Is Google broken? Or is your site broken? That’s the question any webmaster asks when she sees her Google click-throughs drop dramatically. It’s a question that Matt Haughey, founder of legendary Internet forum MetaFilter, has been asking himself for the last year and a half, as declining ad revenues have forced the long-running site to lay off several of its staff. MetaFilter, Haughey told me, made the bulk of its revenue through Google’s AdSense program. That is, MetaFilter worked with Google ad representatives to place advertising on its pages that was served by Google. In turn, most of MetaFilter’s visitors came via Google searches. (MetaFilter’s members pay a small one-time signup fee to see no advertising; I am a member but not a terribly active one. I should also disclose here that I used to work for Google and my wife still does.)
Founded in 1999, MetaFilter, or MeFi, quickly earned a reputation as one of the most intelligent and civil discussion sites on the Web. A core group of sharp, technically savvy users discussed culture high and low, while a small group of moderators walked a careful line between policing abuse and allowing free expression. Early users included some of the key movers in blog culture, including Anil Dash, Jason Kottke, and Meg Hourihan. It served as the model for the best-moderated forums on Reddit, where actual content outweighs noise, trolling, and link spam. Its subsite Ask MetaFilter was one of the best places to ask questions on all subjects and get intelligent answers, from “What clever relationship ‘hacks’ have you come up with?” to “What have you learned through your career, major, or specialization that you wish the general public knew?” to “If you killed somebody, how would you dispose of the body without getting caught?” If, like many Slate readers, you’re considering a septum piercing, MetaFilter’s page on pros and cons is far more informative (and better-spelled) than Yahoo Answers’ or Body Jewellery [sic] Shop’s (both of which Google ranks above MetaFilter if you search on “septum piercing pros and cons”).
In short, MetaFilter is the sort of site that makes the Web better. But in October of 2012, something terrible happened, as recounted by Haughey. The something terrible is in this graph, which shows MetaFilter site visits across time:
Traffic suddenly dropped by 40 percent, and stayed there. The graph shows visitors on a day-by-day basis, which follows a consistent weekly pattern until it nearly drops by half toward the end of 2012. With fewer visitors came fewer ad click-throughs, and within weeks MetaFilter’s ad revenue stream had nearly been halved. According to Haughey, the drop in traffic owed almost totally to drops in click-throughs from Google search results. MetaFilter had not made any particular changes to trigger this drop, and Google, as usual, wasn’t forthcoming about what might have caused it. Haughey tried reducing the number of advertisements, wondering if perhaps MetaFilter had too many ads, since Google had been known to penalize sites for being too ad-heavy. But that didn’t help. His Google AdSense representative had no answers, Haughey said, other than to ask if he was interested in running more ads by Google.
The drop in Google traffic to MetaFilter almost certainly owes to MetaFilter pages appearing lower across the board in Google search result pages. To understand a bit about how search result ranking affects website revenues, you have to understand the so-called Clickthrough-Rate Curve, which shows how frequently users click on the first search result, second result, and so on. According to ad network Chitika, you’d better be in the first few results if you want anyone to see your page:
Fully one-third of all clicks resulting from a Google search are on the top result. The second and third eat up nearly another third. People look at the second page of search results less than 10 percent of the time. These results may be conservative: A 2012 study suggested that the first link gets clicked on over half the time, while another study suggested roughly 40 percent. This is why search engine optimization, or SEO, is so vitally important and such a moneymaker.
Google, of course, does battle with “black hat” SEO organizations that try to trick its algorithms, continually altering its ranking system to try to reward pages that play fair while penalizing those that don’t. “Link spam” was one of the most notorious ways SEOs tried to uprank their sites, by plastering spam links all over other people’s sites. Part of Google’s algorithmic updates in 2012 was specifically designed to address this webspam problem.
But the people behind MetaFilter weren’t perpetrating any of these SEO crimes; Haughey said that as far as he knew, they were committing no violations and were working hard to follow Google’s recommendations. Still, they clearly got caught in the 2012 shakeup.
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