its time for the next step, registration.

Registering the domain name

This is the first step where it’s going to cost a bit of money. Fortunately, domain name registration is not that expensive, and there are ways to make it even less so. There’s a huge amount of competition in the market, and that means there are always deals around.

I feel it’s important to stick with a name brand registrar like Network Solutions or GoDaddy, two companies with solid reputations that have been around for ages. I personally prefer GoDaddy, as they’re a bit less expensive, and are very active in distributing promo codes that you can use to reduce the price of many of their services. A helpful list of promo codes is available in a discussion thread in the forum at DigitalPoint. Jump to the end of the thread and work your way backwards; you’ll find a number of promo codes that you can use.

The only thing left to do is actually register the domain name, and fortunately that step is by far the easiest. From the GoDaddy home page, just type in the domain name in the form at the top, and follow the steps. Be careful, though, as they will relentlessly try to sell you additional services. Just decline them as you go along, and in less than a minute or two, you’ll complete the process.

So after a lot of research and trial and error, I’ve succeeded in registering my domain name. My next step will be to fined someplace for it to live, a hosting provider!

Selecting a topic for my first web site

I decided that I want to focus on making money online by providing information that is supported by ad revenue. My next step, then, is to determine exactly what kind of information. There are a number of criteria I need to consider.

Picking a topic that I enjoy

This probably goes without saying, but if I’m going to stick with something, I’m going to need to enjoy it. Building a web site is going to have enough challenges as it is without hating its topic. So the first criteria I’ll use to narrow my focus is to narrow possible topics down to those that I actually like.

Of course there’s lots of things I like, and picking just one is a bit hard. In no particular order, I enjoy archeology, astronomy, international travel, personal finance, technology, Buddhism, scuba diving, and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL, also called ESL or EFL). That’s a pretty wide range!

To simplify things, I’m going to pick one where I feel I have an above average level of personal knowledge. I taught English overseas for a number of years, so this feels like a strong contender. I’ve also put together a few aborted web sites centered on this topic, so this won’t be completely unchartered territory.

I don’t plan to limit myself to one topic forever, but to get started, I need to focus my energies in a single direction. I’m going to tuck away the other areas for future consideration, and will likely pursue some of them as well in the future.

Narrowing the topic to a manageable niche

Now that I know the high level topic, I need to figure out a way to narrow it down even further. I suppose I could try to create some sort of super site that is all things to all people, but that seems a bit overwhelming. Also, there’s a lot of competition out there on the web these days, and if I’m going to have any hope of standing out, I need to pick a niche and pursue it.

From time time in my corporate life, I have wistfully remembered my days spent teaching English overseas. It was a great period of my life. At the end, I spent nearly five years pursuing it as a profession, teaching in such places as Prague, Istanbul and Taipei. When I move back to the States and got married, though, I decided I wanted to pursue something a little more stable and financially rewarding. It was the definitely the right choice, and one I don’t regret.

One of the ways I’ve scratched my nostalgic itch over the yeas has been to visit a number of sites that advertise overseas jobs teaching English. A few of them charge the schools for listings, while the majority make the listings free but place ads on the pages. My main challenge will be connecting with two audiences: teachers and schools. I’ll need to spend a lot of time discovering how to cost effectively market to those communities.

So, I’ve decided to launch a international job site for ESL teachers. I hope it will be a good first niche to pursue!

Choosing a method to earn money online

As I understand it, whether it’s online or offline, there are basically just a few basic ways to earn an income: selling a product, selling a service, or selling information. All of them share things in common. At the end of the day, though, no matter which path I choose, I still have to provide something of value.

That implies a group of people–customers–that have needs. That need can either be something that already exists, like needing to eat, or something that is more or less manufactured, like the need to have an iPod. The good news is that just as before iPods existed, people didn’t realize they needed them, other types of needs can be created as well.

I’m going to consider the different ways to earn money online before choosing one to pursue initially. I’ll probably try them all at some point, but for now I need to sort out where to start.

Earning money online by selling a product

This one seems obvious, and of course it has the potential to be successful. Just look at Amazon.com. A good friend of mine from college has done just this on a much smaller scale for a number of years, and is doing quite well. He has very low overhead, and has pretty much outsourced everything. He has all of his products drop shipped directly from distributors, so he doesn’t even have to deal with the costs and hassles of carrying an inventory. It seems like a pretty good strategy.

As I see it, though, there are a lot of downsides, the chief among them the logistical issues of shipping a physical product to the four corners of the world. And of course there’s customer service and support. One aspect of my friend’s business that I don’t envy is he is quite literally chained to it pretty much every single day. He’s a small business owner, and without him, the business doesn’t function. From a lifestyle perspective, I’m not sure this would be the best fit for what I’m trying to accomplish.

Earning money online by selling a service

The flip side of selling a product is selling a service, a key distinction of course being that shipping, inventory and other things related to handling a physical product are no longer a worry. Ebay is a great example (looking at it from their perspective, not that of its customers). In the past I’ve been involved as both a buyer and seller of online services, and the business model can be pretty compelling. Especially with the ability to outsource work to lower cost parts of the world, a great deal of can be accomplished for a relatively low cost. From what I can tell, it seems a lot of folks are pursuing this method.

The negative of course is that there is still very much a business that needs to be run. Customer disputes need to be resolved. Assuming the business isn’t a one person show, the people performing the work need to be managed. And unless the service is pretty much cookie cutter, spitting out exactly the same thing time after time, then you also have to get into negotiating price, scope and delivery dates for each and every job. This method isn’t one I would like to pursue.

Earning money online by selling information

The final method is to sell information online, the business model pursued by the online edition of The Wall Street Journal. I actually subscribe to it, and while it costs about $100 a year, I find I read it almost every day and really learn a lot from it. I have no idea how many active subscribers they have, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t profitable.

A twist on this model involves providing the information for free, but having some alternate means to make money. The free newspapers available in cities around the world survive solely on their ad revenue. Judging by the popularity of online advertising on a lot of the sites I visit regularly, this is a popular approach.

The downside of this approach is that you actually have to create original content. For lots of people that wouldn’t be very attractive. As I actually enjoy writing, though, it seems like a good fit. Of course like all of the other methods, earning money online by providing free information subsidized by ad revenue will require ongoing effort. As my grandmother was fond of saying, there’s no free lunch!