One of the big stories in my small world over the past week or so has been the layoffs at MetaFilter. Matt Haughey broke the news in a MetaTalk post on the state of the site. Here’s the bottom line:
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.
Today, he posted more details on Medium, both about the drop in revenue and Google’s recent classification of MetaFilter as a content farm. This has been happening to other reputable blogs as well. I haven’t gotten any of these requests, or if I have, they have gone unread.
I don’t really think of Google as a monopolist, but it is true that Google holds the fate of any number of Internet businesses in their hands. This is true whether they rely on Google-served ads for revenue, or they rely on organic search traffic from Google to grow their visitor base. I oftentimes tell people that Google is to Internet businesses what weather is to farmers. You can have fertile soil, plant the right crops, and run your farm incredibly well, but if it doesn’t rain, you’re not going to have anything to harvest in the end. By the same token, if Google makes a change that directs traffic away from your site, you’ll find yourself in the same situation as MetaFilter.
That’s scary. I don’t really have any solutions to propose, but the degree to which the Web publishing industry has become almost wholly dependent on Google demands more attention.