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Inside TorrentFreak: Ernesto's art of the niche

If you wanted to know how even the tightest niche subject can explode as a blog, you'd look at TorrentFreak. We talk to the site's founder, 'Ernesto', about how to get 3 million readers

With nearly 1.5 billion people now connected to the Internet, it's no surprise that niche ideas can flourish online. Entire social networks exist solely for people in the CCTV industry, for example, or for people living with herpes and thrush who desire partners who also have herpes and thrush. 

You're statistically likely to have never heard of TorrentFreak -- a blog that focuses solely on the file-sharing and BitTorrent industry and the controversies that surround it. But if there was ever an example of how blogs, no matter how niche their focus, can explode if given passion and dedication, this is it.

Today is TorrentFreak's third birthday, and we spoke at length with the site's founder and editor, 'Ernesto' -- an assistant professor, lecturer and psychology researcher in the Netherlands, who prefers not to reveal his identity -- to hear the story behind the biggest, most fascinating tech site you've probably never heard of.

"We currently have 3 million unique visitors a month"

TorrentFreak began in late 2005 with the publication of a short post about file-sharing service Grokster. But by 2008, FeedBurner was recording over half a million subscribers just to the blog's RSS feed, and even the site's founder is surprised. "I never expected the site to grow this big," Ernesto told CNET UK. "We currently have 3 million unique visitors a month." 

"We are not a news aggregator, as we focus on news that hasn't been covered yet by other news sites. This generates a lot of incoming links [and] it guarantees that people will read 'news' and not the 999th article on the same subject. Combined with the growing interest in BitTorrent, and file-sharing in general, this is what kept the site growing, even though we're in a tight niche."

"TorrentFreak wouldn't be where it is now without digg"

Of course, blogs are a fundamental part of Web 2.0, and go hand-in-hand with social networks. Digg is one of the most visited networks on the Web, and Ernesto didn't hesitate to highlight just how important such sites are to the growing of a niche blog.

"TorrentFreak wouldn't be where it is now without Digg. Especially in the beginning it's really hard to get noticed, so I'm grateful Digg users dugg so many of our stories. Today, we still get a lot of visitors via Digg and other social media sites -- close to 10 per cent of our monthly traffic. [It] was really important in the beginning, and motivated me to keep writing, and I still appreciate every user that diggs one of our stories today."

"It's a full-time job, but it's still a hobby"

But maintaining this kind of following isn't easy. In addition to his full-time employment as an assistant professor, Ernesto explains, "[I work] somewhere between 40 and 50 hours a week [for TorrentFreak], which comes down to six or seven hours a day, seven days a week. It's a full-time job, but [it's] still a hobby, and I'd like to keep it that way."

This isn't a new observation. The rise of blogging has been fuelled less by money, and more by the desire to write about subjects people truly care about. And in the world of news, that often means writing at ungodly hours, for ungodly hours on end.

Getting other people on board can help. "Currently we are working with a team of three writers," Ernesto told us, counting himself as part of the team. "Andy (credited as 'Enigmax') writes on a daily basis, and Ben writes two or three articles a month. In addition we always welcome readers to contribute, and every now and then we invite experts to write columns on topics that interest our readers."

"Bloggers are not becoming journalists, but the other way around"

The blogosphere is dominated by sites that have risen in popularity as a result of consistent and insightful commentary, educated more through learning-by-doing and topical knowledge than by journalistic coaching.

"I think there is still a huge gap between journalists and bloggers," muses Ernesto. "If the gap is becoming smaller it's probably because more journalists are starting a newspaper's blog. So, bloggers are not becoming journalists, but the other way around."

And this divide is blurred further still when sites such as TorrentFreak have their reporting taken as seriously as mainstream publications. Ernesto wrote a story about US telco Comcast throttling BitTorrent traffic, about which he told us, "[We were] the first to cover that, [and] it eventually led to an FCC investigation, and TorrentFreak was mentioned in the final report, which I'm quite proud of."

"TorrentFreak is hosted on a single dedicated server"

But what's perhaps even more impressive are the free platforms and affordable hosting solutions many blogs can be built upon. "TorrentFreak is hosted on a single dedicated server," Ernesto explained, despite having 3 million unique visitors. Ernesto says his optimisation allows, he believes, the site to double its size without running into problems with infrastructure. The New York Times' blogs run on the same blogging platform, WordPress. And it's completely free.

Blogs such as Engadget and TechCrunch have been hugely influential in the publishing world, but they focus on reasonably large subject areas. It's when you look at sites such as TorrentFreak that you realise how important blogs can be, and how they can flourish in a tight niche, if given the appropriate dedication and the correct team of writers.

If you ever wanted to learn the best way to write about your unfathomably obscure passions, this is a site to use as your reference.