In October 2007, I launched a pet project called foodlah.com, a website that aggregated blog posts from Malaysian and Singaporean food blogs. The whole project was really an experiment in content curation. There was then a big rise in food blogging in Malaysia, and content was all over the place. My aim was to aggregate all that content to make it more convenient to read and find content. I also wanted to see if the project could sustain itself through means like online advertising and sponsorship. Today, I decided to shut the site down for several reasons. There were many lessons learnt from that project leading up to my decision to shut it down, and I felt it was worth sharing.
Good content – a basic necessity
The site started off as a simple wordpress site with a plugin to aggregate content via RSS into one place. This is a common model for many sites that farm and scrape content from multiple RSS feeds. Despite the fact that farming and scraping content is frowned upon by bloggers (there are some notable exceptions), I felt that aggregating good content in one place to make it more accessible was worth the experiment. Over the years, I carefully selected blogs that had good content, and I removed blogs that were neglected or showed a considerable drop in content quality.
Good content was crucial for two things: people searching for specific food reviews and people browsing the latest food reviews. Keeping the site fresh with good content alone made the site sustainable, averaging more than 2000 visits per day for more than 2 years. When I asked readers for feedback, they said they liked coming to one place to find everything. And that’s pretty much the only thing the site did.
Caring about content and the people who make them
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. When I started, many bloggers got upset that I was ‘stealing’ their content and I apologized. Instead of publishing full articles, I published summaries instead and made the links back to their site more prominent. I learned to be more courteous with authors and to treat them with greater respect. Every subsequent site I wanted to aggregate was initiated with an email asking the author for permission. I also disabled commenting on foodlah, because my main goal was to drive people to the food blogs where the real conversations were taking place.
Later when the site grew bigger, I installed an “add my blog” submission form so bloggers could ask for their blog to be aggregated. When bloggers sent me a request, I evaluated each site for quality, consistency, and authenticity – then wrote back to every one of them. Not all of them responded back whenever I agreed to add their blog to the aggregator though. This made me sad but there are many food bloggers who blog for profit and profit alone. Not that I’m against making a profit – but sometimes the quality isn’t there to match.
Features can choke your content
Besides content aggregation, I experimented with many “web 2.0” features, thinking it would make the site more innovative. I tried things like automated tagging, manually adding location data, adding a gallery of thumbnails from images in the articles, and adding links to most viewed posts and related posts. The features made the site feel bloated and clinical, as the features came to overpower the content people were really after. I didn’t take long before I started kill the features, but I kept ones like “most viewed posts” and “related posts” which improved the browsing and searching experience.
Partly due to my inexperience, trying to make the features work to achieve a good user experience took up too much time. Good user experiences are almost never achievable out of the box, especially when ‘plugging in’ new features one after another. Enabling more plugins meant performance drawbacks, and many needed to be modified. It wasn’t worth the effort, especially when each new feature seemed to choke life out of the content, and ultimately out of the site.
Be wary of your ability to maintain your site’s overall experience
Running a good website takes a lot of effort. Good content requires effort to write. Good interactive experiences require effort to design and build. While tools and platforms make it easier to publish, design and distribute content, the real work remains a human endeavor. It’s too easy these days to enable plugins, add scripts, install themes, but none of these add any real value to websites and can hinder the overall experience.
That’s hard to swallow for many people who can’t control every part of the UX of their website, whether it is the content or the code. And even if they do, they still need to design it. But I think it’s important to scale things back when websites get so unmanageable that it hurts the quality of the experience. And sometimes, some websites just need to die.
Why foodlah.com had to die
Ultimately, I shut down the site because there weren’t anymore lessons worth learning from it. The underlying code was rough and ready, and I wasn’t willing to re-write everything from scratch. There are now better ways to viewing aggregated content and I felt the site wasn’t doing anyone favors by “hanging around” – shutting it down was like pruning the dead leaves of trees that made the Internet. Part of me was never happy with the site even though it lasted so long. And while I was able to pay the server fees from the ad money, profit was never the main objective.
I do think it’s worth investing time in pet projects as they can provide valuable lessons outside of a traditional office, but it all depends on how much you want to invest and what you want to learn from it.