Second Year of How-To Geek: Growing Pains and Lessons Learned

It’s the end of the year, when you have to suffer through all of the “Best of 200x” posts across almost every site… and this article is no exception. Today we’ll talk about our successes, failures, and lessons learned over the last year.

For more on this topic, see last year’s article: A Few Things I’ve Learned from Writing at How-To Geek

Numbers and Charts and Graphs!

First we’ll start off with the good stuff… we experienced massive growth this year, and though December has been slower than average I’m quite certain next year will be even better.

We did well this year, the 28 million pageviews came pretty close to 3x the pageviews from last year and definitely exceeded my expectations (although not my goal of 30 million).

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Firefox remained the top browser, but Internet Explorer dropped a bit… probably because of significant gains in Opera and the introduction of Google Chrome.

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Windows gained a few more percentage points as the OS of choice, which makes sense considering we don’t cover Linux like we used to. (Although we really should)

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The really interesting statistic is that Windows Vista did not gain any ground in the percentage of Windows readers, although the total visitors number is still pretty significant if you think about it.

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And now on to what I learned…

Faster is Better Where Websites are Concerned

I started off this year with a DV server from MediaTemple (and I still highly recommend them), but as our forum started to grow I realized I needed a dedicated server. After doing a ton of research online I switched over to a dedicated server from another provider…

But sadly we had months of network slowness, and most of our European forum members were very unhappy with the long ping times. After some unexpected downtime (more on that below), I ended up switching over to SoftLayer on a recommendation from a friend, and could not be happier.

For $309 / month, this website is hosted on a Quad Core Xeon 2.4ghz with 4GB of RAM, four 250GB hard drives in a RAID 10 configuration and a gigabit uplink connection. For the most part, the site is always blazing fast now, and we’ve had almost no downtime.

The moral of this story is that recommendations from friends are always better than random comments online.

Backups, Backups, Off-Site Backups, More Backups

At the very end of May 2008, there was an explosion at The Planet, the hosting provider we were using at the time. This explosion not only knocked out power to 9,000 servers but our server was down for a couple of days with zero access to the data.

Within about 6 hours of the downtime, this website was already back up and running at an alternate hosting provider, and all we lost was a few hours of forum posts. How did I manage this? Completely Automated Off-Site Backups!

I really can’t stress the importance of setting up automated backups, and then syncing them off-site to another location. I’ve detailed some of how I handle backups in this How-To Geek Wiki article: Tweaking a Dedicated Virtual Web Server.

Sticking to it Without Burning Out

This year has been an exercise in not burning myself out.

I have a full-time job as a programmer that takes up a lot of my time and energy, especially when our projects are in “crunch mode”. (Thankfully I have a truly great boss who shields us from the other pointy-haired management types)… but making yourself write articles on a daily or even weekly basis is extremely tough, and it gets more difficult as time goes on…

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic answer for you to solve the burnout problem. The only thing I can tell you is that when you have a goal, you should stick to it… no matter how many times you fail, you should try again.

On the other end of things, if you aren’t ready to dedicate a large portion of your life to building a website, with the possibility of failing miserably, you should not bother starting a website. Anybody who tries to sell you an “instant success” story is lying to you, probably for their own profit.

Fun Logos!

If you are one of the email newsletter or RSS subscribers, you might not have seen the customized logos we’ve used for the last couple real (and fake) holidays.

Thanksgiving:

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Xmas / 2008 Holidays:

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Talk Like a Pirate Day:

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The customized logos have been a lot of fun, not only to draw with my Intuos tablet, but really all the feedback from visitors which is often very entertaining.

Real Friends are Great

Over the course of this year, I’ve been blessed to interact with many friendly people, especially on our forum. There’s too many people to mention everybody by name, but I’d like to say a special thanks to our great forum members, who have turned the How-To Geek Forums into the friendliest forum around.

I would like to say a special thanks to a few people that have been helpful and encouraging to me personally:

  • Scott, our forum administrator. He’s been more than just a great asset for keeping the forums civil and friendly, but a great friend to me.
  • Ross from Simple Help has been my late night IM buddy for the majority of the year, and a really great friend. When push came to shove during an incident earlier this year, he stood behind me and I will always appreciate it.
  • MysticGeek is the other regular writer on this site besides myself, but he’s also been a great friend – his enthusiasm has kept me motivated for nearly 2 years now.

Note: Be careful to choose the right people to put your faith and trust in. One thing I’ve learned this year is the importance of relying on trustworthy people.

What’s Next?

We’ve got a ton of stuff in the pipeline… some of you might have noticed we switched over to Aweber for the daily email newsletter, which gives us the chance to use a custom template for the newsletter, and also to setup a periodic newsletter (more on that in a few weeks).

Stay tuned for more announcements coming soon…

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.