Small Business News

Google Hurts Another Business

Sites fall victim to Google’s algorithms all the time, but this week, one in particular is getting a great deal of attention. MetaFilter, which was a popular web destination years ago (it claims to have still had over 80 million readers last year), was hit by a Google update (possibly Panda, but it’s unclear) a year and a half ago, and has been unable to recover.

The site’s founder Matt Haughey blogged this week about how the decline in Google traffic has led him to lay off a few of the site’s staff. On Monday, he wrote the “State of MetaFilter” post. It begins:

Today I need to share some unfortunate news: because of serious financial downturn, MetaFilter will be losing three of its moderators to layoffs at the end of this month. What that means for the site and the site’s future are described below.

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.

The long-story-short is that the site’s revenue peaked in 2012, back when we hired additional moderators and brought our total staff up to eight people. Revenue has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, down to levels we last saw in 2007, back when there were only three staffers.

In a Medium post, Haughey says the site has been getting emails from others asking them to remove links because Google had told them the links were “inorganic”.

Haughey claims, however, that they have a staff of six full-time moderators in five timezones making sure zero spam ends up on the site.

Other sites have been publishing sympathetic posts, wondering if Google has simply made a big mistake when it comes to MetaFilter.

Former Googler (and MetaFilter member) David Auerbach writes for Slate, “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.”

Danny Sullivan has a long piece about it at Search Engine Land, which despite its length and the expertise he brings to the table, fails to come up with a real conclusion as to why the site was hit. He does, however, make some great points about how Google should be a little more helpful to sites that are hit, in giving them information about why.

MetaFilter and Google’s Matt Cutts have been discussing things though, so perhaps a resolution is on the horizon. Or at the very least, maybe the site is getting a better idea about what went wrong.

If it weren’t for the whole inorganic links thing, I’d wonder if it had anything to do with the overall appearance of the site. The site has been around for a long time, and frankly it looks like a site that came out a long time ago. That’s not a knock. Just a fact (okay, an opinion, I guess).

While many of us are perfectly fine with an older-style site design showing up in search results as long as the content is good, I can’t help but be reminded of comments Cutts made in one of his Webmaster Help videos a while back, talking about established sites not being able to rank forever without evolving.

“The advice that I’d give to you as the owner of a site that’s been around for fourteen years is to take a fresh look at your site,” he said. “A lot of times if you land on your site, and you land on a random website from a search result, you know, even if they’ve been in business for fifteen years, fourteen years, sometimes they haven’t updated their template or their page layout or anything in years and years and years, and it looks, frankly, like sort of a stale sort of an older site, and that’s the sort of thing where users might not be as happy about that.”

“And so if you do run an older site or a very well-established site, I wouldn’t just coast on your laurels,” he adds. “I wouldn’t just say, ‘Well I’m number one for now, and everything is great,’ because newer sites, more agile sites, more hungry sites, more sites that have a better user experience – they can grow, and they can eclipse you if you don’t continue to adapt, and evolve, and move with the times. So I wouldn’t say just because you are a domain that’s well-established or has been around for a long time, you will automatically keep ranking. We’ve seen plenty of newer domains and businesses bypass older domains.”

This may have absolutely nothing at all to do with MetaFilter’s situation, but Cutts’ words are at least worth noting.

It may very well be that the site gets its rankings back after all of this, though that would be somewhat surprising given that the hit came so long ago. On the other hand, sometimes Google responds to conversations that become very public, and draw significant media attention. Or maybe Google just has a completely legitimate reason for not ranking the content in question better.

I’m guessing we haven’t heard the end of the story just yet.

This week, Google launched two new algorithm updates, including a new Panda update, and itlooks like eBay is taking a bit of a hit this time.

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