MoneySavingExpert.com isn't a typical website. It allows neither advertising (companies can't pay to appear on the site), nor subscription (no charge is ever made for using the site).
Yet it's a mammoth beast, with more than 80 full time staff, an email distribution list of more than 10 million people, complex MoneySaving tools to develop and a huge amount of technology to keep the site online. This guide explains how a site set up for just £100 in 2003 does all that.
In this guide
MSE is completely free to use
The most important thing to understand is that MoneySavingExpert.com doesn't allow advertising (companies can't pay for space on the site) and is completely free to use.
Anything on the main site is here because we believe it is the best way to save money, based on independent, detailed and specialised journalistic research by members of the team.
When it first started in 2003, it was a one-man Martin Lewis band, and it wasn't set up to make money. But within a year it had so many users that the running costs escalated substantially - and it needed to find a way to generate revenue.
These days MoneySavingExpert.com is a top 60 UK website, and the biggest money site in the country. While our focus on the best information hasn't changed, the finances have. There's a large team, and it's expensive to operate, but, thankfully, the site is strongly in profit and donates to charity each year.
In September 2012, MoneySavingExpert.com joined the MoneySupermarket Group. Yet it still continues to operate as a separate entity, with no change to the way it operates editorially or is financed. To guarantee that, a strong, legally-binding Editorial Code was agreed as part of the legal sale contract, as described below.
MoneySavingExpert.com will continue to follow its founding principles. Its primary job is to ensure it provides the best information to help consumers, based on journalistic research, and the editorial line will stay independent of any commercial objectives or influence.
We will continue to highlight to users how the site is financed and if a paid link is used, where practical, give you an alternative, unpaid link.
As part of the Editorial Code, we're free to review MoneySupermarket's services and speak freely, be that positively or negatively. Whether we include its comparisons must be based on exactly the same criteria as we'd use for any other site only when it's the best for users.
So how does MSE generate revenue?
Companies cannot pay to appear on the site. Guides are written purely from a 'what's the best way to save money?' stance. Once the guides are finished, it's one of the team's job to see if they can find 'affiliate links' to the top products.
These look and work in the same way as normal links, but if someone clicks through, the link is tracked and may generate a payment to the site. The details vary - sometimes the payment's per click, per user, per application, per accepted application or any combination.
Certain links in the forum posted by users (registered users can switch this on) have a software called Skimlinks added. This simply tracks the link to MSE. These look and work in the same way as normal links. If someone clicks through, the link is tracked and it may generate a payment to the site (see Skimlinks factsheet for more details).
We only use affiliate links that give you an identical (or better) deal than going direct. However, as these are technologically-generated, issues can happen, so please let us know if you spot any.
We don't track individuals' data (unless we've asked you, where it's necessary for a specific service). Nor will we ever sell it to third parties, or pass it to MoneySupermarket, without the individual user's permission.
Doesn't this compromise the site?
We don't believe so. The MoneySaving guides are written then, totally separately, paid links are looked for. If no paying link is available, nothing in the guide changes. If the best is the best and doesn't pay, it stays the best. The link used is simply 'non-affiliated', ie, non-paying. Financial considerations do not impact inclusion in articles.
Yet just like best buys change all the time, so do the products with affiliate links available. We may use the weekly email and website navigation to remind you more often about deals or guides that generate more revenue for the main site at that time, but, crucially, the info within will be exactly the same.
We will never change our stance, or picks, because of commercial considerations.
What about MSE Blagged Deals? How do they work?
MSE Blagged deals are exclusive deals arranged by MSE. They will only ever appear on the site on editorial merit, because they're the best deal of their type in the market.
MSE shares the revenue from these deals (we have staff to pay) at similar values to market averages for non-exclusives.
Where do the links come from?
Even though you don't necessarily see it, the links to products come from finance comparison sites like MoneySupermarket, uSwitch, MoneyExpert, BeatThatQuote and TotallyMoney, or affiliate sites such as Tradedoubler or Affiliate Window. Their links are used and then if someone clicks through, MoneySavingExpert.com gets a split of their revenue.
In fact, this was part of the logic of joining the MoneySupermarket group, as it cemented its position as our primary supplier of links.
It's easy to get confused about this - some newspapers did. This doesn't mean we link to MoneySupermarket itself more. Instead, when we're looking for a link to First Direct which pays us, we ask MoneySupermarket or other companies to provide that link, so we get a share of the revenue. Since the deal, it means when we've researched a top deal that editorially merits being on the site, we ask MoneySupermarket first if it can provide a link.
We usually try to avoid going directly to, or building a relationship with, financial product providers themselves, to reduce their opportunities for them to exert pressure (which wed ignore anyway). Occasionally, links are direct, for example to comparison services, new cards or shopping, when, within the context of the guides, they're the best way to save money.
We want you to know when links are affiliated...
Unlike many sites that use affiliate links, from the very first time we used them we were always deliberate about including a * after every one (and we're pleased to see a few other sites starting to adopt this).
This is so you know which links contribute to the main site and which don't, so you can make your own decision. We hope you will choose the ones that help pay for the huge resource the main site offers.
Occasionally, this means you'll go to one of the comparison service's landing pages to get the product. However, the product itself will be the same or possibly even better and you shouldn't notice a difference in any way.
In other words, if there's a link to Supertelephonecompany because it's the cheapest provider, if it has a * you'll go through directly and the main site may get some money. If it doesn't have a * you'll go through directly and it won't make money. That's the only difference.
Is this different to other sites?
Yes, although following the success of MoneySavingExpert.com's clean way of doing things, some other sites have adopted similar rules.
In general, there are two main models. Which? funds its magazines and website through a subscription model and some paid-for services such as legal support. We prefer to keep this site free, especially as a good number of users couldn't afford to pay.
The other is used by more commercial sites, which prioritise, or even limit inclusion only to, products that pay them.
We hope and believe this site's recommendations are the best. Plus this site isn't just about 'finding the best product', instead it's 'finding the best product and using it in a way that works for you, not the company'.
This stretches far further and means we list vouchers, deals and tools that aren't on other sites or even published in newspapers and magazines. We don't solely focus on deals we've arranged and that pay us money, as some other sites do.
In the money world, we can sometimes list niche products that need you to apply for through a special website to get certain terms.
Everything we write is unbiased, objective and free from outside influence (including MoneySupermarket), as explained in the Editorial Code.
Our stance can mean we list deals others don't
As a snapshot example to highlight this, in September 2012, in the Top Savings guide, one of the most-read on the site, two of the top three easy access savings accounts on the page didn't pay the main site and thus weren't * links. But because they were the best, they were still top picks.
Some other money sites out there don't usually include non-paying accounts in their best buy tables. The core difference is that their top recommendations tend to be ones that pay them.
This is reflected across lots of different subjects at various times. As these issues don't impact MoneySavingExpert.com, its best buys are better.
What costs us money?
Rather than any grand design to set up such a massive beast, the revenue concept behind the main site grew organically, based on the need to fund costs. We believe it's done in a way that makes this a successful project without compromising the information on the site or its campaigning agenda.
Our finances have always been strong which has enabled the main site to grow, create employment, build more tools, and help its users.
Here are some examples of where the money goes:
A team of editorial and technical staff
As at July 2014, there are more than 70 highly qualified and skilled full-time team members working at MoneySaving Towers. Around half are editorial, contributing to research, campaigns, guides, deals hunting and more - with backgrounds including former national newspaper journalists, Citizens Advice workers or maths bods.
The rest are a mix of developers building tools to help people save money, forum administrators to help that particular behemoth function, a lawyer, commercial, design and admin staff.
Servers and keeping the site running
With over 13 million unique users a month, mammoth processing power and technology are needed to keep the site up and running at speed.
The MSE Forum alone is the seventh biggest social networking site in the UK, and takes huge resources. As well as technology, there are the rules and issues of policing such a large community to keep it a safe place for all.
Developing new tools
We constantly strive to add clever free tools to bag deals, analyse finances and earn cash - from the Mortgage Calculator to the Amazon Discount Finder to the Budget Analyser. Many don't generate revenue, one of the reasons they're unique.
You may be surprised that this isn't usually for the main site. Funnily enough, things like bank charges or PPI reclaiming, while controversial and occasionally requiring legal consultancy, are still minor.
The big bills come from defending consumer comment in the forum, when companies whose reputations are rightly tarnished try to force it to be taken down. We have to pick and choose our fights carefully, but it is important that MSE isn't cowed and can fight its corner when necessary.
We believe a site like MoneySavingExpert has a responsibility to the wider community. That's why we have a campaigns co-ordinator who works with charities, policymakers and political parties to get issues addressed.
It's also allowed us to fund issues we believe in, such as financial education in schools, We paid £35,000 to fund an All Party Parliamentary Group on it.
It's allowed more than one million to be donated to charity
For years, the site's been donating to charities voted for by users. The charity fund got so big (well in excess of £100,000 a year) there was enough cash to set up its own charity.
So now the money is split, with a third going to user-selected charities (see the MoneySavingExpert.com Charity Fund for details of all donations), and the other two-thirds goes to the MSE Charity. It provides grants to other charities to help educate people about debt and consumer issues.
Get Martin's Free Money Tips Email!
For all the latest deals, guides and loopholes - join the 10m who get it. Don't miss out