Summary List Placement
Deborah Carver, a content technologist and media consultant, began quietly running an experiment last December, about six months after she had launched a newsletter on Substack. Carver created a website on Ghost, a content management system that doubles as an email-service provider, and began publishing everything she sent out via Substack on Ghost as well.
She was duplicating content, a practice that she herself would be the first to warn against.
“A search engine doesn’t know what the true source of authority is, and duplicate content can be perceived as a cheat,” she explained in a newsletter post. “But I was confident in my ability to canonicalize my pages and manage both systems, at least for a little while.”
When the pandemic struck four months later, her dual-publishing experiment grew unmanageable. In April, she gave up on Ghost.
In August, when checking on a different experiment, Carver noticed that her Ghost website had been accruing organic traffic. Even though she had posted the same content to Substack and Ghost, and despite the fact that she had not published on Ghost since April, Carver found that traffic to the site was four times higher than than the traffic to her Substack, according to documents reviewed by Business Insider.
An expert in search engine optimization and the information architecture of websites, Carver was unsurprised by this. Much of Substack’s appeal lies in its simplicity, which comes at the expense of search engine optimization.
In November, she announced that she was leaving Substack for Ghost. As a self-respecting content technologist, she could not in good faith continue to use a platform whose porous search engine optimization was costing her thousands of potential readers, she wrote.
“The best audience you’re ever going to get is the one seeking out your content,” Carver said. “With Substack, you’re leaving them on the table.”
Substack’s poor SEO makes its newsletters less likely to surface in search engine results.
On Substack, content is largely unstructured: there are no keywords or other types of information architecture that help Google index a website so it’s posts rank poorly in search results, which reduces their ability to draw in organic traffic.
According to Carver, this means that for all the work a writer might put into a Substack post, its lifespan of SEO relevance is incredibly short.
“With Substack, your next post is always your most important. And once it’s out, it’s done,” said Carver.
With a content management system like Ghost, however, your content continues working for you through organic search. Like a source of passive income, the SEO embedded in Ghost articles draws in new readers with no extra effort.
As Carver witnessed, the lack of SEO considerations built into Substack mean that few people will ever see your published newsletter unless you send it directly to their email inbox. This opportunity cost — the thousands of readers your posts could be getting through organic traffic — led Carter to switch.
On Ghost, your content is the product, not you.
As others have noted, Substack has a “discovery” problem, meaning that the platform offers users few tools for finding new content. Last week, the platform released a beta of its Substack Reader, which aims to ameliorate this issue, though the product has drawn some early criticisms.
Prominent writers, especially those who have accumulated large social followings, overcome this challenge by promiting their newsletter on other platforms. Writers without preexisting readerships, however, have struggled to expand their reach through their newsletter writing.
These factors place the focus on the person writing the newsletter, rather than on its contents. Carver, whose 950 Substack subscribers and modest Twitter following mean she must look externally for growth, points to the flaws this system presents for someone like her. She has worked in website design for 20 years and in SEO for seven, and the expertise in her writing reflects that.
“I don’t want to be the product,” said Carver. “I want my content to be the product.”
While Ghost also lacks a native discovery system, its heightened SEO means users searching the web are far likelier to find their way to Carver’s work. She still gets all the benefits of email, but she also enjoys the organic traffic brought to her by Ghost’s SEO.
Ghost’s monetization model offers writers a built-in “excuse” to turn on the paywall. Plus, it scales better.
Substack’s policy of reducing barriers to entry also applies to its cost: the platform is free to use, unless a newsletter-writer turns on their paywall — after that, Substack takes a 10% revenue cut.
Ghost, on the other hand, charges $29 a month for the first 1,000 subscribers, a figure that raises to $79 a month when a newsletter reaches 8,000 subscribers. While this model is less appealing to curious writers exploring the idea of a newsletter, its merits quickly become apparent.
For one, the immediate cost gives writers a built-in excuse to paywall their writing: If you have bills to pay, it’s easier to justify asking your readers to chip in. On Substack, on the other hand, writers have wrung their hands over the delicate politics behind asking for money, leading some to inventive workarounds.
Moreover, once a writer does choose to monetize, Ghost’s flat fee quickly becomes more appealing than Substack’s percentage cut. Imagine your newsletter has 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month (congrats!). On Ghost, that will cost you $348 a year; on Substack, it rings in at around $6,000.
Combined, these factors lead to the same conclusion: that Substack is built for widespread use, whereas Ghost caters to writers looking to take their newsletter more seriously.