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The rise and fall (and rise?) of Birchtree

Things are dire at Birchtree. Or are they?

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 6 min read
The rise and fall (and rise?) of Birchtree

I’m a big fan of transparency when it comes to creative work. This blog’s analytics are totally open to anyone who wants to see them, and one of my first videos in 2023 was about exactly how much money I earned from my channel in the previous year. I think it’s important to get these data points out there because I think many people have a warped view on how much attention and money people with an audience actually have. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but very few people are spot on.

I also think it’s worth sharing because despite how people like to share just their wins on social media, not everything is always going up and to the right. Case in point: this blog!

Back in 2015 I started a recurring task to record a few monthly stats in a spreadsheet so I could see how things were doing over time. One of those stats was for pageviews on this very blog. I launched this blog in 2010, and I don’t have metrics going that far back, sadly. The best way I can tell you that I didn’t get much readership back then is to say I had a rule set up in my analytics package of the time to email me a message with the subject line “BIG DAY!” if I got 10 hits.

10!

But in around 2013 or so I started to get a little traction and it started to grow quite well. You can see the numbers keep going up and up until I just cracked 500,000 in 2018. It really seemed like 1 million was in the cards, but then I stayed steady in 2019. Then I dropped a ton in 2020. Then another massive drop in 2021. I leveled off in 2022 and am on pace to rise a little in this year, but I’m still at less than half of the pageviews I was getting at my peak.

And not that it’s ever been the main focus of this blog, but ad revenue has plummeted too. Pageviews are down and CPMs have been cut in half of worse than they used to be, so the money I make on this is effectively zero (it was $10.54 last month). I never got rich on this site, but it was bringing in $50-100/month a few years ago.

Despite these clearly disastrous numbers, a few things also seem very clear to me:

  1. I get more responses to my writing than ever before
  2. More people email me questions and feedback than ever before
  3. I’m 99% sure more notable people in the Apple enthusiast crowd follow my blog than ever before

So why the drop and why do I feel like things are still going fine?

There are 2 changes I can see to my site that were within my control in recent years that could conceivably cause a change:

  1. I post more about social and political issues
  2. Birchtree is no longer my main creative project

Like many of us, it felt harder to not talk about hot button issues in 2015 on, and I certainly post more opinionated things here than I used to. I still mostly talk about tech, but this is a personal site and sometimes I feel strongly about something else that I post about it anyway. I think it’s important, and when I look back in those older posts, I’m happy to see I got my feeling out there in writing. But I don’t think this made people run from my site. I started more political posts in 2015 ad was very vocal about the most controversial issues of the day, but I was seeing my biggest growth in 2015-2018, so it seems hard to pin a decline on my anti-Trump rhetoric. Maybe the drop that really kicked off in 2020 when I was supportive of COVID being dangerous and improving institutional racism, but I’d kinda think if you were with me for the politics stuff for the years before, you’d be generally okay with those positions too. Or maybe not and I had a lot of COVID deniers and people who think racism died out 50 years ago. Or maybe I lost people when I started prominently posting support for the LGBTQ communities…is the Pride flag at the top of this page losing me readers???

All that said, maybe half of my readers couldn’t take the semi-regular dips into non-tech issues. I’m skeptical, but maybe!

The other thing I changed is that in 2020 Birchtree was no longer my main creative project. I started A Better Computer on 1 June 2020 (that date format is for my European friends ❤️) and I’ve really put a lot of effort into it. I only have so many hours in the day, and I do have a day job that is quite taxing all on its own, so I simply don’t have as much time to write here anymore.

Author’s note #1: my 365 Albums Project has inflated my 2023 numbers quite a bit, but those mostly hit on social media since you can just see the featured image and know everything in the post, they don’t do numbers on their own. There’s maybe something to be said for those as well, as they get tiny page views compared to posts like this, but I’ve gotten so many messages from people who say they love the series, so another good reminder that pageviews don’t always equal impact.

But I’m not sure my slowing down accounts for a nearly 60% drop in hits from my peak. I slowed down, sure, but not that much, and I never slowed down to the point someone might wonder, “is this blog dead?” And again, I feel like I get more engagement, more comments, and reactions from more notable people, despite the metrics showing a tale of woe.

My best guess as to what’s happened in the past 4-5 years is that fewer people are casually reading blogs or seeking out new ones. I think that’s meant a lot of people who casually followed along have drifted away. Maybe they stopped using RSS and just use social media for their news, or maybe they swipe through TikTok rather than look for blog posts to read. But then there are people like me who have kept on using RSS as their main “news service” for over a decade and enjoy reading posts about the things we love. Those people are still here and those are also the people who are more likely to follow me on Mastodon or email me directly to praise, criticize, or add context to the things I write.

This is all speculation, though. Maybe I have a distorted view of the landscape and blogs are booming, and I took my foot off the gas so I’m sinking. Maybe my “COVID and Trump are genuinely dangerous” opinions actually did alienate a huge swath of my readers. Maybe it’s something I can‘t control like Google down ranking some of my hit posts. Maybe I redesigned my site and hurt my SEO. Maybe it’s something else I’m not even thinking about! If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s that I don’t particularly care. Sure, I’d love to see the numbers go up, but this isn’t how I make my living and I don’t expect it ever will be. The value I get from this blog is twofold. First, I enjoy the process of collecting my thoughts into blog posts and sharing them online. And second, I enjoy the conversations it lets me have with nice and interesting people. I am an introvert at heart, but I genuinely value the relationships, and in some cases friendships, I’ve built up over the years doing this. I’ve said before that most people I know “in the real world” don’t really want to talk about tech as much as I do, so it’s always been wonderful to have a way into a community that feels like I do (or sometimes not, especially in the case of RCS on the iPhone 😉) and wants to chat about it.

That’s the value I get from this project, and that’s why I can look at that sad line graph at the top of this post and go, “huh, interesting,” and not, “oh my god, why am I failing?”

Author’s note #2: If you wanted an idea of how little traffic Twitter drove to my site, I completely cut off Twitter at the start of this year and I’m going to get more people overall coming here this year than either of the last 2 years when I was posting everything to Twitter.