Friday, September 7, 2007

The Million Dollar Homepage

I'm sure everyone remembers this one -- it was only a couple of years ago and got tons of buzz -- but what an interesting tale. It's high on my (notional) list of neat hacks, social/business category.

First, Alex Tew is looking for ways to pay his tuition and decides to follow Mae West's "million men with a dollar" approach, selling off a 1000x1000 pixel image on for $1/pixel, in 10x10 pixel blocks. With your block you also get a hover and a link to the site of your choice. Once you buy it, you can't change it, so choose carefully, grasshopper.

The 10x10 minimum was because a single pixel would be hard to click on and the resulting page would look "ghastly". But if you consider the net effect of hundreds of completely unrelated parties each trying to make a small block of pixels as attention-getting as possible ... well, "garish" doesn't begin to describe it. If you mashed up Liberace, Elton John and Bootsy Collins and ran the result through a blender you might be in the neighborhood. So I'll go with "ghastly" on this one.

As soon as word starts to get out on this "You've got to be joking ... no, it's serious ... why didn't I think of that?" idea, traffic goes through the roof. At one point the page is #127 on Alexa. Naturally, everyone wants to be part of the action.

Then it gets interesting. Someone buys up a largish group of adjacent blocks and rents out the sites behind them. Makes perfect sense. Copycats spring up, offering lower rates, whizzier features or both. Some even advertise on the page itself. A new term, "pixel advertising" is coined. Are we seeing the birth of a whole new business model here? Dare we say, a whole new economy?

Well, no. The original home page accomplishes its task admirably. All million pixels are snapped up quickly (I dithered over buying a block myself but couldn't think of anything worth $100 to put on it. Do I regret that? Not really.) The final 1000 pixels fetch $38,100 on EBay. Well done, Alex!

The copycats? Not so much. Even Tew's own offshoot, Pixelotto, is way undersubscribed at about 75,000 pixels sold and looks very unlikely to sell out before its self-imposed December 2007 deadline., which advertised on the M$HP itself, selling pixels for a penny with animation allowed, is even sparser yet. Another site,, is about half full. That's about $5000, less $900 for a 30x30 ad on M$HP. Its image is still there but doesn't appear to be clickable.

None of this seems surprising. The original M$HP got all kinds of traffic because it was newsworthy. That traffic lasted as long as it remained newsworthy, which was approximately until the last pixel sold. Then, poof. Old news, no traffic, or at least not a lot of paying traffic. People still visit the page itself from time to time, but I doubt many click through to the advertisers. I expect even fewer click through to the copycats (at least one appears to have disappeared completely), much less their advertisers.

If you managed to buy in early you probably got a good jolt of traffic, but you were probably just expecting to own a piece of an internet time capsule. That was all the site ever promised, after all. If you bought in late, you were probably expecting tons of traffic, but you ended up owning a piece of an internet time capsule.

Caveat emptor.

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