How this barbecue website built a thriving ecommerce business

AmazingRibs’s reviews of grilling products often show up at the top of search results.

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AmazingRibs.com has the kind of diversified business model that most media companies would envy. It runs a membership program with over 15,000 paying subscribers. It sells programmatic display ads. It even published a bestselling book about the “science of barbecue and grilling” that continues to move copies years after it hit the market. 

And it also runs a thriving ecommerce business, one for which its staffers submit grilling equipment to thorough testing before publishing reviews. Those reviews contain affiliate links for readers to buy the equipment, and those links drive a lot of purchases. According to Meathead Goldwyn, the site’s founder, affiliate ads were, until relatively recently, the site’s biggest revenue driver.

I recently interviewed Meathead about how he designed his product review process, who seeks out the site’s reviews, and why his affiliate revenue has decreased in recent years. Let’s jump into it.

How long after your site's founding did you start to dabble in affiliate links?

Probably within a year or two. I shopped on Amazon occasionally and I think I stumbled into it in their footer.

So when you decided to experiment with affiliate sales, were you already reviewing some products before then, or did you decide to launch reviews in direct correlation of when you launched into affiliates?

Readers were asking my opinion on this grill and that smoker, so I started writing reviews. They were not very thorough though. I then discovered Amazon affiliation. I don't think many others were doing it back then, around 2005.

I decided that we needed to be very thorough in our reviews. I did not want to give readers bad info and I didn't want to hurt a manufacturer unfairly. I also realized that having reviews was a traffic builder. Many of our reviews are among the top two results on Google if you search for a product.

I know you eventually brought on people to help you, but in the early days was it just you reviewing the products, or was it a group effort from the very beginning?

It was me for a few years. I brought on Max Good for grills and smokers after about five years. Bill McGrath for thermometers a few years later.

In those very early days, how were you acquiring the products to review?

I bought some, some manufacturers reached out to me, and I reached out to some of them. It’s still the same process as today, although now a LOT of people come to us.

And would there be a prerequisite that the product had to have a listing on Amazon or somewhere else that had an affiliate link, or would you review regardless of whether there was an affiliate link?

No. We serve the customer first. We will review anything anywhere. But it must be a commercial product in retail packaging. No Kickstarters. We reviewed a Kickstarter project once and it was delayed three years. Too many of them don't turn out as billed.

When we are done we NEVER sell the product. The manufacturer can pick it up or often we give it away. A lot of local fire departments have great grills now.

So walk me through the process now. Let’s say I’m a manufacturer who wants AmazingRibs.com to review my appliance. What do I do?

I forward you to Max if it’s a grill, to Bill if a thermometer. If it’s a gadget, then either another member of the team or I take it. We each have a form letter explaining the policy.

So let's say it's a grill. What's Max's approach once he receives it? How long is he testing it?

He takes as long as he needs. He starts by unboxing and takes notes on the assembly. Intuitive? Knuckle buster? Notes on fit and finish. Sharp edges? Good welds? Then he does a video "Virtual Showroom" tour for YouTube. Then he fires it up and places probes all over the cooking surface to measure temps. We do a bread test to show hotspots. Then he cooks a variety of foods. Usually steaks, burgers, wings, and then something low and slow for hours.

He tries to break it.

He takes notes on how well it works, whether it’s intuitive, etc.

So once he's done the research portion, how long does the review usually end up being?

Too long. He is meticulous and slow. I am constantly nagging him to speed up. But he is thorough.

It can take three months from delivery of the crate to something on the site. Longer if he has products in line ahead of it, which he often does.

Do you try to rank products within the same category? Or do you treat each review as a self-contained silo?

Self contained. But for the holidays we produce top 10 lists. Also a Best New Products of the year list.

Who do you think is the primary audience for your reviews? Is it the main website audience or people who are Googling the product's name and the word "review"?

Probably the Googlers. But when we surveyed our members, most said they were in the market this year. 

How do you choose an affiliate link to include with the review? Is it based on which pays out the highest commission, or some other factors?

We usually have more than one. We let the reader pick. Prices fluctuate so often and sometimes there is free shipping.

I think it is typical they will use our links the first time. It may take them a month or more to make a buying decision and by then they have a bookmark so we get no fee. So we serve the reader first.

Do you ever have affiliate links directly to the manufacturer or product maker? Or is it usually through third party retailer sites like Amazon?

Often we link directly to the manufacturer. Many of them sell only directly. Few have affiliate programs. I see this the same as I see recipes or technique articles: it is central to  our mission to educate. We don't make money on a recipe.

There have been reports of a sharp increase in ecommerce sales during the Covid-19 pandemic. Have you noticed any changes in affiliate sales over the last few months?

Affiliate revenue is way down. Amazon has cut the percentage affiliates receive. We had the field to ourselves for years but now there are scores of daddy bloggers with links.

Even some of the big magazines are now in the game. You can't live on advertising. I expect Amazon to continue cutting affiliate fees and maybe even kill the program someday.

How does your community participate in the reviews? Do you get a bunch of comments that either elaborate or disagree with the reviews?

Yes. Readers agree or disagree. Ask questions. We occasionally get the middle finger from some guy who has a grill we panned and he loves it. Confirmation bias is strong.

But feedback helps us. We recently reviewed a novel new design and got a few reports of problems with it. We retested it and it broke. We downgraded our review. We also scan the web for consumers who have the unit and their thoughts.

Do the product makers ever come back to you and say they've fixed some problem you've identified and ask you to do a new review?

Yes and no. Sometimes they just make the fix quietly. We joke that they should pay us a consulting fee.

How do affiliate sales fit into your overall revenue pie chart?

Memberships X. Affiliates X/2. Advertising X/2. Book royalties X/3.

As in you make half as much through affiliates as you do with memberships? And you make about the same amount through affiliates as you do other kinds of advertising?

Yes. Half of what we make from members. Affiliate revenue and ads are about the same now.

In 2016 and 2017, affiliate ads were the largest revenue stream. No longer.

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It’s actually excerpted from an ebook of case studies titled “The Next Media Moguls, Volume 1: Lessons from 10 successful media entrepreneurs and executives.” You can download the PDF over here.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.