History of DrivingEnthusiast
DrivingEnthusiast.net begins our 14th year in 2012. Follow its history here… with a couple of speed bumps.
1999: Starting Small
We started the original site in early 1999 for the express purpose of sharing detailed images of the IRS suspension of our new 1999 Mustang Cobra. Our Cobra was the first or second delivery in the state, and there was a lot of interest in what the all-new suspension looked like. We also wanted a place to drop all of the photos we’d taken in numerous auto shows and at various automotive events. That was quickly accomplished, and then our page hit rate started to accelerate at a very fast pace: the topic – or perhaps even the site – was very successful.
But we had other goals as well. One of our first was to learn how to build a non-commercial Internet site with an ISP. We’d already built several intranet sites, including an extensive project documentation site that featured an online business flowchart for the business project leaders. When any element in the flowchart was clicked, it took the reader to the detailed documentation for that step of the process. That site was created entirely by hand-coding in the days before coding tools were available. Then one day a start-up company named Vermeer came out with a new product named FrontPage. That changed everything for website developers.
But getting back to our site, there were problems with it. By late 1999 we’d split off from our Ford roots and started playing around with an S2000 and so wanted to open up the site to other topics. Ford and Honda owners are two very distinct groups, and don’t care to read about each other’s cars. An awkward attempt at splitting the site into two distinct parts resulted in a multiple personality disorder that just didn’t work. Reader feedback indicated that it didn’t work with two polarized brands – so we added several more! The cutaway pictures of the Panoz and Shelby Series 1 chassis were very popular with readers, while our completely honest ’97 Viper GTS Road Trip report resulted in a threat of violence from some bum on the west coast who had just spent his entire 401K on one.
2000: Back to our roots
In 2000, in response to an article in Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords magazine covering our site, we tried taking a step backwards and reworked the site as a Ford-only site. Also, some readers were still on limited bandwidth dial-up systems and clearly told us they didn’t want extensive menus or to click too many times to get to a topic. We tried moving all of the topics to the main page, and that didn’t work. We were confused about where to go… and confusing to our readers.
We then made an executive decision to keep building the site the way we wanted to in the first place: given our intent of providing as many high-res images as possible, the site wasn’t viable to low-bandwidth readers anyway. Fortunately, low-bandwidth readers were dropping out of the picture very quickly anyway.
Judging from website statistics, two things did work very well for us: images from the monthly open track events we were doing (encouraging more readers to try one themselves), and continued emphasis on detailed images of significant new products such as the 2000 Mustang Cobra R. We put together the largest collection of Cobra R images on the ‘net. The Cobra R section of the site sent the counters into the stratosphere.
By this time things were getting out of hand. We’d passed the milestone of 4000 pages and 8000 images. Things were crazy and were getting very complicated, and our time was very limited (it’s tough to write a site while flying millions of miles on business trips), so in late 2001 we put the site on hold. Why? One reason was that we had made the mistake of putting various counters into the site. They shot up very quickly. This in turn required us to keep adding more and more new material so that the counters would continue to go up. An endless closed loop. When we hit somewhere around 200,000 unique hits, it was clear we were on to something, but it was a serious impact to our limited time so we decided to call a halt.
In short, the site had become an albatross.
Another consideration was that, given the ISP we were using at the time, we couldn’t build the state-of-the-art database-driven website we wanted to build. If we couldn’t learn anything, we’d lost one of the major points in continuing what had become a hobby into itself.
But we missed the site, and several people told us they did too. One of the best known articles on our site was the first iteration of the story about how Ford developed the Mustang SVO at Nelson Ledges. That was the type of thing we wanted to write and share across the net.
So in early 2003 we established the DrivingEnthusiast.net domain name and a new ISP to go with it. And we spent time examining site statistics from our web logs in great detail in order to understand what readers were reading. The internet was getting more and more interesting in these years, especially the rise of the Google search engine and ensuring your site was noticed by it had become an art and we wanted to know more about how that worked.
And so the site continued to grow… and grow….
2006-2007: Divide and Conquer
By mid-2006 it became clear that some topics needed their own URL in order to be successful (meaning, to be found by search engines and also to be centric to a specific block of readers). There were too many topics on this site, and several areas we’d put some good work into were too submerged in the rest to be found.
In July 2006, this process began. The Car Movies topic, for one, was moved to a sub-domain with its own URL. Same for the S2000 topic. From this point forward, major topics (such as brands of cars) will be put in their own sub-domain so that they will have a distinct URL to promote.
The banner at the top of the site was originally built as a series of menus that intentionally looked like the Office 2007 Ribbon. This took some work, and looked and functioned great – however we were ahead of our time and decided to back off from that idea until a vendor created code libraries that we could use so that we didn’t have to build the (very) involved graphics. We really like Microsoft’s Ribbon, but until vendor libraries can provide the function we decided that to stick with a simple set of oval buttons to navigate around the different parts of the site and the sub-domain sites.
- We also started the process of adding additional categories to our blogs, and immediately found that many more readers started subscribing. Hit rates for the entire network substantially improved.
In 2006, we started a new series on Mazda, featuring unique cutaway images of the then-new Miata (er, MX-5 to use its correct name). These became extremely popular downloads and were viewed thousands of times.
Given the popularity of Mazda topics, In 2007 a new Mazda sub-domain was created. It kicked off featuring high-res pictures of the new MazdaSpeed3/6 engine. These became some of the most popular downloads in our history as enthusiasts took note of these cars.
2008/2009: Recent History
As 2008 progressed, we revised the top banner and added a “smart bar” for navigation across all the sites in the DrivingEnthusiast.net “network”. We added over 100 new categories and an indexing feature so that readers can browse thru older posts. This is in response to an examination of our site stats from our ISP, where we found that readers were missing a considerable amount of good information that was essentially “locked away” in older posts.
In early 2009, we revised the blog appearance and expanded our advertising to help pay our ISP costs. We started focusing even more closely on supplying the highest resolution images available for any new and significant products we cover. The 2010 Taurus SHO is one such example and the entire SHO topic is extremely popular. Thanks to all these efforts, our hit rates grew by over 50% year-to-year over 2008, so we know we’re on the right track.
But several factors still weren’t right, and the industry was changing beneath us. The December 2009 redesign reflects several challenges:
- the industry trend where blogs are more important than sites
- the busyness of all the buttons on the top
- the need to ditch Radio UserLand as our blogging tool and replace it with an industry standard
- the rise of social media, namely Twitter and YouTube.
So a complete rethink – followed by a redesign – was needed. WordPress would take the place of Radio Userland, and a cleaner overall website design would emphasize the blog as the main feature of the website, with the main sections of the former site as simply supporting elements to the blog (referenced to the left). Obviously WordPress opens up all sorts of options, and those outweigh accompanying complications such as theme design. For now, we’re using an off-the-shelf theme. You will notice us trying different plug-ins with it and we’ll take a crack at developing our own in a future step. But, for now, it’s subtle and we like the muted colors.
The Twitter and YouTube links have done well, generating traffic in both directions. We have yet to really exploit YouTube but we do host a couple of videos there. We’ll also add a FaceBook section at some point and have it setup but are leaving it dormant at the moment.
Our next step was to get rid of the clunky theme (blog template) we started with and replace it with something more professional looking. We wanted a rotating section at top, where we could feature important stories that would “stick”. The problem is that there are over 2500 individual blog postings “inside”, and some important stories might all but disappear after only a few days. So the feature news section, combined with the tag cloud, helps mitigate that issue.
Despite all the good progress to date, there is a lot of work to be done, and at the moment this site is a lot closer to addressing our goals than the original version was. We’ve also got a lot of editing (especially photo editing) to do in order to get the images up to spec.
We still have outstanding issues in the site design, particularly in finding some way to highlight the enormous number of pages in the site that aren’t being seen very frequently. We need to find a way to make these significant topics more visible. With >12000 pages and even more images, and over 2600 blog posts, finding a way to do this won’t be easy. That’s also the reason why we can’t rewrite the site to be CSS compliant – there are just too many pages and entries to change. We’re experimenting with updates to the current design, and have tried an all-new design as well. As always, graphics design skills would be nice to have but we just don’t have them. But then, content is the draw for our readers and we continue to add that in great quantity. That’s the most important deliverable of this site, and it will continue to be.