From the start, this website has been primarily funded by advertising. That has both paid for the hosting costs of the website and the professional skills involved in running it, and meant that the content can be displayed without charge.
However, recently we've approached something of a tipping point. This is an expensive site to run, both in terms of hosting costs and the time taken to administer it. From a small website running on a simple shared web hosting account, it has grown to requiring dedicated hardware in a data centre for the underlying technical framework and cloud storage for the photos. The time taken to manage the photos is significant - every photo needs to be manually checked before going live on the site, because otherwise we'd end up with a site full of spam and porn. Even then, some get through that shouldn't be there, mainly because they've been assigned to the wrong building or uploaded more than once. So dealing with user reports is a big part of the admin time, too. And it's only going to get bigger.
There are just under half a million listed buildings in Great Britain. So far, we've got photos of around 160,000 of them - that is, just over 30% of the total.
When I started the site, back in 2010, the idea that it would get this big was just a dream. Getting to even 30% photo coverage of all of Britain's listed buildings was hard to imagine, especially by the end of the first year when we'd managed about 1%. But now, with the increased usage of the site, it's genuinely foreseeable that in another decade's time we'll be close to 100%.
Advertising revenue hasn't grown at the same rate as usage, and nowhere near as fast as the costs of hosting all the data. On the contrary, advertising revenue has generally been on a downward trend in the past few years.
This isn't because more people are using adblockers, and it isn't because fewer people are visiting the site. Visitor numbers are up, and so are advertising views. But the total revenue from those adverts is down.
There are all sorts of possible reasons for that, and it's likely that there are several factors involved. But what it basically comes down to is that advertisers are spending less on advertising (or, at least, less on this type of advertising), so our share of what the advertising networks get is correspondingly smaller as well.
One way to solve that would simply be to put even more advertising on the website. More adverts equals more money, it's as simple as that.
But I'm reluctant to go down that route, for several reasons. One is that it ends up in a kind of arms race, where ever more intrusive adverts encourage more and more people to install adblockers, thus nullifying the gains. But, also, I'm well aware that the most lucrative forms of advertising are the ones that people hate the most.
Most people accept that something which is free to use will need some form of income, so they also accept that advertising is a part of that. It works for free-to-air TV channels such as ITV and Channel 4, it works for local free newspapers and it works for websites.
What people don't accept, though, is where the adverts become so intrusive and disruptive that they make it hard to view the content. Just scrolling past an advert on the screen, or clicking through an interstitial, is trivial. But experience shows that people really hate adverts which autoplay audio or video, or which appear in the middle of viewing the page, or cause the content to reflow after the page has loaded.
Unfortunately, audio and video adverts are where the advertising money is mostly going these days. Simple text and image based adverts, which is what we've primarily stuck with, are going out of favour.
So the question is, what do we do about it?
Leaving things as they are isn't an option. We have to either increase advertising income, or find other sources of revenue.
I really don't want to go down the route of increasing the ad load on the site. I know how much that would annoy people, and in the long run it may well be counter-productive anyway. Ideally, I'd like to be able to reduce, not increase, the number of ads on the site.
One obvious solution is voluntary donations. We already offer that as an option, although it's not particularly well used. Persuading more people to donate would, though, make a big difference. If everyone who regularly visits the site were to make a £10 donation just once every twelve months then we could remove adverts altogether.
Realistically, of course, that's not going to happen. Some people just don't care about adverts. Some people won't donate as a matter of principle. And some, of course, do use adblockers.
What it does mean, though, is that it would be possible to offer a subscription option that would give an ad-free experience for a relatively small amount - just a tenner a year would be enough.
So, this is where we're asking for your feedback. Would you be willing to subscribe in order to get advert-free viewing of the site? Or, even just for the sake of supporting a small, family-run business that exists in order to make a positive contribution to the Internet and the web?
Just to reiterate: the content on this website (and every other website in our portfolio) will always be free to view and free to share. When I set up the business, I was determined to prove that it isn't necessary to adopt a restrictive approach to web publishing, that a commitment to open source and open data works for providers as well as consumers. That hasn't changed.
What we're simply exploring here is a different way of funding that commitment to openness.
So, are you interested? If so, please use the survey on this page to tell us more.
Many thanks for taking the time to read and respond to this.
And if you feel like making a donation while you're here, this is how you can do it...