Last week MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey posted this state-of-the-union-style rumination on the site’s recent past and prospective future. He goes in-depth on life as an ad-supported, Google-dependent community, and how changes to that search engine’s undisclosed indexing practices changed the economics for Haughey and his team dramatically in late 2012:
The money situation changed one day in November 2012, when I saw a drastic reduction in traffic and revenue to Ask MetaFilter. I double-checked to make sure the initial estimates were correct, and it appeared that Ask MetaFilter lost 40% of its traffic overnight.
Haughey goes into some detail on trying to cope with the changes and get back into Google’s good graces, as it were. The experience sounds somewhat Kafkaesque, but sadly not unique to Metafilter. In January, Aaron Harris wrote this postmortem on the demise of his startup, Tutorspree, which did really well with Google—until it didn’t. As a result of unspecified Google changes, Tutorspree lost eighty percent of its traffic overnight. From that experience, Harris took away some valuable lessons on the dangers of relying principally on Google and search engine optimization to build a scalable business:
Because of how successful SEO was, it was the lens through which we viewed all other marketing efforts, and masked the issues we were having in other channels along with important realities of how the tutoring market differed from how we wanted to make it work. We were, in effect, blinded by our own success in organic search. Even though we saw the blindness, we couldn’t work around it.
Thankfully, in Metafilter’s case, an alternative to SEO presented itself in the form of user contributions to the site. Haughey writes:
I previously estimated a small population of maybe a couple hundred people might pony up a buck or two each month, which wasn’t really enough to change our situation. Much to my surprise, several hundred people have already given money as one-time contributions and/or set up monthly subscriptions, with the average contribution at nearly $10. The dream of maybe replacing some of our ad revenue with member support is looking like it could actually happen.
I’ve been using Metafilter for years and years, and I’m very grateful for its continued existence, so I just donated. If you feel the same, you can donate at this link.