Monday, May 19th, 2014

The New Internet Gods Have No Mercy

The internet is vast and wild and unknowable and full of potential, unless you are a website. If you are a website, you depend on traffic. And if you depend on traffic, you know that it comes from just a few different places. Facebook is a big one, and for many sites the biggest. Pinterest is enormous, staggeringly so, for sites that overlap with Pinterest's audience. LinkedIn sends a lot of people if you write about business or self-help; Twitter sends a very modest and modestly valuable stream of people to stories about the news. In other words, in 2014, normal people read the internet mostly on their phones, usually through apps. The only honest way to assess your website is to imagine it with fat blue bars above and below your words.

From the captive publisher's perspective, Google was the Facebook of five to ten years ago. Some publishers learned how to game it and reaped great rewards. Others simply kept on doing what they were doing and were rewarded anyway: Google, in its attempt to "organize the world's information," deemed their information worth organizing. This is what happened to MetaFilter, one of the great online communities of the 2000s. Over the years, the site's "Ask MetaFilter" section accumulated a lot of questions and answers that happened to be similar to questions Google users were asking. This became a major contributor to Metafilter's traffic, and remained so for years. Until recently:

While MetaFilter approaches 15 years of being alive and kicking, the overall website saw steady growth for the first 13 of those years. A year and a half ago, we woke up one day to see a 40% decrease in revenue and traffic to Ask MetaFilter, likely the result of ongoing Google index updates. We scoured the web and took advice of reducing ads in the hopes traffic would improve but it never really did, staying steady for several months and then periodically decreasing by smaller amounts over time.

Google updates its index all the time, ostensibly in an effort to kill off spammy how-to sites and content farms. MetaFilter isn't perfect but it's neither of those things, and now it has to lay off some of its staff. MetaFilter enjoyed Google's traffic but didn't ask for it, and now that traffic is gone.

Metafilter came from two or three internets ago, when a website's core audience—people showing up there every day or every week, directly—was its main source of visitors. Google might bless a site with new visitors or take them away. Either way, it was still possible for a site's fundamentals to be strong, independent of extremely large outside referrers. What's so disconcerting now is that the new sources of readership, the apps and sites people check every day and which lead people to new posts and stories, make up a majority of total readership, and they're utterly unpredictable (they're also bigger, always bigger, every new internet is bigger). People still visit sites directly, but less. Sites still link to one another, but with diminishing results. A site that doesn't care about Facebook will nonetheless come to depend on Facebook, and if Facebook changes how Newsfeed works, or how its app works, a large fraction of total traffic could appear or disappear very quickly.

Of course a website's fortunes can change overnight. That these fortunes are tied to the whims of a very small group of very large companies, whose interests are only somewhat aligned with those of publishers, however, is sort of new. The publishing opportunity may be bigger today than it's ever been but the publisher's role is less glamorous: When did the best sites on the internet, giant and small alike, become anonymous subcontractors to tech companies that operate on entirely different scales? This is new psychological territory, working for publishers within publishers within publishers. The ones at the top barely know you exist! Anyway, internet people, remember this day in five years: It could happen to you, whether you asked for it or not.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

conklin (#364)

Fine, fine. I will add the Awl to my blogroll.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

Dependence on Facebook, Pinterest, etc. is just the latest of the many reasons why living on advertising is a bad idea. Sure, it works for BuzzFeed, Gawker, etc., at least for now, but do you really want to be them? I'm pretty sure Balk and Sicha didn't leave Gawker with the aim of out-Dentoning Denton.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I'd be willing to pay for an ad-free Awl. I really doubt I'm the only one. Think about it.

MetaFilter's slow decline is just one fairly visible affect of Google's algorithmic* updates. Countless small businesses, mom-n-pop services and yes, spammy affiliate-link heavy sites have been eliminated by Google's changes. While the sympathetic see this as merciless and the conspiracy theorists see it as a plan to pump Google's ad revenue (& both make some salient points) I think ultimately the true merciless Internet gods are all of us, emboldened by the digital world's low barrier to exercising our fickle attention spans.
If Google or Facebook fail to optimize their content for their users (i.e., you, me) they'll quickly go the way of Myspace or Dogpile, and I don't see anyone eulogizing those fallen giants.

*these aren't due to changes to Google's index, per se, but are due to changes in the algorithms that determine how their indexed content is ranked.

Side note: I love seeing articles addressing what are currently considered just Internet marketing problems being published in non-marketing media. Online traffic changes have profound social/economic/political implications & deserve a broader public awareness!
So uh, thanks!

rodtownsend (#3,285)

One of my least favorite things about posting on Facebook or Twitter is that I used to post content on my blog and was paid for doing so by the ads it attracted. Now I'm paid with followers? I cannot turn followers into a downpayment on a timeshare.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Somewhere out past "Sizzling Pics of Hot Beach Soccer Cheerleader," and light years short of jargoned-up tech-geek metric-gazing there must, there simply must, be an economically viable landing strip for real people writing about real, you know, stuff. But I'll be goddamned if I know much anymore where that is, and I'm getting tired of looking for it.

Maybe I'll read a book.

@KarenUhOh I feel the same way. I have a lot of free time at my job, and I used to enjoy using it to read news and learn about actual thoughtful things on the internet. But increasingly I find that I spend more time slogging through the 'you won't believe what happens next' and '23 reasons 1980 was better than 2014' links to get to something substantial. And yes I have been reading more books.

If it makes you feel better, the climate is just as disheartening for writers.

164640107@twitter (#274,821)

@KarenUhOh Take a look at an iOS browsing app called "Random". After using it for a while, I've described it as "brain vegetables that taste good" rather than brain candy. Their discovery algo tries to show information that is similar to what you already like, but different enough to avoid being trapped in any filter bubbles. It's a unique discovery method, hopefully the Awl will write about it sometime.
or (app link bottom right)

KarenUhOh (#19)

@Maura Johnston Doesn't make me feel good at all. It's dismayed me for years that a good writer, for all practical purposes, can't survive in a "free content" "economy." We're taking grave advantage of powerful resources.

The whole enterprise just started out dangerously wrong.

Rod T (#33)

@KarenUhOh Putting on my double digit number hat for this:

People's reading habits have become what their eating habits became in the 70's and 80's: Fast Food. We just need to hope that the consumer has an awakening of "Holy shit, this crap is bad for my brain". Until that happens though, we continue to fill journals and notebooks with stuff for which some day someone might pay us.

hershmire (#233,671)

@Rod T “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”—Ray Bradbury

Natalie b (#274,632)

Some of you might be interested in the work of Jaron Lanier! In his books, particularly Who Owns the Future, he addresses issues of the middle class's economic disenfranchisement online. The solution he proposes is inspired by Ted Nelson's very early vision for the web, Project Xanadu, that included two-way hyperlinking and micropayment compensation to the origin content for every click. There's not space in this comment to explain it all, but Lanier does a great job of breaking it down in Who Owns The Future. (For the quick versions, you can also check out his interviews.)

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