The Economics of Skin Sites

Published on Tuesday, October 7, 2003 By Brad Wardell In OS Customization

What is a skin site? A skin site is a kind of file download site.  The world's most popular download site,, is ranked 47th in the world by Alexa. The kind of bandwidth it must take to run that site is astronomical. Last week, the most popular file on received over 2.3 million downloads (Kazaa).  WinZip, the most popular ZIP manager, received 426,000 downloads.

Skin sites don't get anywhere near that kind of traffic. It specializes in files that are used to customize the look and feel of your computer. The more specialized you are, the smaller your user base is going to be.  A popular skin author in WinCustomize typically will see around 35,000 downloads of their skins in a given week.

Regardless of what you offer on your site to download, there are only 3 types of download sites:

  1. Sites run as a hobby

  2. Sites with a business model

  3. Sites that disappear from lack of funds

If your site doesn't get immense traffic, you can run it much like the BBSes of old. As a rewarding, fun hobby. But a hobby. One that costs money out of pocket for the site's owner(s) to maintain.  Each owner has a threshold of pain. That is, how much money they can spend before it gets too expensive for them to maintain.

Typically, we've found that when a skin site reaches an Alexa ranking of 10,000 or better that it has crossed a threshold of where it needs to have a viable business model or it will be prohibitively expensive to keep going.

Here are the Alexa rankings of the 6 most popular sites for downloading skins, themes, walls, etc.

Website Alexa Worldwide popularity Ranking
deviantART 1,853
WinCustomize 3,738
Skinbase 50,965
ArtUproar 83,683 24,523 33,199

Before someone objects to me not listing Deskmod, that's because they don't currently host skins. And for good reason:

Here is Deskmod's ranking over the past year. As you can see, it was slowly moving up. But you can also see some dips due to down time in there. As it's rank edged towards 10,000th or better, the bandwidth costs passed that threshold of hobby and business. Without a business model that pays the bills, the costs are simply too high for individuals.

Based on the Alexa ranking, there are two art/skin sites that make good business cases because they have been in the top 10,000 websites for a long time with uninterrupted availability. That's deviantART and WinCustomize.

At the end of the day, someone has to pay the bills. This must come as quite a shock to the people who think the Internet "should be free" but running a website can get quite expensive. That is, tens of thousands of dollars per month expensive. So how do they do it? Here is the basic model for an art/skin site:


All 3 groups need one another.

deviantART and WinCustomize focus on attracting different groups (which means technically they don't compete).  deviantART focuses on making the site a haven for artists/skinners who in turn attract users. WinCustomize focuses on users which in turn attracts skinners/artists. But in both cases, who visits the site is important.

On WinCustomize, the type of user matters. That's because the site pays for itself through selling of WinCustomize subscriptions and software via its store. There are basically two types of users: Contributors and non-contributors.  Contributors are the people who either create content for the site (skins, themes, icons, tutorials, walls, etc.) or register some of the programs they use /  purchase a subscription to the site.  Non-contributors, are users who simply download the stuff.

At a certain point, it's up to the website to create an avenue for people to become contributors. If you don't have something reasonably compelling or attainable for a user, they won't become a contributor.  Either way, if a site has too few contributors as a percentage, it will eventually die.

Freeware vs. Commercialware

WinCustomize gets tons of requests for new sections on the site. But few people put much thought into "how does this help the site?"  The worst case scenario for a site like WinCustomize is to put up a section for a program that doesn't bring in many new users but increases the consumption rate of non-contributors. That's why WinCustomize is biased for commercial software. The users of those programs are much more likely to be willing to become contributors in some way.

The last thing a site wants is to be overrun by militant "everything should be free" people who consume the bandwidth and give nothing in return. Applications that attract those kinds of users are what we call "bad citizens".

So what makes an application a "good citizen"?

Here's a list:

1. Be available on mainstream download sites. Skin sites like WinCustomize want mainstream users. That means making your program available on, Tucows, Betanews's File Forum, etc. If your program is on some obscure home page, it's not going to have a large user base.

2. Promote the heck out of those who support you. Especially if you're a freeware program. That means links to the major skin sites on your home page. Not buried but very apparent. When you install your program, include links to those sites supporting you.

3. Encourage the skinners of your program to upload to the sites that support your app.

What it boils down to is understanding the basic model for a skin site. Skin sites need users and content. They need people who will contribute to the site (either content or through purchases of products and services).  Recognizing these basic economic realities is a good start to understanding how skin sites stay alive over the long term.