New Age Cloaking

Historically cloaking was considered bad because a consumer would click expecting a particular piece of content or user experience while being delivered an experience which differed dramatically.

As publishers have become more aggressive with paywalls they've put their brands & user trust in the back seat in an attempt to increase revenue per visit.

user interest in news paywalls.

Below are 2 screenshots from one of the more extreme versions I have seen recently.

The first is a subscribe-now modal which shows by default when you visit the newspaper website.

The second is the page as it appears after you close the modal.

Basically all page content is cloaked other than ads and navigation.

The content is hidden - cloaked.

hidden content.

That sort of behavior would not only have a horrible impact on time on site metrics, but it would teach users not to click on their sites in the future, if users even have any recall of the publisher brand.

The sort of disdain that user experience earns will cause the publishers to lose relevancy even faster.

On the above screenshot I blurred out the logo of the brand on the initial popover, but when you look at the end article after that modal pop over you get a cloaked article with all the ads showing and the brand of the site is utterly invisible. A site which hides its brand except for when it is asking for money is unlikely to get many conversions.

Many news sites now look as awful as the ugly user created MySpace pages did back in the day. And outside of the MySpace pages that delivered malware the user experience is arguably worse.

a highly satisfied online offer, which does the needful.

Each news site which adopts this approach effectively increases user hate toward all websites adopting the approach.

It builds up. Then users eventually say screw this. And they are gone - forever.

a highly satisfied reader of online news articles.

Audiences will thus continue to migrate across from news sites to anywhere else that hosts their content like Google AMP, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Twitter, Opera or Edge or Chrome mobile browser new article recommendations, MSN News, Yahoo News, etc.

Any lifetime customer value models built on assumptions around any early success with the above approach should consider churn as well as the brand impact the following experience will have on most users before going that aggressive.

hard close for the win.

One small positive note for news publishers is more countries are looking to have attention merchants pay for their content, though I suspect as the above sort of double modal paywall stuff gets normalized other revenue streams won't make the practice go away, particularly as many local papers have been acquired by PE chop shops extracting all blood out of the operations through interest payments to themselves.

China Still Censoring Google, Now Globally

Google Gets Out of China

In March of 2010 Google announced they would no longer censor their search results for China:

earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.

While the move was pitched as altruistic, it came only after the state put their thumb on the scales to promote domestic competitor Baidu in part by periodically blocking Google search from working.

The Value of Leaving China

By leaving China on their own accord, Google controlled the narrative for investors. They didn't "lose" a market, they chose to not operate in a market.

If you are destined to lose due to political interference, you may as well look principled in the process. The idea of staying the course (being highly compromised while also losing) would have lowered Google's leverage (over publishers and governments) as well as their brand value elsewhere.

Think of how long Google has kept the EU at bay in terms of their anti-competitive practices in search.

Countries like France and Australia are just now beginning to require payment to publishers from Google.

In spite of being in fifth place with about 2% search marketshare in China, one could easily argue that today Google is *still* being censored by China, except now it is global.

Official != Legitimate

Whenever there is a crisis Google has the ability to adjust their news algorithms (and rankings on other sources like YouTube) to prefer authoritative sources. If China lies but gives a direct quote that is an official response which can be reported in the media. Speculating, on the other hand, is not news, and thus is not likely to be done at scale on official sources.

The WHO parroted the official line of the Chinese Communist Party for months before sending in a team to begin investigating the virus which was quietly spreading globally in the background. This is evil (or, more charitably, ill-informed) their advice was:

Tedros said there was no need for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” and he specifically said that stopping flights and restricting Chinese travel abroad was “counter-productive” to fighting the global spread of the virus.

Evidence is Backward Looking

Promoting "consistent, evidence-based" risk control is utterly stupid because the evidence that you are dead only appears after you die.

It is not a game of 50/50 chance.

One outcome is death. And at the other end of the spectrum you spent $15 needlessly on a facemask.

How lowly must you view the value of a human life to determine a $15 spend on risk mitigation is reckless behavior?

Don't exceed the global standards based on China's misinformation. OR ELSE!!!

Evidence is backward looking even if the sources are not lying scum. When lying is vital to maintaining political power many people die while waiting on the true.

Can anyone who followed official anti-warnings get a refund on their death?

Better luck next life?

Evidence

While China's CCP was lying to the world, the WHO shared appreciation for their commitment to sharing info.

Not Just China

Health officials the world over were guilty of the same sort of "evidence-based" stupidity.

Here is a video from February of NYC health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot advising people to go out and take the subway and live their lives, noting that city preparedness is high, their personal risk is low, and casual contact was not a large risk.

You can see the stupidity in the circular logic here: "we also know that if it were likely to be transmitted casually we would be seeing a lot more cases."

Yes we would!
Or soon would be.
And did.

Time shift that statement a couple months and lawmakers are asking her to be fired.

May you enjoy a happy Lunar New Year:

“We are very clear: We wish New Yorkers a Happy Lunar New Year and we encourage people to spend time with their families and go about their celebration,” Dr. Barbot said.

Later, as evidence emerged, we learn from serological studies that around 24.7% of people in New York City & 14.9% of New York state had antibodies for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

If you are a poor minority you are more likely to die as you have less of a cushion to do things like taking time off work and AVOID TAKING THE SUBWAY.

Thank you Dr. Oxiris Barbot!

"New York politicians are seeking answers on how to handle the growing number of corpses left by the coronavirus pandemic, after dozens of bodies were discovered decomposing in rental trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home."
- Ben Chapman, WSJ

Even the New York Times warned against quarantines, virtually guaranteeing the city would get one.

And for a cherry on top of the stupidity cake, New York City only closed their subway system during off hours from 1AM to 5AM for daily cleanings on April 30th, *AFTER* months of letting the virus spread across the city & many blog posts like this one were published. A quarter of their population had to contract the virus before cleaning the subway regularly seemed like a good idea.

We should always in all cases everywhere blindly trust the experts:

just last year, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the organization led by Dr. Fauci, funded scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutions for work on gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses . ... Many scientists have criticized gain of function research, which involves manipulating viruses in the lab to explore their potential for infecting humans, because it creates a risk of starting a pandemic from accidental release.

Protecting Yourself from Dr. Oxiris Barbot & the CCP

How many billions of dollars do people spend buying lotto tickets?

A high-quality facemask was a $15 lotto ticket that might save you from death. But buying one was ill-informed & xenophic & antisocial and and and.

Back in January I saw a video on Twitter of a guy walking down the street in Wuhan and then just fall over and die. Upon seeing that, I quickly ordered facemasks for my wife, our babysitter, my wife's parents, my mom, and my siblings.

My mom thought I was crazy for spending hundreds buying so many masks, but it was a fairly simple calculation. Whatever China was saying was hot garbage as they were literally welding apartment complexes shut.

Ongoing Disinformation Campaign

The CCP accosted doctors who warned of the pending pandemic, locked down millions of people, and held internal briefs about human to human transmission was happening while lying externally about it. China then pushed some garbage about how the US Army created the coronavirus which caused COVID-19, then they both claimed it was racist to state the disease came from China while also claiming it originated in Italy.

That's the CCP - literally zero shame.

You can be against the jackbooted CCP while not hating Chinese people. I would rather be wrongly called a racist and not die of coronavirus than virtue signal my way to death via Italy's "Hug a Chinese" day.

As a general rule of thumb, life is more important than the feelz.

My wife took a DNA test and a big part of her ethnic background is Chinese. When she and I are in the Philippines many people think she is a foreigner. When I was walking with my wife in Hong Kong years ago a local street vender started talking to her in Chinese thinking she was a local. And there's nobody in the world I love more than her, but that does not mean she or I are planning a trip to Wuhan anytime soon or wanted to end up as statistics as a side effect of virtue signaling.

To this day China is using their ability to purchase foreign debts & infrastructure across weaker European countries to push the EU to understate the culpability of the CCP:

"Bowing to heavy pressure from Beijing, European Union officials softened their criticism of China this week in a report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to documents, emails and interviews. Worried about the repercussions, European officials first delayed and then rewrote the document in ways that diluted the focus on China, a vital trading partner ... China moved quickly to block the document’s release, and the European Union pulled back. The report had been on the verge of publication, until senior officials ordered revisions to soften the language."

Maintaining The Illusion of Stability

The doom scenario for China would be one where the disease spread widely across their society while not directly impacting other economies. Currencies float and trade can eventually be re-routed if supply chains are unreliable. If a place where repeated coronavirus outbreaks happen has massive hidden debts in their shadow economy the propped up currency peg would likely fall as those debts go bad and their economy crashes. Hot money has been rushing out of China for years: their companies buying foreign companies, individuals buying foreign real estate, short domain names, Bitcoin, life insurance policies, etc.

China already faced sharp food price inflation last year as African Swine Flu killed a lot of their herd. When people can't afford to eat they are more likely to push for political change. Hyperinflation is the reciprocal of political stability. Maintaining a stable food supply is a core requirement of staying in power.

Masks might make no difference, but if I spend a fraction of a percent of my income protecting my immediate and extended family even slightly then that is a good investment.

What is the price of a single needless death?

That is the calculation one should use when adopting simple & cheap life changes that can protect their families and society as a whole.

The mainstream media not only downplayed Covid-19 to pitch Trump as xenophobic & neurotic, but after the most important story they got entirely wrong was revealed as the disaster it was, they also warned about the wrong people hoarding much needed supplies.

If people would have rushed to buy masks in January it would have sent the market signal to make more. Virtue signaling was considered more important than life.

Instead of any attempts at truth we got communist-fed false assurances to provide the illusion of stability. Lives lack value when compared against maintaining political power:

In 1989, when Chinese citizens raised a Goddess of Democracy on Tiananmen Square, some pinned their hopes on the People’s Liberation Army: Surely the people’s army would never fire on the people. In fact, PLA soldiers proved quite adept at firing on the people. And to this day Beijing refuses to come clean about how many it killed at Tiananmen.
...
Communism has always been far more about Lenin than Marx—that is, about getting and holding power, rather than any economic arrangement. And it’s extraordinary how consistent the lies and violence have been across time and geography, given the many different flavors of communism.

Fake News About Fake News

As China was lying to the world, setting hundreds of thousands of people up for death & destroying the global economy, we suggested the problem was not lies from the CCP or the disease that spread globally in part due to their lies, but rather we should fight "fake news"

The rise of “fake news” - including misinformation and inaccurate advice on social media - could make disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic currently spreading in China worse, according to research published on Friday.

The WHO shills for the CCP:

The lengths to which the WHO went to sacrifice its scientific- and health-related mission for political considerations relating to China were at times both absurd and trivial. For example, in the Coronavirus Q&A that was first posted to its website, the WHO maintained multiple versions. The original English language version of the Q&A counseled that there were four common myths about preventing or curing a COVID-19 infection: smoking, wearing multiple masks, taking antibiotics, and traditional herbal remedies. The original Chinese version omitted ‘traditional herbal remedies’ as a myth. Then the WHO took down ‘traditional herbal remedies’ in both languages. Politics over health. Politics over science. At even the smallest, silliest level.

As the WHO praises the CCP we learn fake news is anything which counters the WHO.

And to protect people globally and fight sources of fake news Google is working with ... the WHO:

WHO is also battling misinformation, working with Google to ensure that people get facts from the U.N. health agency first when they search for information about the virus. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation and rumors about the outbreak.

YouTube is also removing medically substantiated content about coronavirus.

Now that the coronavirus is widespread the idea of keeping the economy perpetually shut down with healthy people quarantined is idiotic & runs counter to science. Those who shelter in place have less exposure to viruses and bacteria from their surrounding environment, which over time leads to weakened immune systems. Add to that all sorts of other issues like: doctors and nurses furloughed while hospitals are idled awaiting a pandemic that never came to most places, economic incentives to misclassify deaths as COVID-19 while ignoring other issues, missing routine treatments that would have diagnosed other health issues that are going undiagnosed for months, loss of job, loss of income, loss of purpose/meaning/ability to provide for family, depression, raging alcoholism, increased domestic violence globally & increased divorce rates in China.

Doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi expressed concerns about many of the above types of issues (video interview & presentation here) and were swiftly shot down as YouTube pulled the video.

Even the China Uncensored video about the CCP's coverup has a COVID-19 learn more banner redirecting attention back to official sources if you watch the video on YouTube.

Now there are some horrible and ridiculous official statements being made & a whole bunch of crazies spreading "eat aquarium cleaner, protect yourself from COVID-19." I even read a story about a guy who committed suicide because he feared he had COVID-19. All that stuff is horrible, but any and all attempts to defuse those horrible issues & clean them up should come with a note about how the CCP lied broadly, extensively, and is to not be trusted in any way, shape or form.

The AP report continues...

Chinese officials are increasingly speaking out.

And so should we! At least while we still can:

Where possible, China wants to criminalize any speech … any social media … that does not follow the official party line. Where it’s not possible to criminalize that speech, China wants to ban it through the cooperative censorship of global tech and media platforms. Where it’s not possible to ban that speech, China wants to shame it into the shadows by getting us to reject it as “fake news”.

And if you don’t see that the United States is about two minutes behind China in doing the same damn thing, then you’re just not paying attention.

And while the WHO has tech companies censor "fake news" the CCP releases puppet theatre cartoons about the coronavirus which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Yes that video is real. And yes, they really are that scummy.

The puppet theatre video makes no mention of police going after doctors for mentioning the virus, Taiwan reporting the virus to the WHO, the WHO ignoring Taiwan, internal briefings to Xi while the public was left in the dark, or any of the other disconnects between inside and outside voices.

The CCP disinformation campaign is widespread. They buy ads for content use cute animals to promote their absolute propaganda:

Anything that diminishes the power and prestige of the CCP is worse than death:

The biggest threat facing the U.S. is not the new virus, but rather right-wing populists who are intent on creating trouble with their strain of political virus.

The above statement only serves to confirm the following:

Communism has always been far more about Lenin than Marx—that is, about getting and holding power, rather than any economic arrangement. And it’s extraordinary how consistent the lies and violence have been across time and geography, given the many different flavors of communism.

Luckily China does not have a monopoly on political cartoons and they have not yet managed to classify the following as some form of fake news or hate speech to be censored.

Increasing Time on Site

Changing User Intents

Google's search quality rater document highlights how the intent of searches can change over time for a specific keyword.

A generic search for [iPhone] is likely to be related to the most recent model. A search for [President Bush] likely was related to the 41st president until his son was elected & then it was most likely to be related to 43.

Faster Ranking Shifts

About 17 years ago when Google was young they did monthly updates where most of any ranking signal shift that would happen would get folded into the rankings. The web today is much faster in terms of the rate of change, amount of news consumption, increasing political polarization, social media channels that amplify outrage and how quickly any cultural snippet can be taken out of context.

Yesterday President Trump had some interesting stuff to say about bleach. In spite of there being an anime series by the same name, news coverage of the presser has driven great interest in the topic.

And that interest is already folded into the organic search results through Google News insertion, Twitter tweet insertion, and the query deserves freshness (QDF) algorithm driving insertion of news stories in other organic search ranking slots.

If a lot of people are searching for something and many trusted news organizations are publishing information about a topic then there is little risk in folding fresh information into the result set.

Temporary Versus Permanent Change

When the intent of a keyword changes sometimes the change is transitory & sometimes it is not.

One of the most common ad-driven business models online is to take something that was once paid, make it free, and then layer ads or some other premium features on top to monetize a different part of the value chain. TripAdvisor democratized hotel reviews. Zillow made foreclosure information easily accessible for free, etc.

The success of remote working & communication services like Skype, Zoom, Basecamp, Slack, Trello, and the ongoing remote work experiment the world is going through will permanently change some consumer behaviors & how businesses operate.

A Pew survey mentioned 43% of Americans stated someone in their house recently lost their job, had their hours reduced, and/or took pay cuts. Hundreds of thousands of people are applying to work in Amazon's grueling fulfillment centers.

To many of these people a lone wolf online job would be a dream come true.

If you had a two hour daily commute and were just as efficient working at home most days would you be in a rush to head back to the office?

How many former fulltime employees are going to become freelancers building their own small businesses they work on directly while augmenting it with platform work on other services like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Upwork, Fiverr, 99 Designs, or even influencer platforms like Intellifluence?

If big publishers are getting disintermediated by monopoly platforms & ad networks are offering crumbs of crumbs there's no harm in selling custom ads directly or having your early publishing efforts subsidized through custom side deals as you build market awareness and invest into building other products and services to sell.

Wordpress keeps adding more features. Many technology services like Shopify, Stripe & Twilio are making most parts of the tech stack outside of marketing cheaper & easier to scale.

Some universities are preparing for the fall semester being entirely online. As technology improves, we spend more time online, more activities happen online, and more work becomes remote. All this leads to the distinction between online and offline losing meaning other than perhaps in terms of cost structure & likelihood of bankruptcy.

Before Panda / After Panda


Before the Panda update each additional page which was created was another lotto ticket and a chance to win. If users had a crappy user experience on a page or site maybe you didn't make the sale, but if the goal of the page was to have the content so crappy that ads were more appealing that could lead to fantastic monetization while it lasted.

That strategy worked well for eHow, fueling the pump-n-dump Demand Media IPO.

Demand Media had to analyze eHow and pay to delete over a million articles which they deemed to have a negative economic value in the post-Panda world.

After the Panda update having many thin pages laying around and creating more thin pages was layering risk on top of risk. It made sense to shift to a smaller, tighter, deeper & more differentiated publishing model.

Entropy & Decay

The web goes through a constant state of reinvention.

Old YouTube Flash embeds break.

HTTP content calls in sites that were upgraded to HTTPS break.

Software which is not updated has security exploits.

If you have a large website and do not regularly update where you are linking to your site is almost certainly linking to porn and malware sites somewhere.

As users shifted to mobile websites that ignored mobile interfaces became relatively less appealing.

Changing web browser behaviors can break website logins and how data is shared across websites dependent on third party services.

Competition improves.

Algorithms change.

Ads eat a growing share of real estate on dominant platforms while organic reach slides.

Everything on the web is constantly dying as competition improves, technology changes and language gets redefined.

Staying Relevant

Even if a change in user intent is transitory, in some cases it can make sense to re-work a page to address a sudden surge of interest to improve time on site, user engagement metrics & make the content on your page more citation-worthy. If news writers are still chasing a trend then having an in-depth background piece of content with more depth gives them something they may want to link at.

Since the Covid-19 implosion of the global economy came into effect I've seen two different clients have a sort of sudden surge in traffic which would make little to no sense unless one considered currently spreading news stories.

News coverage creates interest in topics, shapes perspectives of topics, and creates demand for solutions.

If you read the right people on Twitter sometimes you can be days, weeks or even months ahead of the broader news narrative. Some people are great at spotting the second, third and fourth order effects of changes. You can spot stories bubbling up and participate in the trends.

An Accelerating Rate of Change

When the web was slower & easier you could find an affiliate niche and succeed in it sometimes for years before solid competition would arrive. One of the things I was most floored about this year from a marketing perspective was how quickly spammers ramped up a full court press amplifying the fear the news media was pitching. I think I get something like a hundred spam emails a day pitching facemasks and other COVID-19 solutions. I probably see 50+ other daily ads from services like Outbrain & similar.

The web moves so much faster that the SEC is already taking COVID-19 related actions against dozens of companies. Google banned advertising protective masks and recently announced they are rolling out advertiser ID verification to increase transparency.

If Google is looking at their advertisers with a greater degree of suspicion even into an economic downturn when Expedia is pulling $4 billion from their ad budget & Amazon is cutting back on their Google ad budget and Google decides to freeze hiring then it makes far more sense to keep reinvesting into improving any page which is getting a solid stream of organic search traffic.

Company Town

After Amazon cut their Google ad budget in March Google decided to expand Google Shopping to include free listings. When any of the platforms is losing badly they can afford to subsidize that area and operate it at a loss to try to gain marketshare while making the dominant player in that category look more extreme.

When a player is dominant in a category they can squeeze down on partners. Amazon once again cut affiliate payouts and the Wall Street Journal published an article citing 20 current and former Amazon insiders who stated Amazon uses third party merchant sales data to determine which products to clone:

Amazon employees accessed documents and data about a bestselling car-trunk organizer sold by a third-party vendor. The information included total sales, how much the vendor paid Amazon for marketing and shipping, and how much Amazon made on each sale. Amazon’s private-label arm later introduced its own car-trunk organizers. ... Amazon’s private-label business encompasses more than 45 brands with some 243,000 products, from AmazonBasics batteries to Stone & Beam furniture. Amazon says those brands account for 1% of its $158 billion in annual retail sales, not counting Amazon’s devices such as its Echo speakers, Kindle e-readers and Ring doorbell cameras.

Amazon does not even need to sell their private label products to shift their economics. As Amazon clones products they force the branded ad buy for a company to show up for their own branded terms, taking another bite out of the partner: "Fortem spends as much as $60,000 a month on Amazon advertisements for its items to come up at the top of searches, said Mr. Maslakou."

Amazon has grown so dominant they've not only cut their affiliate & search advertising while hiring hundreds of thousands of employees, but they've also dramatically slowed down shipping times while pulling back on their on-site people also purchase promotions to get users to order less.

While they are growing stronger department stores and other legacy retailers are careening toward bankruptcy.

Multiple Ways to Improve

If you have a page which is ranking that gets a sudden spike in traffic it makes a lot of sense to consider current news & try to consider if the intent of the searcher has changed. If it has, address it as best you can in the most relevant way possible, even if the change is temporary, then consider switching back to the old version of the page or reorganizing your content if/when/as the trend has passed.

One of the pages mentioned above was a pre-Panda "me too" type page which was suddenly flooded with thousands of user visitors. A quality inbound link can easily cost $100 to multiples of that. If a page is already getting thousands of visitors, why not invest a couple hundred dollars into dramatically improving it, knowing that some of those drive by users will likely eventually share it? Make the page an in-depth guide with great graphics and some of those 10,000's of visitors will eventually link to it, as they were already interested in the topic, the page already gets a great stream of traffic, and the content quality is solid.

Last week a client had a big spike from a news topic that changed the intent of a keyword. Their time on site from those visitors was under a minute. After the page was re-created to reflect changing consumer intent their time on site jumped to over 3 minutes for users entering that page. Those users had a far lower bounce rate, a far better user experience, are going to be more likely to trust the site enough to seek it out again, and this sends a signal to Google that the site is still maintained & relevant to the modern search market.

There are many ways to chase the traffic stream

  • create new content on new pages
  • gut the old page & publish entirely new content
  • re-arrange the old page while publishing new relevant breaking news at the top

In general I think the third option is often the best approach because you are aligning the page which already sees the traffic stream with the content they are looking for, while also ensuring any users from the prior intent can still access what they are looking for.

If the trend is huge, or the change in intent is permanent then you could also move the old content to a legacy URL archived page while making the high-traffic page focus on the spiking news topic.

The above advice applies to pages which rank for keywords that change in intent, but it can also apply to any web page which has a strong flow of user traffic. Keep improving the things people see most because improvements there have the biggest returns. How can you make a page deeper, better, more differentiated from the rest of the web?

Does Usage Data Matter?

Objectively, if people visit your website and do not find what they were looking for they are going to click the back button and be done with you.

Outdated content that has become irrelevant due to changing user tastes is only marginally better than outright spam.

While Google suggests they largely do not use bounce rate or user data in their rankings, they have also claimed end user data was the best way they could determine if the user was satisfied with a particular search result. Five years ago Bill Slawski wrote a blog post about long clicks which quoted Steven Levy's In The Plex book:

"On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the "Long Click" — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query."

Think of how many people use the Chrome web browser or have Android tracking devices on them all hours of the day. There is no way Google would be able to track those billions of users every single day without finding a whole lot of signal in the noise.

Revenue Quality & Leverage

The coronavirus issue is likely to linger for some time.

Up to 70% of Germany could become infected & some countries like the UK are even considering herd immunity as a strategy:

"I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire"
- William Hanage

What if their models are broken?

Many companies like WeWork or Oyo have been fast and loose chasing growth while slower growing companies have been levering up to fund share buybacks. Airlines spent 96% of free cash flow on share buybacks. The airlines seek a $50 billion bailout package.

There are knock-on effects from Boeing to TripAdvisor to Google all the way down to travel affiliate blogger, local restaurants closing, the over-levered bus company going through bankruptcy & bondholders eating a loss on the debt.

Companies are going to let a lot of skeletons out of the closet as literally anything and everything bad gets attributed to coronavirus. Layoffs, renegotiating contracts, pausing ad budgets, renegotiating debts, requesting bailouts, etc. The Philippine stock market was recently trading at 2012 levels & closed indefinitely.

Brad Geddes mentioned advertisers have been aggressively pulling PPC budgets over the past week: “If you have to leave the house to engage in the service, it just seems like it’s not converting right now.”

During the prior recession Google repriced employee options to retain talent.

In spite of consumers being glued to the news, tier one news publishers are anticipating large ad revenue declines:

Some of the largest advertisers, including Procter & Gamble Unilever, Apple, Microsoft, Danone, AB InBev, Burberry and Aston Martin, made cuts to sales forecasts for the year. With the outlook for the spread of the virus changing by day, many companies are caught in a spiral of uncertainty. That tends to gum up decisions, and ad spending is an easy expenditure to put on pause. The New York Times has warned that it expects advertising revenue to decline “in the mid-teens” in the current quarter as a result of coronavirus.

More time online might mean search engines & social networks capture a greater share of overall ad spend, but if large swaths of the economy do not convert & how people live changes for an extended period of time it will take time for the new categories to create the economic engines replacing the old out-of-favor categories.

[IMPORTANT: insert affiliate ad for cruise vacations here]

As Google sees advertisers pause ad budgets Google will get more aggressive with keeping users on their site & displacing organic click flows with additional ad clicks on the remaining advertisers.

When Google or Facebook see a 5% or 10% pullback other industry players might see a 30% to 50% decline as the industry pulls back broadly, focuses more resources on the core, and the big attention merchants offset their losses by clamping down on other players.

At its peak TripAdvisor was valued at about $14 billion & it is now valued at about $2 billion.

TripAdvisor announced layoffs. As did Expedia. As did Booking.com. As did many hotels. And airlines. etc. etc. etc.

I am not suggesting people should be fearful or dominated by negative emotions. Rather one should live as though many other will be living that way.

In times of elevated uncertainty, in business it is best to not be led by emotions unless they are positive ones. Spend a bit more time playing if you can afford to & work more on things you love.

Right now we might be living through the flu pandemic of 1918 and the Great Depression of 1929 while having constant access to social media updates. And that's awful.

Consume less but deeper. Less Twitter, less news, fewer big decisions, read more books.

It is better to be more pragmatic & logic-based in determining opportunity cost & the best strategy to use than to be led by extreme fear.

  • If you have sustainable high-margin revenue treasure it.
  • If you have low-margin revenue it might quickly turn into negative margin revenues unless something changes quickly.
  • If you have low-margin revenue which is sustainable but under-performed less stable high-margin revenues you might want to put a bit more effort into those sorts of projects as they are more likely to endure.

On a positive note, we might soon get a huge wave of innovation...

"Take the Great Depression. Economist Alexander Field writes that “the years 1929–1941 were, in the aggregate, the most technologically progressive of any comparable period in U.S. economic history.” Productivity growth was twice as fast in the 1930s as it was in the decade prior. The 1920s were the era of leisure because people could afford to relax. The 1930s were the era of frantic problem solving because people had no other choice. The Great Depression brought unimaginable financial pain. It also brought us supermarkets, microwaves, sunscreen, jets, rockets, electron microscopes, magnetic recording, nylon, photocopying, teflon, helicopters, color TV, plexiglass, commercial aviation, most forms of plastic, synthetic rubber, laundromats, and countless other discoveries."

The prior recession led to trends like Groupon. The McJobs recovery led to services like Uber & DoorDash. Food delivery has been trending south recently, though perhaps the stay-at-home economy will give it a boost.

I have been amazed at how fast affiliates moved with pushing N95 face masks online over the past couple months. Seeing how fast that stuff spun up really increases the perceived value of any sustainable high-margin businesses.

Amazon.com is hiring another 100,000 warehouse workers as people shop from home. Amazon banned new face masks and hand sanitizer listings. One guy had to donate around 18,000 cleaning products he couldn't sell.

I could see online education becoming far more popular as people aim to retrain while stuck at home.

What sorts of new industries will current & new technologies lead to as more people spend time working from home?

Subscription Fatigue

Subscription Management

I have active subscriptions with about a half-dozen different news & finance sites along with about a half dozen software tools, but sometimes using a VPN or web proxy across different web browsers makes logging in to all of them & clearing cookies for some paywall sites a real pain.

If you don't subscribe to any outlets then subscribing to an aggregator like Apple News+ can make a lot of sense, but it is very easy to end up with dozens of forgotten subscriptions.

Winner-take-most Market Stratification

The news business is coming to resemble other tech-enabled businesses where a winner takes most. The New York Times stock, for instance, is trading at 15 year highs & they recently announced they are raising subscription prices:

The New York Times is raising the price of its digital subscription for the first time, from $15 every four weeks to $17 — from about $195 to $221 a year.

With a Trump re-election all but assured after the Russsia, Russia, Russia garbage, the party-line impeachment (less private equity plunderer Mitt Romney) & the ridiculous Iowa primary, many NYT readers will pledge their #NeverTrumpTwice dollars with the New York Times.

If you think politics looks ridiculous today, wait until you see some of the China-related ads in a half-year as the 2019 novel coronavirus spreads around the world.

Arresting a doctor who warned about the outbreak doesn't have good optics, particularly after hundreds of other deaths piled up from it & when he later died from from the virus.

The optics keep getting worse.

How does a broad-based news site compete with the user generated Tweets in such a zone?

And any widely known individual journalist who builds a large audience might get disappeared.

Twitter recently surpassed $1 billion in quarterly revenues, but time spent on Twitter is time not spent on other news websites.

McClatchy filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Outside of a few core winners, the news business online has been so brutal that even Warren Buffett is now a seller. As the economics get uglier news sites get more extreme with ad placements, user data sales, and pushing subscriptions. Some of these aggressive monetization efforts make otherwise respectable news outlets look like part of a very downmarket subset of the web.

Users Fight Back

Users have thus adopted to blocking ads & are also starting to ramp up blocking paywall notifications.

Each additional layer of technological complexity is another cost center publishers have to fund, often through making the user experience of their sites worse, which in turn makes their own sites less differentiated & inferior to the copies they have left across the web (via AMP, via Facebook Instant Articles, syndication in Apple News or on various portal sites like MSN or Yahoo!).

A Web Browser For Every Season

Google Chrome is spyware, so I won't recommend installing that.

Here Google's official guide on how to remove the spyware.

The easiest & most basic solution which works across many sites using metered paywalls is to have multiple web browsers installed on your computer. Have a couple browsers which are used exclusively for reading news articles when they won't show up in your main browser & set those web browsers to delete cookies on close. Or open the browsers in private mode and search for the URL of the page from Google to see if that allows access.

  • If you like Firefox there are other iterations from other players like Pale Moon, Comodo IceDragon or Waterfox using their core.
  • If you like Google Chrome then Chromium is the parallel version of it without the spyware baked in. The Chromium project is also the underlying source used to build about a dozen other web browsers including: Opera, Vivaldi, Brave, Cilqz, Blisk, Comodo Dragon, SRWare Iron, Yandex Browser & many others. Even Microsoft recently switched their Edge browser to being powered by the Chromium project. The browsers based on the Chromium store allow you to install extensions from the Chrome web store.
  • Some web browsers monetize users by setting affiliate links on the home screen and/or by selling the default search engine recommendation. You can change those once and they'll typically stick with whatever settings you use.
  • For some browsers I use for regular day to day web use I set them up to continue session on restart, and I have a session manager plugin like this one for Firefox or this one for Chromium-based browsers. For browsers which are used exclusively for reading paywall blocked articles I set them up to clear cookies on restart.

Bypassing Paywalls

There are a couple solid web browser plugins built specifically for bypassing paywalls.

Academic Journals

Unpaywall is an open database of around 25,000,000 free scholarly articles. They provide extensions for Firefox and Chromium based web browsers on their website.

News Articles

There is also one for news publications called bypass paywalls.

  • Mozilla Firefox: To install the Firefox version go here.
  • Chrome-like web browsers: To install the Chrome version of the extension in Opera or Chromium or Microsoft Edge you can download the extension here, enter developer mode inside the extensions area of your web browser & install extension. To turn developer mode on, open up the drop down menu for the browser, click on extensions to go to the extension management area, and then slide the "Developer mode" button to the right so it is blue.

Regional Blocking

If you travel internationally some websites like YouTube or Twitter or news sites will have portions of their content restricted to only showing in some geographic regions. This can be especially true for new sports content and some music.

These can be bypassed by using a VPN service like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Witopia or IPVanish. Some VPN providers also sell pre-configured routers. If you buy a pre-configured router you can use an ethernet switch or wifi to switch back and forth between the regular router and the VPN router.

You can also buy web proxies & enter them into the Foxy Proxy web browser extension (Firefox or Chromium-compatible) with different browsers set to default to different country locations, making it easier to see what the search results show in different countries & cities quickly.

If you use a variety of web proxies you can configure some of them to work automatically in an open source rank tracking tool like Serposcope.

The Future of Journalism

I think the future of news is going to be a lot more sites like Ben Thompson's Stratechery or Jessica Lessin's TheInformation & far fewer broad/horizontal news organizations. Things are moving toward the 1,000 true fans or perhaps 100 true fans model:

This represents a move away from the traditional donation model—in which users pay to benefit the creator—to a value model, in which users are willing to pay more for something that benefits themselves. What was traditionally dubbed “self-help” now exists under the umbrella of “wellness.” People are willing to pay more for exclusive, ROI-positive services that are constructive in their lives, whether it’s related to health, finances, education, or work. In the offline world, people are accustomed to hiring experts across verticals

A friend of mine named Terry Godier launched a conversion-oriented email newsletter named Conversion Gold which has done quite well right out of the gate, leading him to launch IndieMailer, a community for paid newsletter creators.

The model which seems to be working well for those sorts of news sites is...

  • stick to a tight topic range
  • publish regularly at a somewhat decent frequency like daily or weekly, though have a strong preference to quality & originality over quantity
  • have a single author or a small core team which does most the writing and expand editorial hiring slowly
  • offer original insights & much more depth of coverage than you would typically find in the mainstream news
  • Rely on Wordpress or a low-cost CMS & billing technology partner like Substack, Memberful, sell on a marketplace like Udemy, Podia or Teachable, or if they have a bit more technical chops they can install aMember on their own server. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I opened up a membership site about a decade back was hand rolling custom code for memberhsip management. At one point we shut down the membership site for a while in order to allow us to rip out all that custom code & replace it with aMember.
  • Accept user comments on pieces or integrate a user forum using something like Discord on a subdomain or a custom Slack channel. Highlight or feature the best comments. Update readers to new features via email.
  • Invest much more into obtaining unique data & sources to deliver new insights without spending aggressively to syndicate onto other platforms using graphical content layouts which would require significant design, maintenance & updating expenses
  • Heavily differentiate your perspective from other sources
  • maintain a low technological maintenance overhead
  • low cost monthly subscription with a solid discount for annual pre-payment
  • instead of using a metered paywall, set some content to require payment to read & periodically publish full-feature free content (perhaps weekly) to keep up awareness of the offering in the broader public to help offset churn.

Some also work across multiple formats with complimentary offerings. The Ringer has done well with podcasts & Stratechery also has the Exponent podcast.

There are a number of other successful online-only news subscription sites like TheAthletic & Bill Bishop's Sinocism newsletter about China, but I haven't subscribed to them yet. Many people support a wide range of projects on platforms like Patreon & sites like MasterClass with an all-you-can-eat subscription will also make paying for online content far more common.

The Fractured Web

Anyone can argue about the intent of a particular action & the outcome that is derived by it. But when the outcome is known, at some point the intent is inferred if the outcome is derived from a source of power & the outcome doesn't change.

Or, put another way, if a powerful entity (government, corporation, other organization) disliked an outcome which appeared to benefit them in the short term at great lasting cost to others, they could spend resources to adjust the system.

If they don't spend those resources (or, rather, spend them on lobbying rather than improving the ecosystem) then there is no desired change. The outcome is as desired. Change is unwanted.

News is a stock vs flow market where the flow of recent events drives most of the traffic to articles. News that is more than a couple days old is no longer news. A news site which stops publishing news stops becoming a habit & quickly loses relevancy. Algorithmically an abandoned archive of old news articles doesn't look much different than eHow, in spite of having a much higher cost structure.

According to SEMrush's traffic rank, ampproject.org gets more monthly visits than Yahoo.com.

Traffic Ranks.

That actually understates the prevalence of AMP because AMP is generally designed for mobile AND not all AMP-formatted content is displayed on ampproject.org.

Part of how AMP was able to get widespread adoption was because in the news vertical the organic search result set was displaced by an AMP block. If you were a news site either you were so differentiated that readers would scroll past the AMP block in the search results to look for you specifically, or you adopted AMP, or you were doomed.

Some news organizations like The Guardian have a team of about a dozen people reformatting their content to the duplicative & proprietary AMP format. That's wasteful, but necessary "In theory, adoption of AMP is voluntary. In reality, publishers that don’t want to see their search traffic evaporate have little choice. New data from publisher analytics firm Chartbeat shows just how much leverage Google has over publishers thanks to its dominant search engine."

It seems more than a bit backward that low margin publishers are doing duplicative work to distance themselves from their own readers while improving the profit margins of monopolies. But it is what it is. And that no doubt drew the ire of many publishers across the EU.

And now there are AMP Stories to eat up even more visual real estate.

If you spent a bunch of money to create a highly differentiated piece of content, why would you prefer that high spend flagship content appear on a third party website rather than your own?

Google & Facebook have done such a fantastic job of eating the entire pie that some are celebrating Amazon as a prospective savior to the publishing industry. That view - IMHO - is rather suspect.

Where any of the tech monopolies dominate they cram down on partners. The New York Times acquired The Wirecutter in Q4 of 2016. In Q1 of 2017 Amazon adjusted their affiliate fee schedule.

Amazon generally treats consumers well, but they have been much harder on business partners with tough pricing negotiations, counterfeit protections, forced ad buying to have a high enough product rank to be able to rank organically, ad displacement of their organic search results below the fold (even for branded search queries), learning suppliers & cutting out the partners, private label products patterned after top sellers, in some cases running pop over ads for the private label products on product level pages where brands already spent money to drive traffic to the page, etc.

They've made things tougher for their partners in a way that mirrors the impact Facebook & Google have had on online publishers:

"Boyce’s experience on Amazon largely echoed what happens in the offline world: competitors entered the market, pushing down prices and making it harder to make a profit. So Boyce adapted. He stopped selling basketball hoops and developed his own line of foosball tables, air hockey tables, bocce ball sets and exercise equipment. The best way to make a decent profit on Amazon was to sell something no one else had and create your own brand. ... Amazon also started selling bocce ball sets that cost $15 less than Boyce’s. He says his products are higher quality, but Amazon gives prominent page space to its generic version and wins the cost-conscious shopper."

Google claims they have no idea how content publishers are with the trade off between themselves & the search engine, but every quarter Alphabet publish the share of ad spend occurring on owned & operated sites versus the share spent across the broader publisher network. And in almost every quarter for over a decade straight that ratio has grown worse for publishers.

The aggregate numbers for news publishers are worse than shown above as Google is ramping up ads in video games quite hard. They've partnered with Unity & promptly took away the ability to block ads from appearing in video games using googleadsenseformobileapps.com exclusion (hello flat thumb misclicks, my name is budget & I am gone!)

They will also track video game player behavior & alter game play to maximize revenues based on machine learning tied to surveillance of the user's account: "We’re bringing a new approach to monetization that combines ads and in-app purchases in one automated solution. Available today, new smart segmentation features in Google AdMob use machine learning to segment your players based on their likelihood to spend on in-app purchases. Ad units with smart segmentation will show ads only to users who are predicted not to spend on in-app purchases. Players who are predicted to spend will see no ads, and can simply continue playing."

And how does the growth of ampproject.org square against the following wisdom?

Literally only yesterday did Google begin supporting instant loading of self-hosted AMP pages.

China has a different set of tech leaders than the United States. Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent (BAT) instead of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (FANG). China tech companies may have won their domestic markets in part based on superior technology or better knowledge of the local culture, though those same companies have largely went nowhere fast in most foreign markets. A big part of winning was governmental assistance in putting a foot on the scales.

Part of the US-China trade war is about who controls the virtual "seas" upon which value flows:

it can easily be argued that the last 60 years were above all the era of the container-ship (with container-ships getting ever bigger). But will the coming decades still be the age of the container-ship? Possibly not, for the simple reason that things that have value increasingly no longer travel by ship, but instead by fiberoptic cables! ... you could almost argue that ZTE and Huawei have been the “East India Company” of the current imperial cycle. Unsurprisingly, it is these very companies, charged with laying out the “new roads” along which “tomorrow’s value” will flow, that find themselves at the center of the US backlash. ... if the symbol of British domination was the steamship, and the symbol of American strength was the Boeing 747, it seems increasingly clear that the question of the future will be whether tomorrow’s telecom switches and routers are produced by Huawei or Cisco. ... US attempts to take down Huawei and ZTE can be seen as the existing empire’s attempt to prevent the ascent of a new imperial power. With this in mind, I could go a step further and suggest that perhaps the Huawei crisis is this century’s version of Suez crisis. No wonder markets have been falling ever since the arrest of the Huawei CFO. In time, the Suez Crisis was brought to a halt by US threats to destroy the value of sterling. Could we now witness the same for the US dollar?

China maintains Huawei is an employee-owned company. But that proposition is suspect. Broadly stealing technology is vital to the growth of the Chinese economy & they have no incentive to stop unless their leading companies pay a direct cost. Meanwhile, China is investigating Ericsson over licensing technology.

Amazon will soon discontinue selling physical retail products in China: "Amazon shoppers in China will no longer be able to buy goods from third-party merchants in the country, but they still will be able to order from the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan via the firm’s global store. Amazon expects to close fulfillment centers and wind down support for domestic-selling merchants in China in the next 90 days."

India has taken notice of the success of Chinese tech companies & thus began to promote "national champion" company policies. That, in turn, has also meant some of the Chinese-styled laws requiring localized data, antitrust inquiries, foreign ownership restrictions, requirements for platforms to not sell their own goods, promoting limits on data encryption, etc.

The secretary of India’s Telecommunications Department, Aruna Sundararajan, last week told a gathering of Indian startups in a closed-door meeting in the tech hub of Bangalore that the government will introduce a “national champion” policy “very soon” to encourage the rise of Indian companies, according to a person familiar with the matter. She said Indian policy makers had noted the success of China’s internet giants, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. ... Tensions began rising last year, when New Delhi decided to create a clearer set of rules for e-commerce and convened a group of local players to solicit suggestions. Amazon and Flipkart, even though they make up more than half the market, weren’t invited, according to people familiar with the matter.

Amazon vowed to invest $5 billion in India & they have done some remarkable work on logistics there. Walmart acquired Flipkart for $16 billion.

Other emerging markets also have many local ecommerce leaders like Jumia, MercadoLibre, OLX, Gumtree, Takealot, Konga, Kilimall, BidOrBuy, Tokopedia, Bukalapak, Shoppee, Lazada. If you live in the US you may have never heard of *any* of those companies. And if you live in an emerging market you may have never interacted with Amazon or eBay.

It makes sense that ecommerce leadership would be more localized since it requires moving things in the physical economy, dealing with local currencies, managing inventory, shipping goods, etc. whereas information flows are just bits floating on a fiber optic cable.

If the Internet is primarily seen as a communications platform it is easy for people in some emerging markets to think Facebook is the Internet. Free communication with friends and family members is a compelling offer & as the cost of data drops web usage increases.

At the same time, the web is incredibly deflationary. Every free form of entertainment which consumes time is time that is not spent consuming something else.

Add the technological disruption to the wealth polarization that happened in the wake of the great recession, then combine that with algorithms that promote extremist views & it is clearly causing increasing conflict.

If you are a parent and you think you child has no shot at a brighter future than your own life it is easy to be full of rage.

Empathy can radicalize otherwise normal people by giving them a more polarized view of the world:

Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation ... The new rule for empathy seems to be: reserve it, not for your "enemies," but for the people you believe are hurt, or you have decided need it the most. Empathy, but just for your own team. And empathizing with the other team? That's practically a taboo.

A complete lack of empathy could allow a psychopath to commit extreme crimes while feeling no guilt, shame or remorse. Extreme empathy can have the same sort of outcome:

"Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy. ... They emphasized that students would learn both sides, and the atrocities committed by one side or the other were always put into context. Students learned this curriculum, but follow-up studies showed that this new generation was more polarized than the one before. ... [Empathy] can be good when it leads to good action, but it can have downsides. For example, if you want the victims to say 'thank you.' You may even want to keep the people you help in that position of inferior victim because it can sustain your feeling of being a hero." - Fritz Breithaupt

News feeds will be read. Villages will be razed. Lynch mobs will become commonplace.

Many people will end up murdered by algorithmically generated empathy.

As technology increases absentee ownership & financial leverage, a society led by morally agnostic algorithms is not going to become more egalitarian.

When politicians throw fuel on the fire it only gets worse:

It’s particularly odd that the government is demanding “accountability and responsibility” from a phone app when some ruling party politicians are busy spreading divisive fake news. How can the government ask WhatsApp to control mobs when those convicted of lynching Muslims have been greeted, garlanded and fed sweets by some of the most progressive and cosmopolitan members of Modi’s council of ministers?

Mark Zuckerburg won't get caught downstream from platform blowback as he spends $20 million a year on his security.

The web is a mirror. Engagement-based algorithms reinforcing our perceptions & identities.

And every important story has at least 2 sides!

Some may "learn" vaccines don't work. Others may learn the vaccines their own children took did not work, as it failed to protect them from the antivax content spread by Facebook & Google, absorbed by people spreading measles & Medieval diseases.

Passion drives engagement, which drives algorithmic distribution: "There’s an asymmetry of passion at work. Which is to say, there’s very little counter-content to surface because it simply doesn’t occur to regular people (or, in this case, actual medical experts) that there’s a need to produce counter-content."

As the costs of "free" become harder to hide, social media companies which currently sell emerging markets as their next big growth area will end up having embedded regulatory compliance costs which will end up exceeding any sort of prospective revenue they could hope to generate.

The Pinterest S1 shows almost all their growth is in emerging markets, yet almost all their revenue is inside the United States.

As governments around the world see the real-world cost of the foreign tech companies & view some of them as piggy banks, eventually the likes of Facebook or Google will pull out of a variety of markets they no longer feel worth serving. It will be like Google did in mainland China with search after discovering pervasive hacking of activist Gmail accounts.

Lower friction & lower cost information markets will face more junk fees, hurdles & even some legitimate regulations. Information markets will start to behave more like physical goods markets.

The tech companies presume they will be able to use satellites, drones & balloons to beam in Internet while avoiding messy local issues tied to real world infrastructure, but when a local wealthy player is betting against them they'll probably end up losing those markets: "One of the biggest cheerleaders for the new rules was Reliance Jio, a fast-growing mobile phone company controlled by Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest industrialist. Mr. Ambani, an ally of Mr. Modi, has made no secret of his plans to turn Reliance Jio into an all-purpose information service that offers streaming video and music, messaging, money transfer, online shopping, and home broadband services."

Publishers do not have "their mojo back" because the tech companies have been so good to them, but rather because the tech companies have been so aggressive that they've earned so much blowback which will in turn lead publishers to opting out of future deals, which will eventually lead more people back to the trusted brands of yesterday.

Publishers feeling guilty about taking advertorial money from the tech companies to spread their propaganda will offset its publication with opinion pieces pointing in the other direction: "This is a lobbying campaign in which buying the good opinion of news brands is clearly important. If it was about reaching a target audience, there are plenty of metrics to suggest his words would reach further – at no cost – on Facebook. Similarly, Google is upping its presence in a less obvious manner via assorted media initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic. Its more direct approach to funding journalism seems to have the desired effect of making all media organisations (and indeed many academic institutions) touched by its money slightly less questioning and critical of its motives."

When Facebook goes down direct visits to leading news brand sites go up.

When Google penalizes a no-name me-too site almost nobody realizes it is missing. But if a big publisher opts out of the ecosystem people will notice.

The reliance on the tech platforms is largely a mirage. If enough key players were to opt out at the same time people would quickly reorient their information consumption habits.

If the platforms can change their focus overnight then why can't publishers band together & choose to dump them?

In Europe there is GDPR, which aimed to protect user privacy, but ultimately acted as a tax on innovation by local startups while being a subsidy to the big online ad networks. They also have Article 11 & Article 13, which passed in spite of Google's best efforts on the scaremongering anti-SERP tests, lobbying & propaganda fronts: "Google has sparked criticism by encouraging news publishers participating in its Digital News Initiative to lobby against proposed changes to EU copyright law at a time when the beleaguered sector is increasingly turning to the search giant for help."

Remember the Eric Schmidt comment about how brands are how you sort out (the non-YouTube portion of) the cesspool? As it turns out, he was allegedly wrong as Google claims they have been fighting for the little guy the whole time:

Article 11 could change that principle and require online services to strike commercial deals with publishers to show hyperlinks and short snippets of news. This means that search engines, news aggregators, apps, and platforms would have to put commercial licences in place, and make decisions about which content to include on the basis of those licensing agreements and which to leave out. Effectively, companies like Google will be put in the position of picking winners and losers. ... Why are large influential companies constraining how new and small publishers operate? ... The proposed rules will undoubtedly hurt diversity of voices, with large publishers setting business models for the whole industry. This will not benefit all equally. ... We believe the information we show should be based on quality, not on payment.

Facebook claims there is a local news problem: "Facebook Inc. has been looking to boost its local-news offerings since a 2017 survey showed most of its users were clamoring for more. It has run into a problem: There simply isn’t enough local news in vast swaths of the country. ... more than one in five newspapers have closed in the past decade and a half, leaving half the counties in the nation with just one newspaper, and 200 counties with no newspaper at all."

Google is so for the little guy that for their local news experiments they've partnered with a private equity backed newspaper roll up firm & another newspaper chain which did overpriced acquisitions & is trying to act like a PE firm (trying to not get eaten by the PE firm).

Does the above stock chart look in any way healthy?

Does it give off the scent of a firm that understood the impact of digital & rode it to new heights?

If you want good market-based outcomes, why not partner with journalists directly versus operating through PE chop shops?

If Patch is profitable & Google were a neutral ranking system based on quality, couldn't Google partner with journalists directly?

Throwing a few dollars at a PE firm in some nebulous partnership sure beats the sort of regulations coming out of the EU. And the EU's regulations (and prior link tax attempts) are in addition to the three multi billion Euro fines the European Union has levied against Alphabet for shopping search, Android & AdSense.

Google was also fined in Russia over Android bundling. The fine was tiny, but after consumers gained a search engine choice screen (much like Google pushed for in Europe on Microsoft years ago) Yandex's share of mobile search grew quickly.

The UK recently published a white paper on online harms. In some ways it is a regulation just like the tech companies might offer to participants in their ecosystems:

Companies will have to fulfil their new legal duties or face the consequences and “will still need to be compliant with the overarching duty of care even where a specific code does not exist, for example assessing and responding to the risk associated with emerging harms or technology”.

If web publishers should monitor inbound links to look for anything suspicious then the big platforms sure as hell have the resources & profit margins to monitor behavior on their own websites.

Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill which requires platforms to expeditiously remove violent videos & notify the Australian police about them.

There are other layers of fracturing going on in the web as well.

Programmatic advertising shifted revenue from publishers to adtech companies & the largest ad sellers. Ad blockers further lower the ad revenues of many publishers. If you routinely use an ad blocker, try surfing the web for a while without one & you will notice layover welcome AdSense ads on sites as you browse the web - the very type of ad they were allegedly against when promoting AMP.

Tracking protection in browsers & ad blocking features built directly into browsers leave publishers more uncertain. And who even knows who visited an AMP page hosted on a third party server, particularly when things like GDPR are mixed in? Those who lack first party data may end up having to make large acquisitions to stay relevant.

Voice search & personal assistants are now ad channels.

App stores are removing VPNs in China, removing Tiktok in India, and keeping female tracking apps in Saudi Arabia. App stores are centralized chokepoints for governments. Every centralized service is at risk of censorship. Web browsers from key state-connected players can also censor messages spread by developers on platforms like GitHub.

Microsoft's newest Edge web browser is based on Chromium, the source of Google Chrome. While Mozilla Firefox gets most of their revenue from a search deal with Google, Google has still went out of its way to use its services to both promote Chrome with pop overs AND break in competing web browsers:

"All of this is stuff you're allowed to do to compete, of course. But we were still a search partner, so we'd say 'hey what gives?' And every time, they'd say, 'oops. That was accidental. We'll fix it in the next push in 2 weeks.' Over and over. Oops. Another accident. We'll fix it soon. We want the same things. We're on the same team. There were dozens of oopses. Hundreds maybe?" - former Firefox VP Jonathan Nightingale

As phone sales fall & app downloads stall a hardware company like Apple is pushing hard into services while quietly raking in utterly fantastic ad revenues from search & ads in their app store.

Part of the reason people are downloading fewer apps is so many apps require registration as soon as they are opened, or only let a user engage with them for seconds before pushing aggressive upsells. And then many apps which were formerly one-off purchases are becoming subscription plays. As traffic acquisition costs have jumped, many apps must engage in sleight of hand behaviors (free but not really, we are collecting data totally unrelated to the purpose of our app & oops we sold your data, etc.) in order to get the numbers to back out. This in turn causes app stores to slow down app reviews.

Apple acquired the news subscription service Texture & turned it into Apple News Plus. Not only is Apple keeping half the subscription revenues, but soon the service will only work for people using Apple devices, leaving nearly 100,000 other subscribers out in the cold: "if you’re part of the 30% who used Texture to get your favorite magazines digitally on Android or Windows devices, you will soon be out of luck. Only Apple iOS devices will be able to access the 300 magazines available from publishers. At the time of the sale in March 2018 to Apple, Texture had about 240,000 subscribers."

Apple is also going to spend over a half-billion Dollars exclusively licensing independently developed games:

Several people involved in the project’s development say Apple is spending several million dollars each on most of the more than 100 games that have been selected to launch on Arcade, with its total budget likely to exceed $500m. The games service is expected to launch later this year. ... Apple is offering developers an extra incentive if they agree for their game to only be available on Arcade, withholding their release on Google’s Play app store for Android smartphones or other subscription gaming bundles such as Microsoft’s Xbox game pass.

Verizon wants to launch a video game streaming service. It will probably be almost as successful as their Go90 OTT service was. Microsoft is pushing to make Xbox games work on Android devices. Amazon is developing a game streaming service to compliment Twitch.

The hosts on Twitch, some of whom sign up exclusively with the platform in order to gain access to its moneymaking tools, are rewarded for their ability to make a connection with viewers as much as they are for their gaming prowess. Viewers who pay $4.99 a month for a basic subscription — the money is split evenly between the streamers and Twitch — are looking for immediacy and intimacy. While some hosts at YouTube Gaming offer a similar experience, they have struggled to build audiences as large, and as dedicated, as those on Twitch. ... While YouTube has made millionaires out of the creators of popular videos through its advertising program, Twitch’s hosts make money primarily from subscribers and one-off donations or tips. YouTube Gaming has made it possible for viewers to support hosts this way, but paying audiences haven’t materialized at the scale they have on Twitch.

Google, having a bit of Twitch envy, is also launching a video game streaming service which will be deeply integrated into YouTube: "With Stadia, YouTube watchers can press “Play now” at the end of a video, and be brought into the game within 5 seconds. The service provides “instant access” via button or link, just like any other piece of content on the web."

Google will also launch their own game studio making exclusive games for their platform.

When consoles don't use discs or cartridges so they can sell a subscription access to their software library it is hard to be a game retailer! GameStop's stock has been performing like an ICO. And these sorts of announcements from the tech companies have been hitting stock prices for companies like Nintendo & Sony: “There is no doubt this service makes life even more difficult for established platforms,” Amir Anvarzadeh, a market strategist at Asymmetric Advisors Pte, said in a note to clients. “Google will help further fragment the gaming market which is already coming under pressure by big games which have adopted the mobile gaming business model of giving the titles away for free in hope of generating in-game content sales.”

The big tech companies which promoted everything in adjacent markets being free are now erecting paywalls for themselves, balkanizing the web by paying for exclusives to drive their bundled subscriptions.

How many paid movie streaming services will the web have by the end of next year? 20? 50? Does anybody know?

Disney alone with operate Disney+, ESPN+ as well as Hulu.

And then the tech companies are not only licensing exclusives to drive their subscription-based services, but we're going to see more exclusionary policies like YouTube not working on Amazon Echo, Netflix dumping support for Apple's Airplay, or Amazon refusing to sell devices like Chromecast or Apple TV.

The good news in a fractured web is a broader publishing industry that contains many micro markets will have many opportunities embedded in it. A Facebook pivot away from games toward news, or a pivot away from news toward video won't kill third party publishers who have a more diverse traffic profile and more direct revenues. And a regional law blocking porn or gambling websites might lead to an increase in demand for VPNs or free to play points-based games with paid upgrades. Even the rise of metered paywalls will lead to people using more web browsers & more VPNs. Each fracture (good or bad) will create more market edges & ultimately more opportunities. Chinese enforcement of their gambling laws created a real estate boom in Manila.

So long as there are 4 or 5 game stores, 4 or 5 movie streaming sites, etc. ... they have to compete on merit or use money to try to buy exclusives. Either way is better than the old monopoly strategy of take it or leave it ultimatums.

The publisher wins because there is a competitive bid. There won't be an arbitrary 30% tax on everything. So long as there is competition from the open web there will be means to bypass the junk fees & the most successful companies that do so might create their own stores with a lower rate: "Mr. Schachter estimates that Apple and Google could see a hit of about 14% to pretax earnings if they reduced their own app commissions to match Epic’s take."

As the big media companies & big tech companies race to create subscription products they'll spend many billions on exclusives. And they will be training consumers that there's nothing wrong with paying for content. This will eventually lead to hundreds of thousands or even millions of successful niche publications which have incentives better aligned than all the issues the ad supported web has faced.

Added: Facebook pushing privacy & groups is both an attempt to thwart regulation risk while also making their services more relevant to a web that fractures away from a monolithic thing into more niche communities.

One way of looking at Facebook in this moment is as an unstoppable behemoth that bends reality to its will, no matter the consequences. (This is how many journalists tend to see it.) Another way of looking at the company is from the perspective of its fundamental weakness — as a slave to ever-shifting consumer behavior. (This is how employees are more likely to look at it.) ... Zuckerberg’s vision for a new Facebook is perhaps best represented by a coming redesign of the flagship app and desktop site that will emphasize events and groups, at the expense of the News Feed. Collectively, the design changes will push people toward smaller group conversations and real-world meetups — and away from public posts.

A Darker Shade of Gray

Google's original breakthrough in search was placing weight on links & using them to approximate the behavior of web users.

The abstract of
The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web reads

The importance of a Web page is an inherently subjective matter, which depends on the readers interests, knowledge and attitudes. But there is still much that can be said objectively about the relative importance of Web pages. This paper describes PageRank, a method for rating Web pages objectively and mechanically, effectively measuring the human interest and attention devoted to them. We compare PageRank to an idealized random Web surfer. We show how to efficiently compute PageRank for large numbers of pages. And, we show how to apply PageRank to search and to user navigation.

Back when I got started in the search game if you wanted to rank better you simply threw more links at whatever you wanted to rank & used the anchor text you wanted to rank for. A friend (who will remain nameless here!) used to rank websites for one-word search queries in major industries without even looking at them. :D

Suffice it to say, as more people read about PageRank & learned the influence of anchor text, Google had to advance their algorithms in order to counteract efforts to manipulate them.

Over the years as Google has grown more dominant they have been able to create many other signals. Some signals might be easy to understand & explain, while signals that approximate abstract concepts (like brand) might be a bit more convoluted to understand or attempt to explain.

Google owns the most widely used web browser (Chrome) & the most popular mobile operating system (Android). Owning those gives Google unique insights to where they do not need to place as much weight on a links-driven approximation of a random web user. They can see what users actually do & model their algorithms based on that.

Google considers the user experience an important part of their ranking algorithms. That was a big part of the heavy push for making mobile responsive web designs.

On your money or your life topics Google considers the experience so important they have an acronym covering the categories (YMYL) and place greater emphasis on the reliability of the user experience. Some algorithm updates which have an outsized impact on these categories get nicknames like the medic update.

Nobody wants to die from a junk piece of medical advice or a matching service which invites a predator into their home.

The Wall Street Journal publishes original reporting which is so influential they act as the missing regulator in many instances.

Last Friday the WSJ covered the business practices of Care.com, a company which counts Alphabet's Capital G as its biggest shareholder.

Behind Care.com’s appeal is a pledge to “help families make informed hiring decisions” about caregivers, as it has said on its website. Still, Care.com largely leaves it to families to figure out whether the caregivers it lists are trustworthy. ... In about 9 instances over the past six years, caregivers in the U.S. who had police records were listed on Care.com and later were accused of committing crimes while caring for customers’ children or elderly relatives ... Alleged crimes included theft, child abuse, sexual assault and murder. The Journal also found hundreds of instances in which day-care centers listed on Care.com as state-licensed didn’t appear to be. ... Care.com states on listings that it doesn’t verify licenses, in small gray type at the bottom ... A spokeswoman said that Care.com, like other companies, adds listings found in “publicly available data,” and that most day-care centers on its site didn’t pay for their listings. She said in the next few years Care.com will begin a program in which it vets day-care centers.

By Monday Care.com's stock was sliding, which led to prompt corrective actions:

Previously the company warned users in small grey type at the bottom of a day-care center listing that it didn’t verify credentials or licensing information. Care.com said Monday it “has made more prominent” that notice.

To this day, Care.com's homepage states...

"Care.com does not employ any care provider or care seeker nor is it responsible for the conduct of any care provider or care seeker. ... The information contained in member profiles, job posts and applications are supplied by care providers and care seekers themselves and is not information generated or verified by Care.com."

...in an ever so slightly darker shade of gray.

So far it appears to have worked for them.

What's your favorite color?

Related: Google is now testing black ad labels.

Update: Care.com recently removed most of the overt low-quality spam from their website.

Care.com, the largest site in the U.S. for finding caregivers, removed about 72% of day-care centers, or about 46,594 businesses, listed on its site, a Journal review of the website shows. Those businesses were listed on the site as recently as March 1. ... Ms. Bushkin said the company had removed 45% of day-care centers in its database, a number that hasn’t been previously reported. She said the number is different than the Journal’s analysis because the company filters day-care center listings in its database through algorithms to “optimize the experience,” adding that the Journal saw only a subset of its total listings.

Google & Facebook Squeezing Out Partners

Sections

Just Make Great Content...

Remember the whole shtick about good, legitimate, high-quality content being created for readers without concern for search engines - even as though search engines do not exist?

Whatever happened to that?

We quickly shifted from the above "ideology" to this:

The red triangle/exclamation point icon was arrived at after the Chrome team commissioned research around the world to figure out which symbols alarmed users the most.

Search Engine Engineering Fear

Google is explicitly spreading the message that they are doing testing on how to create maximum fear to try to manipulate & coerce the ecosystem to suit their needs & wants.

At the same time, the Google AMP project is being used as the foundation of effective phishing campaigns.

Scare users off of using HTTP sites AND host phishing campaigns.

Killer job Google.

Someone deserves a raise & some stock options. Unfortunately that person is in the PR team, not the product team.

Ignore The Eye Candy, It's Poisoned

I'd like to tell you that I was preparing the launch of https://amp.secured.mobile.seobook.com but awareness of past ecosystem shifts makes me unwilling to make that move.

I see it as arbitrary hoop jumping not worth the pain.

If you are an undifferentiated publisher without much in the way of original thought, then jumping through the hoops make sense. But if you deeply care about a topic and put a lot of effort into knowing it well, there's no reason to do the arbitrary hoop jumping.

Remember how mobilegeddon was going to be the biggest thing ever? Well I never updated our site layout here & we still outrank a company which raised & spent 10s of millions of dollars for core industry terms like [seo tools].

Though it is also worth noting that after factoring in increased ad load with small screen sizes & the scrape graph featured answer stuff, a #1 ranking no longer gets it done, as we are well below the fold on mobile.

   

Below the Fold = Out of Mind

In the above example I am not complaining about ranking #5 and wishing I ranked #2, but rather stating that ranking #1 organically has little to no actual value when it is a couple screens down the page.

Google indicated their interstitial penalty might apply to pop ups that appear on scroll, yet Google welcomes itself to installing a toxic enhanced version of the Diggbar at the top of AMP pages, which persistently eats 15% of the screen & can't be dismissed. An attempt to dismiss the bar leads the person back to Google to click on another listing other than your site.

As bad as I may have made mobile search results appear earlier, I was perhaps being a little too kind. Google doesn't even have mass adoption of AMP yet & they already have 4 AdWords ads in their mobile search results AND when you scroll down the page they are testing an ugly "back to top" button which outright blocks a user's view of the organic search results.

What happens when Google suggests what people should read next as an overlay on your content & sells that as an ad unit where if you're lucky you get a tiny taste of the revenues?

Is it worth doing anything that makes your desktop website worse in an attempt to try to rank a little higher on mobile devices?

Given the small screen size of phones & the heavy ad load, the answer is no.

I realize that optimizing a site design for mobile or desktop is not mutually exclusive. But it is an issue we will revisit later on in this post.

Coercion Which Failed

Many people new to SEO likely don't remember the importance of using Google Checkout integration to lower AdWords ad pricing.

You either supported Google Checkout & got about a 10% CTR lift (& thus 10% reduction in click cost) or you failed to adopt it and got priced out of the market on the margin difference.

And if you chose to adopt it, the bad news was you were then spending yet again to undo it when the service was no longer worth running for Google.

How about when Google first started hyping HTTPS & publishers using AdSense saw their ad revenue crash because the ads were no longer anywhere near as relevant.

Oops.

Not like Google cared much, as it is their goal to shift as much of the ad spend as they can onto Google.com & YouTube.

Google is now testing product ads on YouTube.

It is not an accident that Google funds an ad blocker which allows ads to stream through on Google.com while leaving ads blocked across the rest of the web.

Android Pay might be worth integrating. But then it also might go away.

It could be like Google's authorship. Hugely important & yet utterly trivial.
Faces help people trust the content.
Then they are distracting visual clutter that need expunged.
Then they once again re-appear but ONLY on the Google Home Service ad units.
They were once again good for users!!!

Neat how that works.

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

Or it could be like Google Reader. A free service which defunded all competing products & then was shut down because it didn't have a legitimate business model due to it being built explicitly to prevent competition. With the death of Google reader many blogs also slid into irrelevancy.

Their FeedBurner acquisition was icing on the cake.

Techdirt is known for generally being pro-Google & they recently summed up FeedBurner nicely:

Thanks, Google, For Fucking Over A Bunch Of Media Websites - Mike Masnick

Ultimately Google is a horrible business partner.

And they are an even worse one if there is no formal contract.

Dumb Pipes, Dumb Partnerships

They tried their best to force broadband providers to be dumb pipes. At the same time they promoted regulation which will prevent broadband providers from tracking their own users the way that Google does, all the while broadening out Google's privacy policy to allow personally identifiable web tracking across their network. Once Google knew they would retain an indefinite tracking advantage over broadband providers they were free to rescind their (heavily marketed) free tier of Google Fiber & they halted the Google Fiber build out.

When Google routinely acts so anti-competitive & abusive it is no surprise that some of the "standards" they propose go nowhere.

You can only get screwed so many times before you adopt a spirit of ambivalence to the avarice.

Google is the type of "partner" that conducts security opposition research on their leading distribution partner, while conveniently ignoring nearly a billion OTHER Android phones with existing security issues that Google can't be bothered with patching.

Deliberately screwing direct business partners is far worse than coding algorithms which belligerently penalize some competing services all the while ignoring that the payday loan shop funded by Google leverages doorway pages.

"User" Friendly

BackChannel recently published an article foaming at the mouth promoting the excitement of Google's AI:

This 2016-to-2017 Transition is going to move us from systems that are explicitly taught to ones that implicitly learn." ... the engineers might make up a rule to test against—for instance, that “usual” might mean a place within a 10-minute drive that you visited three times in the last six months. “It almost doesn’t matter what it is — just make up some rule,” says Huffman. “The machine learning starts after that.

The part of the article I found most interesting was the following bit:

After three years, Google had a sufficient supply of phonemes that it could begin doing things like voice dictation. So it discontinued the [phone information] service.

Google launches "free" services with an ulterior data motive & then when it suits their needs, they'll shut it off and leave users in the cold.

As Google keeps advancing their AI, what do you think happens to your AMP content they are hosting? How much do they squeeze down on your payout percentage on those pages? How long until the AI is used to recap / rewrite content? What ad revenue do you get when Google offers voice answers pulled from your content but sends you no visitor?

The Numbers Can't Work

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighting the fast ad revenue growth at Google & Facebook also mentioned how the broader online advertising ecosystem was doing:

Facebook and Google together garnered 68% of spending on U.S. online advertising in the second quarter—accounting for all the growth, Mr. Wieser said. When excluding those two companies, revenue generated by other players in the U.S. digital ad market shrank 5%

The issue is NOT that online advertising has stalled, but rather that Google & Facebook have choked off their partners from tasting any of the revenue growth. This problem will only get worse as mobile grows to a larger share of total online advertising:

By 2018, nearly three-quarters of Google’s net ad revenues worldwide will come from mobile internet ad placements. - eMarketer

Media companies keep trusting these platforms with greater influence over their business & these platforms keep screwing those same businesses repeatedly.

You pay to get likes, but that is no longer enough as edgerank declines. Thanks for adopting Instant Articles, but users would rather see live videos & read posts from their friends. You are welcome to pay once again to advertise to the following you already built. The bigger your audience, the more we will charge you! Oh, and your direct competitors can use people liking your business as an ad targeting group.

Worse yet, Facebook & Google are even partnering on core Internet infrastructure.

Any hope of AMP turning the corner on the revenue front is a "no go":

“We want to drive the ecosystem forward, but obviously these things don’t happen overnight,” Mr. Gingras said. “The objective of AMP is to have it drive more revenue for publishers than non-AMP pages. We’re not there yet”.

Publishers who are critical of AMP were reluctant to speak publicly about their frustrations, or to remove their AMP content. One executive said he would not comment on the record for fear that Google might “turn some knob that hurts the company.”

Look at that.

Leadership through fear once again.

At least they are consistent.

As more publishers adopt AMP, each publisher in the program will get a smaller share of the overall pie.

Just look at Google's quarterly results for their current partners. They keep showing Google growing their ad clicks at 20% to 40% while partners oscillate between -15% and +5% quarter after quarter, year after year.

In the past quarter Google grew their ad clicks 42% YoY by pushing a bunch of YouTube auto play video ads, faster search growth in third world markets with cheaper ad prices, driving a bunch of lower quality mobile search ad clicks (with 3 then 4 ads on mobile) & increasing the percent of ad clicks on "own brand" terms (while sending the FTC after anyone who agrees to not cross bid on competitor's brands).

The lower quality video ads & mobile ads in turn drove their average CPC on their sites down 13% YoY.

The partner network is relatively squeezed out on mobile, which makes it shocking to see the partner CPC off more than core Google, with a 14% YoY decline.

What ends up happening is eventually the media outlets get sufficiently defunded to where they are sold for a song to a tech company or an executive at a tech company. Alibaba buying SCMP is akin to Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post.

The Wall Street Journal recently laid off reporters. The New York Times announced they were cutting back local cultural & crime coverage.

If news organizations of that caliber can't get the numbers to work then the system has failed.

The Guardian is literally incinerating over 5 million pounds per month. ABC is staging fake crime scenes (that's one way to get an exclusive).

The Tribune Company, already through bankruptcy & perhaps the dumbest of the lot, plans to publish thousands of AI assisted auto-play videos in their articles every day. That will guarantee their user experience on their owned & operated sites is worse than just about anywhere else their content gets distributed to, which in turn means they are not only competing against themselves but they are making their own site absolutely redundant & a chore to use.

That the Denver Guardian (an utterly fake paper running fearmongering false stories) goes viral is just icing on the cake.

many Facebook users wish to connect with people and things that confirm their pre-existing opinions, whether or not they are true. ... Giving people what they want to see will always draw more attention than making them work for it, in rather the same way that making up news is cheaper and more profitable than actually reporting the truth. - Ben Thompson

These tech companies are literally reshaping society & are sucking the life out of the economy, destroying adjacent markets & bulldozing regulatory concerns, all while offloading costs onto everyone else around them.

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” ... Until we treat the millions of kids across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

And the solution to killing the middle class, is, of course, to kill the middle class:

An FTC report recommended suing Google for their anti-competitive practices, but no suit was brought. The US Copyright Office Register was relieved of her job after she went against Google's views on set top boxes. Years ago many people saw where this was headed:

"This is a major affront to copyright," said songwriter and music publisher Dean Kay. "Google seems to be taking over the world - and politics ... Their major position is to allow themselves to use copyright material without remuneration. If the Copyright Office head is towing the Google line, creators are going to get hurt."
...
Singer Don Henley said Pallante's ouster was "an enormous blow" to artists. "She was a champion of copyright and stood up for the creative community, which is one of the things that got her fired," he said. ... [Pallante's replacement] Hayden "has a long track record of being an activist librarian who is anti-copyright and a librarian who worked at places funded by Google."

And in spite of the growing importance of tech media coverage of the industry is a trainwreck:

This is what it’s like to be a technology reporter in 2016. Freebies are everywhere, but real access is scant. Powerful companies like Facebook and Google are major distributors of journalistic work, meaning newsrooms increasingly rely on tech giants to reach readers, a relationship that’s awkward at best and potentially disastrous at worst.

Being a conduit breeds exclusives. Challenging the grand narrative gets one blackballed.

Mobile Search Index

Google announced they are releasing a mobile first search index:

Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we're going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

There are some forms of content that simply don't work well on a 350 pixel wide screen, unless they use a pinch to zoom format. But using that format is seen as not being mobile friendly.

Imagine you have an auto part database which lists alternate part numbers, price, stock status, nearest store with part in stock, time to delivery, etc. ... it is exceptionally hard to get that information to look good on a mobile device. And good luck if you want to add sorting features on such a table.

The theory that using the desktop version of a page to rank mobile results is flawed because users might find something which is only available on the desktop version of a site is a valid point. BUT, at the same time, a publisher may need to simplify the mobile site & hide data to improve usability on small screens & then only allow certain data to become visible through user interactions. Not showing those automotive part databases to desktop users would ultimately make desktop search results worse for users by leaving huge gaps in the search results. And a search engine choosing to not index the desktop version of a site because there is a mobile version is equally short sighted. Desktop users would no longer be able to find & compare information from those automotive parts databases.

Once again money drives search "relevancy" signals.

Since Google will soon make 3/4 of their ad revenues on mobile that should be the primary view of the web for everyone else & alternate versions of sites which are not mobile friendly should be disappeared from the search index if a crappier lite mobile-friendly version of the page is available.

Amazon converts well on mobile in part because people already trust Amazon & already have an account registered with them. Most other merchants won't be able to convert at anywhere near as well of a rate on mobile as they do on desktop, so if you have to choose between having a mobile friendly version that leaves differentiated aspects hidden or a destkop friendly version that is differentiated & establishes a relationship with the consumer, the deeper & more engaging desktop version is the way to go.

The heavy ad load on mobile search results only further combine with the low conversion rates on mobile to make building a relationship on desktop that much more important.

Even TripAdvisor is struggling to monetize mobile traffic, monetizing it at only about 30% to 33% the rate they monetize desktop & tablet traffic. Google already owns most the profits from that market.

Webmasters are better off NOT going mobile friendly than going mobile friendly in a way that compromises the ability of their desktop site.

I am not the only one suggesting an over-simplified mobile design that carries over to a desktop site is a losing proposition. Consider Nielsen Norman Group's take:

in the current world of responsive design, we’ve seen a trend towards insufficient information density and simplifying sites so that they work well on small screens but suboptimally on big screens.

Tracking Users

Publishers are getting squeezed to subsidize the primary web ad networks. But the narrative is that as cross-device tracking improves some of those benefits will eventually spill back out into the partner network.

I am rather skeptical of that theory.

Facebook already makes 84% of their ad revenue from mobile devices where they have great user data.

They are paying to bring new types of content onto their platform, but they are only just now beginning to get around to test pricing their Audience Network traffic based on quality.

Priorities are based on business goals and objectives.

Both Google & Facebook paid fines & faced public backlash for how they track users. Those tracking programs were considered high priority.

When these ad networks are strong & growing quickly they may be able to take a stand, but when growth slows the stock prices crumble, data security becomes less important during downsizing when morale is shattered & talent flees. Further, creating alternative revenue streams becomes vital "to save the company" even if it means selling user data to dangerous dictators.

The other big risk of such tracking is how data can be used by other parties.

Spooks preferred to use the Google cookie to spy on users. And now Google allows personally identifiable web tracking.

Data is being used in all sorts of crazy ways the central ad networks are utterly unaware of. These crazy policies are not limited to other countries. Buying dog food with your credit card can lead to pet licensing fees. Even cheerful "wellness" programs may come with surprises.

Want to see what the future looks like?

For starters...

About 2 months ago I saw a Facebook post done on behalf of a friend of mine. Gofundme was the plea. Her insurance wouldn’t cover her treatment for a recurring breast cancer and doctors wouldn’t start the treatment unless the full payment was secured in a advance. Really? Really. She was gainfully employed, had a full time, well paying job. But guess what? It wasn’t enough although hundreds of people donated.

This last week she died. She was 38 years old. She died not getting access to a treatment that may or may not have saved her life. She died having to hustle folks for funds to just have a chance to get access to another treatment option and she died while worrying about being financially ruined by her illness. Just horrid.

Is this the society we want? People forced to beg friends on gofundme for help so they can get access to medical treatment? Is this the society we are? Is this truly the best we can do?

Click here to read more.

Facebook's Panda Update

So far this year publishers have lost 52% their Facebook distribution due to:

Instant Articles may have worked for an instant, but many publishers are likely where they were before they made the Faustian bargain, except they now have less control over their content distribution and advertising while having the higher cost structure of supporting another content format.

When Facebook announced their news feed update to fight off clickbait headlines, it sure sounded a lot like the equivalent of Google's Panda update. Glenn Gabe is one of the sharpest guys in the SEO field who regularly publishes insightful content & doesn't blindly shill for the various platform monopolies dominating the online publishing industry & he had the same view I did.

Further cementing the "this is Panda" view was an AdAge article quoting some Facebook-reliant publishers. Glad we have already shifted our ways. Nice to see them moving in the same direction we are. etc. ... It felt like reading a Richard Rosenblatt quote in 2011 about Demand Media's strong working relationship with Google or how right after Panda their aggregate traffic level was flat.

January 27, 2011

Peter Kafka: Do you think that Google post was directed at you in any way?

Richard Rosenblatt: It’s not directed at us in any way.

P K: they wrote this post, which talks about content farms, and even though you say they weren’t talking about you, it left a lot of people scratching their heads.

R R: Let’s just say that we know what they’re trying to do. ... He’s talking about duplicate, non-original content. Every single piece of ours is original. ... our relationship is synergistic, and it’s a great partnership.

May 9, 2011

Kara Swisher: What were you trying to communicate in the call, especially since investors seemed very focused on Panda?

R R: What I also wanted to show was that third-party data sources should not be relied on. We did get affected, for sure. But I was not just being optimistic, we wanted to use that to really understand what we can do better.

K S: Given Google’s shift in its algorithm, are you shifting your distribution, such as toward social and mobile?

R R: If you look at where trends are going, that’s where we are going to be.

K S: How are you changing the continued perception that Demand is a content farm?

R R: I don’t think anyone has defined what a content farm is and I am not sure what it means either. We obviously don’t think we are a content farm and I am not sure we can counter every impact if some people think we are.

A couple years later Richard Rosenblatt left the company.

Since the Google Panda update eHow has removed millions of articles from their site. As a company they remain unprofitable a half-decade later & keep seeing YoY media ad revenue declines in the 30% to 40% range.

Over-reliance on any platform allows that platform to kill you. And, in most cases, you are unlikely to be able to restore your former status until & unless you build influence via other traffic channels:

I think in general, media companies have lost sight of building relationships with their end users that will bring them in directly, as opposed to just posting links on social networks and hoping people will click. I think publishers that do that are shooting themselves in the foot. Media companies in general are way too focused on being where our readers are, as opposed to being so necessary to our readers that they will seek us out. - Jessica Lessin, founder of TheInformation

Recovering former status requires extra investment far above and beyond what led to the penalty. And if the core business model still has the same core problems there is no solution.

"I feel pretty confident about the algorithm on Suite 101." - Matt Cutts

Some big news publishers are trying to leverage video equivalents of a Narrative Science or Automated Insights (from Wochit and Wibbitz) to embed thousands of autogenerated autoplay videos in their articles daily.

But is that a real long-term solution to turn the corner? Even if they see a short term pop in ad revenues by using some dumbed-down AI-enhanced low cost content, all that really does is teach people that they are a source of noise while increasing the number of web users who install ad blockers.

And the whole time penalized publishers try to recover the old position of glory, the platform monopolies are boosting their AI skills in the background while they eat the playing field.

The companies which run the primary ad networks can easily get around the ad blockers, but third party publishers can't. As the monopoly platforms broadly defund ad-based publishing, they can put users "in control" while speaking about taking the principle-based approach:

“This isn’t motivated by inventory; it’s not an opportunity for Facebook from that perspective,” Mr. Bosworth said. “We’re doing it more for the principle of the thing. We want to help lead the discussion on this.” ... Mr. Bosworth said Facebook hasn't paid any ad-blocking software company to have its ads pass through their filters and that it doesn’t intend to.

Google recently worked out a deal with Wikimedia to actually cite the source of the content shown in the search results:

it hasn’t always been the easiest to see that the material came from Wikipedia while on mobile devices. At the Wikimedia Foundation, we’ve been working to change that.

While the various platforms ride the edge on what is considered reasonable disclosure, regulatory bodies crack down on individuals participating on those platforms unless they are far more transparent than the platforms are:

Users need to be clear when they're getting paid to promote something, and hashtags like #ad, #sp, #sponsored --common forms of identification-- are not always enough.

The whole "eating the playing field" is a trend which is vastly under-reported, largely because almost everyone engaged in the ecosystem needs to sell they have some growth strategy.

The reality is as the platform gets eaten it only gets harder to build a sustainable business. The mobile search interface is literally nothing but ads in most key categories. More ads. Larger ads. Nothing but ads.

And a bit of scrape after the ads to ensure the second or third screen still shows zero organic results.

And more scraping, across more categories.

What's more, even large scaled companies in big money fields are struggling to monetize mobile users. On the most recent quarterly conference call TripAdvisor executives stated they monetize mobile users at about 30% the rate they monetize desktop or tablet users.

What happens when the big brand advertisers stop believing in the narrative of the value of precise user tracking?

We may soon find out:

P&G two years ago tried targeting ads for its Febreze air freshener at pet owners and households with large families. The brand found that sales stagnated during the effort, but rose when the campaign on Facebook and elsewhere was expanded last March to include anyone over 18.
...
P&G’s push to find broader reach with its advertising is also evident in the company’s recent increases in television spending. Toward the end of last year P&G began moving more money back into television, according to people familiar with the matter.

For mobile to work well you need to be a destination & a habit. But there is tiny screen space and navigational searches are also re-routed through Google hosted content (which will, of course, get monetized).

In fact, what would happen to an advertiser if they partnered with other advertisers to prevent brand bidding? Why that advertiser would get sued by the FTC for limiting user choice:

The bidding agreements harm consumers, according to the complaint, by restraining competition for, and distorting the prices of, advertising in relevant online auctions, by reducing the number of relevant, useful, truthful and non-misleading advertisements, by restraining competition among online sellers of contact lenses, and in some cases, by resulting in consumers paying higher retail prices for contact lenses.

If the above restraint of competition & market distortion is worth suing over, how exactly can Google make the mobile interface AMP exclusive without earning a similar lawsuit?

AMP content presented in the both sections will be “de-duplicated” in order to avoid redundancies, Google says. The move is significant in that AMP results will now take up an entire phone screen, based on the example Google shows in its pitch deck.

Are many publishers in a rush to support Google AMP after the bait-n-switch on Facebook Instant Articles?

Neofeudal Web Publishing Best Practices Guide

At the abstract level, if many people believe in something then it will grow.

The opposite is also true.

And in a limitless, virtual world, you can not see what is not there.

The Yahoo Directory

Before I got into search, the Yahoo! Directory was so important to the field of search there were entire sessions at SES conferences on how to get listed & people would even recommend using #1AAA-widgets.com styled domains to alphaspam listings to the top of the category.

The alphaspam technique was a carry over from yellow page directories - many of which have went through bankruptcy as attention & advertising shifted to the web.

Go to visit the Yahoo! Directory today and you get either a server error, a security certificate warning, or a redirect to aabacosmallbusiness.com.

Poof.

It's gone.

Before the Yahoo! Directory disappeared their quality standards were vastly diminished. As a webmaster who likes to test things, I tried submitting sites of various size and quality to different places. Some sites which would get rejected by some $10 directories were approved in the Yahoo! Directory.

The Yahoo! Directory also had a somewhat weird setting where if you canceled a directory listing in the middle of the term they would often keep it listed for many years to come - for free. After many SEOs became fearful of links the directory saw vastly reduced rates of submissions & many existing listings canceled their subscriptions, thus leaving it as a service without much of a business model.

DMOZ

At one point Google's webmaster guidelines recommended submitting to DMOZ and the Yahoo! Directory, but that recommendation led to many lesser directories sprouting up & every few years Google would play a whack-a-mole game and strip PageRank or stop indexing many of them.

Many have presumed DMOZ was on its last legs many times over the past decade. But on their 18th birthday they did a spiffy new redesign.

Different sections of the site use different color coding and the design looks rather fresh and inviting.

Take a look.

However improved the design is, it is unlikely to reverse this ranking trend.

Lacking Engagement

Why did those rankings decline though? Was it because the sites suck? Or was it because the criteria to rank changed? If the sites were good for many years it is hard to believe the quality of the sites all declined drastically in parallel.

What happened is as engagement metrics started getting folded in, sites that only point you to other sites become an unneeded step in the conversion funnel, in much the same way that Google scrubbed affiliates from the AdWords ecosystem as unneeded duplication.

What is wrong with the user experience of a general web directory? There isn't any single factor, but a combination of them...

  • the breadth of general directories means their depth must necessarily be limited.
  • general directory category pages ranking in search results is like search results in search results. it isn't great from the user's perspective.
  • if a user already knows a category well they would likely prefer to visit a destination site rather than a category page.
  • if a user doesn't already know a category, then they would prefer to use an information source which prioritizes listing the best results first. the layout for most general web directories is a list of results which are typically in alphabetical order rather than displaying the best result first
  • in order to sound authoritative many directories prefer to use a neutral tone

If a directory mostly links to lower quality sites Google can choose to either not index it or not trust links from it. And even if a directory generally links to trustworthy sites, Google doesn't need to rank it to extract most the value from it.

The trend of lower traffic to the top tier general directory sites has happened across the board.

Many years ago Google's remote rater guidelines cited Joeant as a trustworthy directory.

Their traffic chart looks like this.

And the same sort of trend is true for BOTW, Business.com, GoGuides.org, etc.

There is basically nothing a general web directory can do to rank well in Google on a sustainable basis, at least not in the English language.

Even if you list every school in the city of Winnipeg that page can't rank if it isn't indexed & even if it is indexed it won't rank well if your site has a Panda-related ranking issue. There are a couple other issues with such a comprehensive page:

  • each additional listing is more editorial content cost in terms of building the page AND maintaining the page
  • the bigger the page gets the more a user needs something other than alphabetical order as a sort option
  • the more listings there are in a tight category the more the likelihood there will be excessive keyword repetition on the page which could get the page flagged for algorithmic demotion, even if the publisher has no intent to spam. Simply listing things by their name will mean repeating a word like "school" over 100 times on the above linked Winnipeg schools page. If you don't consciously attempt to lower the count a page like that could have the term repeated over 300 times.

Knock On Effects

In addition to those web directories getting fewer paid submissions, most are likely seeing a rise in link removal requests. Google's "fear first" approach to relevancy has even led them to listing DMOZ as an unnatural link source in warning emails to webmasters.

What's more, many people who use automated link clean up tools take the declining traffic charts & low rankings of the sites as proof that the links lack value or quality.

That means anyone who gets hit by a penalty & ends up in warning messages not only ends up with less traffic while penalized, but they also get extra busy work to do while trying to fix whatever the core problem is.

And in many cases fixing the core problem is simply unfeasible without a business model change.

When general web directories are defunded it not only causes many of them to go away, but it also means other related sites and services disappear.

  • Editors of those web directories who were paid to list quality sites for free.
  • Web directory review sites.
  • SEOs, internet marketers & other businesses which listed in those directories

Now perhaps general web directories no longer really add much value to the web & they are largely unneeded.

But there are other things which are disappearing in parallel which were certainly differentiated & valuable, though perhaps not profitable enough to maintain the "relevancy" footprint to compete in a brand-first search ecosystem.

Depth vs Breadth

Unless you are the default search engine (Google) or the default social network everyone is on (Facebook), you can't be all things to all people.

If you want to be differentiated in a way that turns you into a destination you can't compete on a similar feature set because it is unlikely you will be able to pay as much for traffic-driven partnerships as the biggest players can.

Can niche directories or vertical directories still rank well? Sure, why not.

Sites like Yelp & TripAdvisor have succeeded in part by adding interactive elements which turned them into sought after destinations.

Part of becoming a destination is intentionally going out of their way to *NOT* be neutral platforms. Consider how many times Yelp has been sued by businesses which claimed the sales team did or was going to manipulate the displayed reviews if the business did not buy ads. Users tend to trust those platforms precisely because other users may leave negative reviews & that (usually) offers something better than a neutral and objective editorial tone.

And that user demand for those reviews, of course, is why Google stole reviews from those sorts of sites to try to prop up the Google local places pages.

It was a point of differentiation which was strong enough that people wanted it over Google. So Google tried to neutralize the advantage.

Blogs

The above section is about general directories, but the same concept applies to almost any type of website.

Consider blogs.

A decade ago feed readers were commonplace, bloggers often cross-linked & bloggers largely drove the conversation which bubbled up through mainstream media.

Google Reader killed off RSS feed readers by creating a fast, free & ad-free competitor. Then Google abruptly shut down Google Reader.

Not only do whimsical blogs like Least Helpful or Cute Overload arbitrarily shut down, but people like Chris Pirillo who know tech well suggest blogging is (at least economically) dead.

Many of the people who are quitting are not the dumb, the lazy, and the undifferentiated. Rather many are the wise trend-aware players who are highly differentiated yet find it impossible to make the numbers work:

The conversation started when revenues were down, and I had to carry payroll for a month or two out of my personal account, which I had not had to do since shortly after we started this whole project. We tweaked some things (added an ad or two which we had stripped back for the redesign, reminded people about ad-blockers and their impact on our ability to turn a profit, etc.) and revenue went back up a bit, but for a hot minute, you’ll remember I was like: “Theoretically, if this industry went further into the ground which it most assuredly will, would we want to keep running the site as a vanity project? Probably not! We would just stop doing it.”

In the current market Google can conduct a public relations campaign on a topic like payday loans, have their PR go viral & then if you mention "oh yeah, so Google is funding the creation of doorway pages to promote payday loans" it goes absolutely nowhere, even if you do it DURING THE NEWS CYCLE.

So much of what exists is fake that anything new is evaluated from the perception of suspicion.

While the real (and important) news stories go nowhere & the PR distortions spread virally, the individual blogger ends up feeling a bit soulless if they try to make ends meet:

"The American Mama reached tens of thousands of readers monthly, and under that name I worked with hundreds of big name brands on sponsored campaigns. I am a member of virtually every ‘blog network’ and agency that “connects brands with bloggers”. ... What’s the point of having your own space to write if you’re being paid to sound like you work for a corporation? ... PR Friendly says “For the right price, I will be anyone you want me to be.” ... I’m not saying blogging is dying, but this specific little monster branch of it, sponsored content disguised as horribly written “day in the life” stories about your kids and pets? It can’t possibly last. Do you really want to be stuck on the inside when it crumbles?"

If you can't get your own site to grow enough to matter then maybe it makes sense to contribute to someone else's to get your name out there.

I recently received this unsolicited email:

"Hello! This is Theodore, a writer and chief editor at SomeSiteName.Com I noticed that you are accepting paid reviews online and you will be glad to know that now you can also publish your Sponsored content to SomeSite via me. SomeSite.Com is a leading website which deals in Technology, Social Media, Internet Stuff and Marketing. It was also tagged as Top 10 _____ websites of 2016 by [a popular magazine]. Website Stats- Alexa Rank: [below 700] Google PageRank: 6/10 Monthly Pageviews: 5+ Million Domain Authority: 85+ Price : $500 via PayPal (Once off Payment) Let me know if you are interested and want to feature your website product like nothing! This will not only increase your traffic but increase in overall SEO Score as well. Thanks"

That person was not actually a member of that site's team, but they had found a way to get their content published on it.

In part because that sort of stuff exists, Google tries to minimize the ability for reputation to flow across sites.

The large platforms are so smug, so arrogant, they actually state the following sort of crap in interviews:

"There's a space in the world for art, but that's different from trying to build products at scale. The one thing that does make me a little nervous is a lot of my designer friends are still focused building websites and I'm not sure that's a growth business anymore. If you look at people who are doing interesting work, they tend to be building inside these platforms like Facebook and finding ways to do interesting work in there. For instance, journalists. Instant Articles is a really great way for stories to be told."

Sure you can bust your ass to build up Facebook, but when their business model changes (bye social gaming companies, hello live streaming video) best of luck trying to follow them.

And if you starve during the 7 lean years in between when your business model is once again well aligned with Facebook you can't go back in time to give yourself a meal to un-starve.

Content Farms

Ehow.com has removed *MILLIONS* of pages of content since getting hit by Panda. And yet their ranking chart looks like this

What is crazy is the above chart actually understates the actual declines, because the shift of search to mobile & increasing prevalence of ads in the search results means estimates of organic search traffic may be overstated significantly compared to a few years prior.

A half-decade ago a bootstrapped eHow competitor named ArticlesBase got some buzz in TechCrunch because they were making about $500,000 a month on about 20 million monthly unique visitors. That business was recently listed on Flippa. They are getting about a half-million unique monthly visitors (off 95%) and about $2,000 a month in revenues (off about 99.6%).

The negative karma with that site (in terms of ability to rank) is so bad that the site owner suggested on Flippa to publish any new content from new authors onto different websites: "its not going to get to 0 as most of the traffic is not google today, but we would suggest to push out the fresh daily incoming content to new sites - thats where the growth is."

Now a person could say "eHow deserves to die" and maybe they are right. BUT one could easily counter that point by noting...

  • the public who owns the shares owns the ongoing losses & many top insiders cashed out long ago
  • Google was getting a VIG on eHow on their ride up & is still collecting one on the way down (along with funding other current parallel projects from the very same people with the very same Google ad network)
  • Demand Media's partner program where they syndicate eHow-like content to newspapers like USA Today keeps growing at 15% to 20% a year (similar process, author, content, business model, etc. ... only a different URL hosting the content)
  • look at this and you'll see how many publishing networks are still building the same sort of content but are cross-marketing across networks of sites. What's more some of the same names are at the new plays. For example, Demand Media's founder was the chairman of an SEO firm bought by Hearst publishing & his wife is on the about us page of Evolve Media's ModernMom.com

The wrappers around the content & masthead logos change, but by and large the people and strategies don't change anywhere near as quickly.

Web Portals & News Sites

As the mainstream media gets more desperate, they are more willing to partner with the likes of Demand Media to get any revenue they can.

You see the reality of this desperation in the stock charts for newspaper companies.

Or how about this chart for Yahoo.com.

It doesn't look particularly bad, especially if you consider that Yahoo has shut down many of their vertical sites.

Underlying flat search traffic charts misses declining publisher CPMs and the click traffic mix shift away from organic toward paid search channels as search traffic shifts to mobile devices & Google relentlessly increases the size of the search ads. Yahoo may still rank #3 for keyword x, but if that #3 ranking is below the fold on both mobile and desktop devices they might need to rank #1 to get as much traffic as #3 got a couple years ago.

Yahoo! was once the leading search portal & now they are worth about 1/5th of LinkedIn (after backing out their equity stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan).

The chart is roughly flat, but the company is up for a fire sale because organic search result displacement & the value of traffic has declined quicker than Yahoo! can fire employees & none of their Hail Mary passes worked.

Ms. Mayer compared the [Polyvore] deal to Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006, arguing that “you can never overpay” for a company with the potential to land a huge new base of users.
...
“Her core mistake was this belief that she could reinvent Yahoo,” says a former senior executive who left the company last year. “There was an element of her being a true believer when everyone else had stopped.”

The same line of thinking was used to justify the Tumblr acquisition, which has went nowhere fast - just like their 50+ other acquisitions.

Yahoo! shut down many verticals, fired many workers, sold off some real estate & is exploring selling their patents.

Chewing Up the Value Chain

Smaller devices that are harder to use means the gateways have to try to add more features to maintain relevance.

As they add features, publishers get displaced:

The Web will only expand into more aspects of our lives. It will continue to change every industry, every company, and every life on the planet. The Web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come. It’s crucial we get this right. Do we want the experiences of the next billion Web users to be defined by open values of transparency and choice, or the siloed and opaque convenience of the walled garden giants dominating today?

And if converting on mobile is hard or inconvenient, many people will shift to the defaults they know & trust, thus choosing to buy on Amazon rather than a smaller ecommerce website. One of my friends who was in ecommerce for many years stated this ultimately ended up becoming the problem with his business. People would email him back and forth about the product, related questions, and basically go all the way through the sales process with getting him to answer every concern & recommend each additional related product needed, then at the end they would ask him to price match Amazon & if he couldn't they would then buy from Amazon. If he had more scale he might have been able to get a better price from suppliers and compete with Amazon on price, but his largest competitor who took out warehouse space also filed for bankruptcy because they were unable to make the interest payments on their loans.

We live in a society which over-values ease-of-use & scale while under-valuing expertise.

Look at how much consolidation there has been in the travel market since Google Flights launched & Google went pay-to-play with hotel search.

Expedia owns Travelocity & Orbitz. Priceline owns Kayak. Yahoo! Travel simply disappeared. TripAdvisor is strong, but even they were once a part of Expedia.

How different are the remaining OTAs? One could easily argue they are less differentiated than this article about the history of the travel industry makes Skift against other travel-related news sites.

How many markets are strong enough to support the creation of that sort of featured editorial content?

Not many.

And most companies which can create that sort of in-depth content leverage the higher margins on shallower & cheaper content to pay for that highly differentiated featured content creation.

But if the knowledge graph and new search features are simply displacing the result set the number of people who will be able to afford creating that in-depth featured content is only further diminished.

Over 5 years ago Bing's Stefan Weitz mentioned they wanted to move search from a web of nouns to a web of verbs & to "look at the web as a digital representation of the physical world." Some platforms are more inclusive than Google is & decide to partner rather than displace, but Bing's partnership with Yelp or TripAdvisor doesn't help you if you are a direct competitor of Yelp or TripAdvisor, or if your business was heavily reliant on one of these other channels & you fall out of favor with them.

Chewing Up Real Estate

There are so many enhanced result features in the search results it is hard to even attempt to make an exhaustive list.

As search portals rush to add features they also rush to grab real estate & outright displace the concept of "10 blue links."

There has perhaps been nothing which captured the sentiment better than

The following is paraphrased, but captures the intent to displace the value chain & the roll of publishers.

"the journeys of users. their desire to be taken and sort of led and encouraged to proceed, especially on mobile devices (but I wouldn't say only on mobile devices).
...
there are a lot of users who are happy to be provided with encouragement and leads to more and more interesting information and related, grouped in groups, leading lets say from food to restaurants, from restaurants to particular types of restaurants, from particular types of restaurants to locations of those types of restaurants, ordering, reservations.

I'm kind of hungry, and in a few minutes you've either ordered food or booked a table. Or I'm kind of bored, and in a few minutes you've found a book to read or a film to watch, or some other discovery you are interested in." - Andrey Lipattsev

What role do publishers have in the above process? Unpaid data sources used to train algorithms at Facebook & Google?

Individually each of these assistive search feature roll outs may sound compelling, but ultimately they defund publishing.

Not a "Google Only" Problem

People may think I am unnecessarily harsh toward Google in my views, but this sort of shift is not a Google-only thing. It is something all the large online platforms are doing. I simply give Google more coverage because they have a history of setting standards & moving the market, whereas a player like Yahoo! is acting out of desperation to simply try to stay alive. The market capitalization of the companies reflect this.

Google & Facebook control the ecosystem. Everyone else is just following along.

"digital is eating legacy media, mobile is eating digital, and two companies, Facebook and Google, are eating mobile. ... Since 2011, desktop advertising has fallen by about 10 percent, according to Pew. Meanwhile mobile advertising has grown by a factor of 30 ... Facebook and Google, control half of net mobile ad revenue." - Derek Thompson

The same sort of behavior is happening in China, where Google & Facebook are prohibited from competing.

As publishers get displaced and defunded online platforms can literally buy the media: “There’s very little downside. Even if we lose money it won’t be material,” Alibaba's Mr. Tsai said. “But the upside [in buying SCMP] is quite interesting.”

The above quote was on Alibaba buying the newspaper of record in Hong Kong.

As bad as entire industries becoming token purchases may sound, that is the optimistic view. :D

Facebook's Instant Articles and Google's AMP those make a token purchase unnecessary: "I don't think it's any secret that you're going to see a bloodbath in the next 12 months," Vice Media's Shane Smith said, referring to digital media and broadcast TV. "Facebook has bought two-thirds of the media companies out there without spending a dime."

Those services can dictate what gets exposure, how it is monetized, and then adjust the exposure and revenue sharing over time to keep partners desperate & keep them hooked.

“If Thiel and Nick Denton were just a couple of rich guys fighting over a 1st Amendment edge case, it wouldn't be very interesting. But Silicon Valley has unprecedented, monopolistic power over the future of journalism. So much power that its moral philosophy matters.” - Nate Silver

Give them just enough (false) hope to stay partnered.

All the while track user data more granularly & run AI against it to disintermediate & devalue partners.

TV networks are aware of the risks of disintermediation and view Netflix with more suspicion than informed SEOs view Google:

for all the original shows Netflix has underwritten, it remains dependent on the very networks that fear its potential to destroy their longtime business model in the way that internet competitors undermined the newspaper and music industries. Now that so many entertainment companies see it as an existential threat, the question is whether Netflix can continue to thrive in the new TV universe that it has brought into being.
...
“ ‘Breaking Bad’ was 10 times more popular once it started streaming on Netflix.” - Michael Nathanson
...
the networks couldn’t walk away from the company either. Many of them needed licensing fees from Netflix to make up for the revenue they were losing as traditional viewership shrank.

And just like Netflix, Facebook will move into original content production.

The Wiki

Wikipedia is certainly imperfect, but it is also a large part of why other directories have went away. It is basically a directory tied to an encyclopedia which is free and easy to syndicate.

Every large search & discovery platform has an incentive for Wikipedia to be as expansive as possible.

The bigger Wikipedia gets, the more potential answers and features can be sourced from it. More knowledge graph, more instant answers, more organic result displacement, more time on site, more ad clicks.

Even if a knowledge graph listing is wrong, the harm done by it doesn't harm the search service syndicating the content unless people create a big deal of the error. But if that happens then people will give feedback on how to fix the error & that is a PR lead into the narrative of how quickly search is improving and evolving.

"Wikipedia used to instruct its authors to check if content could be dis-intermediated by a simple rewrite, as part of the criteria for whether an article should be added to wikipedia. There are many rascals on the Internets; none deserving of respect." - John Andrews

Sergy Brin donates to fund the expansion of Wikipedia. Wikipedia rewrites more webmaster content. Google has more knowledge graph grist and rich answers to further displace publishers.

I recently saw the new gray desktop search results Google is tested. When those appear the knowledge graph appears inline with the regular search results & even on my huge monitor the organic result set is below the fold.

The problem with that is if your brand name is the same brand name that is in the knowledge graph & you are not the dominant interpretation then you are below the fold on all devices for your core brand UNLESS you pay Google for every single click.

How much should a brand like The Book of Life pay Google for being a roadblock? What sort of tax is appropriate & reasonable? How high will you bid in a casino where the house readjusts the shuffle & deal order in the middle of the hand?

I recently did a search on Bing & inside their organic search results they linked to a Mahalo-like page called Bing Knows. I guess this is a feature in China, but it could certainly spread to other markets.

If they partnered with an eBay or Amazon.com and put a "buy now" button in the search results they'd have just about completely closed the loop there.

Broad Commodification

The reason I started this article with directories is their role is to link to sites. They are categorized collections of links which have been heavily commodified & devalued to the point they are rendered unnecessary and viewed adversely by much of the SEO market (even the ones with decent editorial standards).

Just like links got devalued, so did domain names.

And, as mentioned above in the parts about blogging, content farms, web portals & news sites ... the same trend is happening to almost every type of content.

Online ad revenues are still growing quickly, but they are not flowing through to old media & many former leading bloggers consider blogging dead.

Big platform players like Google and Facebook broaden cross-device user tracking to create new relevancy signals and extract most the value created by publisher. The more information the platform owns the more of a starving artist the partners become.

As partners become more desperate, they overvalue growth (just like Yahoo! with Polyvore):

"It's the golden age right now," [Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer] said. "If you're a digital publisher, you have every big TV company calling you. When I look at media brands, if a media brand disappeared tomorrow, would I notice?" he said. "And there are a bunch of brands that have scale, and maybe a lot of money raised, and maybe this and that, but, actually, I might not know for a year. There's so many brands like that. Like, what does it really stand for? Why does it exist?"

Disruption is not a strategy, but the whole point of accelerating it & pushing it (without an adequate plan for "what's next") is to re-establish feudal lords.

The web is a virtual land where the commodity which matters most is attention. If you go back in time, lords maintained wealth & control through extracting rents.

A few years ago a quote like the following one may have sounded bizarre or out of place

These are the people who guard the company’s status as what ranking team head Amit Singhal often sees characterised as “the biggest kingmaker on this Earth.”

But if you view it through the some historical context it isn't hard to understand

"The nobles still had the power to write the law, and in a series of moves that took place in different countries at different times, they taxed the bazaar, broke up the guilds, outlawed local currencies, and bestowed monopoly charters on their favorite merchants. ... It was never really about efficiency anyway; industrialization was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers." - Douglas Rushkoff

Google funding LendUp & ranking their doorway pages while hitting the rest of the industry is Google bestowing "monopoly charters on their favorite merchants."

Headwinds

The issue is not that the value of anything drops to zero, but rather a combine set of factors shrinks down the size of the market which can be profitably served. Each of these factors eat at margins...

  • lower CPMs
  • the rise of ad blockers (funded largely by some big ad networks paying to allow their own ads through while blocking competing ad networks)
  • rise of programmatic ads (which shift advertiser budget away from publisher to various forms of management)
  • larger ad sizes: "Based on early testing, some advertisers have reported increases in clickthrough rates of up to 20% compared to current text ads. "
  • increase of vertical search results in Google & more ads + self-hosted content in Facebook's feed
  • shift of search audience to mobile devices which have no screen real estate for organic search results and lower cost per click (there's a reason Google AdSense is publishing tips on making more from mobile)
  • increased algorithmic barrier to entry and longer delay times to rank

The least sexy consultant pitch in the world: "Sure I can probably rank your website, but it will take a year or two, cost you at least $80,000 per year, and you will still be below the fold even if we get to #1 because the paid search ads fill up the first screen of results."

That isn't going to be an appealing marketing message for a new small business with a limited budget.

The Formula

“The open web is pretty broken. ... Railroad, electricity, cable, telephone—all followed this similar pattern toward closedness and monopoly, and government regulated or not, it tends to happen because of the power of network effects and the economies of scale” - Ev Williams.

The above article profiling Ev Williams also states: "An April report from the web-analytics company Parse.ly found that Google and Facebook, just two companies, send more than 80 percent of all traffic to news sites."

The same general trend is happening to almost every form of content - video, news, social, etc..

  • a big platform over-promotes a vertical to speed up buy-in (perhaps even offering above market rates or other forms of compensation to get the flywheel started)
  • other sources join the market without that compensation & then the compensation stream gets yanked
  • displacement of the source by a watered down copy (eHow or Wikipedia styled rewrite), or some zero-cost licensing arrangement (Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, syndicating Wikipedia rewrites)
  • strategic defunding of the content source
  • promise of future gains causing desperate publishers to lean harder into Google or Facebook even as they squeeze more water out of the rock.

Hey, sure your traffic is declining & your revenue is declining faster. You are getting squeezed out, but if you trust the primary players responsible for the shift & rely on Instant Articles or Google's AMP this time will be different.

...or maybe not...

Facts & Opinions

When I saw some Google shills syndicating Google's "you can't copyright facts" pitch without question I cringed, because I knew where that was immediately headed.

A year later the trend was obvious.

So now we get story pitches where the author tries to collect a few quote sources to match the narrative already in their head. Surely this has gone on for a long time, but it has rarely been so transparently obvious and cringeworthy as it is today.

And if you stray too far from facts into opinions & are successful, don't be surprised if you end up on the receiving end of proxy lawsuits:

Can we talk about how strange it is for a group of Silicon Valley startup mentors to embrace secret proxy litigation as a business tactic? To suddenly get sanctimonious about what is published on the internet and called News? To shame another internet company for not following ‘the norms’ of a legacy industry? The hypocrisy is mind bending.

The desperation is so bad news sites don't even attempt to hide it. And part of what is driving that is bot-driven content further eroding margins on legitimate publishing. Google not only ranks those advertorials, but they also promote some of the auto-generated articles which read like:

As many as 1 analysts, the annual sales target for company name, Inc. (NYSE:ticker) stands at $45.13 and the median is $45.13 for the period closed 3.

The bearish target on sales is $45.13 and the bullish estimate is $45.13, yielding a standard deviation of 1.276%.

Not more than 1 investment entities have updated sales projections on upside over the last week while 1 have downgraded their previously provided sales targets. The estimates highlight a net change of 0% over the last 1 weeks period.

Sales estimated amount is a foremost parameter in judging a firm’s performance. Nearly 1 analysts have revised sales number on the upside in last one month and 1 have lowered their targets. It demonstrates a net cumulative change of 0% in targets against sales forecasts which were given a month ago.

In latest quarterly period, 1 have revised targeted sales on upside and 1 have decreased their projections. It demonstrates change of 4.898%.

I changed a few words in each sentence of that quote to make it harder to find the source as I wasn't trying to out them specifically. But the auto-generated content was ranked by Google & monetized via inline Google AdSense ads promoting the best marijuana stocks to invest in and warning of a pending 80% stock market crash coming soon this year.

Hey at least it isn't a TOTALLY fake story!

Publishers get the message loud and clear. Tronc wants to ramp up on AI driven video content at scale:

"There's all these really new, fun features we're going to be able to do with artificial intelligence and content to make videos faster," Ferro told interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin. "Right now, we're doing a couple hundred videos a day; we think we should be doing 2,000 videos a day."

All is well, news & information are just externalities to a search engine ad network.

No big deal.

"With newspapers dying, I worry about the future of the republic. We don’t know yet what’s going to replace them, but we do already know it’s going to be bad." - Charlie Munger

Build a Brand

Build a brand, that way you are protected from the rapacious tech platforms.

Or so the thinking goes.

But that leads back to the above image where The Book of Life is below the fold on their own branded search query because there is another interpretation Google feels is more dominant.

The big problem with "brand as solution" is you not only have to pay to build a brand, but then you have to pay to protect it.

And the number of search "innovations" to try to siphon off some late funnel branded traffic and move it back up the funnel to competitors (to force the brand to pay again for their own brand to try to displace the "innovations") will only continue growing.

And at any point in time if Disney makes a movie using your brand name as the name of the movie, you are irrelevant and need of a rebrand overnight, unless you commit to paying Google for your brand forever.

Having an offline location can be a point of strength and a point of differentiation. But it can also be a reason for Google to re-route user traffic through more Google owned & controlled pages.

Further, most large US offline retailers are doing horrible.

Almost all the offline growth is in stores selling dirt cheap unbranded imported stuff like Dollar General or Family Dollar & stores like Ross and TJ Maxx which sell branded item remainders at discount prices. And as Amazon gets more efficient by the day, other competitors with high cost structures & less efficient operations grow relatively less efficient over time.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about a rift between Wal-Mart & Procter & Gamble: “They sell crappy private label, so you buy Swiffer with a crappy refill,” said one of the people familiar with the product changes. “And then you don’t buy again.”

In trying to drive sales growth, P&G is resorting to some Yahoo!-like desperate measures, included meetings where "Some workers donned gladiator-like armor for the occasion."

Riding on other platforms or partners carries the same sorts of risks as trusting Google or Facebook too much.

Even owning a strong brand name and offline distribution does not guarantee success. Sears already spun out their real estate & they are looking to sell the Kenmore & Craftsman brands.

The big difference between the web and offline platforms is the marginal cost of information is zero, so they can quickly & cheaply spread to adjacent markets in ways that physically constrained offline players can not & some of the big web platforms have far more data on people than governments do. It is worth noting one of the things that came out of the Snowden leaks is spooks were leveraging Google's DoubleClick cookies for tracking users.

As desperate stores/platforms see slowing growth they squeeze for margins and seek to accelerate growth any way possible. Chasing growth ultimately leads to the promise of what differentiates them disappearing. I recently bought some "hand crafted" soaps on Etsy, which shipped from Shenzen.

I am not sure how that impacts other artisinal soap sellers, but it makes me less likely to buy that sort of product from Etsy again.

And for as much as I like shopping on Amazon, I was uninspired when a seller recently sent me this.

Amazon might usually be great for buyers & great for affiliates, but hearing how they are quickly expanding their private label offerings wouldn't be welcome news for a merchant who is overly-reliant on them for sales in any of those categories.

The above sort of activity is what is going on in the real world even among brands which are not under attack.

The domestic economic landscape is getting quite ugly:

America’s economy today is in some respects more concentrated than it was during the Gilded Age, whose excesses prompted the Progressive Era reforms the FTC exemplifies. In sector after sector, from semiconductors and cable providers to eyeglass manufacturers and hotels, a handful of companies dominate. These giants use their market power to hike prices for consumers and suppress wages for workers, worsening inequality. Consolidation also appears to be driving a dramatic decline in entrepreneurship, closing off opportunity and suppressing growth. Concentration of economic power, in turn, tends to concentrate political power, which incumbents use to sway policies in their favor, further entrenching their dominance.

And the local abusive tech monopolies are now firmly promoting the TPP: "make it more difficult for TPP countries to block Internet sites" = countries should have less influence over the web than individual Facebook or Google engineers do.

In a land of algorithmic false positives that cause personal meltdowns and organizational breakdowns there is nothing wrong at all with that!

I kept waiting. For a year and a half, I waited. The revenues kept trickling down. It was this long terrible process, losing half overnight but then also roughly 3% a month for a year and a half after. It got to the point where we couldn’t pay our bills. That’s when I reached out again to Matt Cutts, “Things never got better.” He was like, “What, really? I’m sorry.” He looked into it and was like, “Oh yeah, it never reversed. It should have. You were accidentally put in the bad pile.

Luckily the world can depend on China to drive growth and it will save us.

Or maybe there is a small problem with that line of thinking...

Beijing’s intellectual property regulator has ordered Apple Inc. to stop sales of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the city, ruling that the design is too similar to a Chinese phone, in another setback for the company in a key overseas market.

Can any experts chime in on this?

Let's see...

First, there is Wal-Mart selling off their Chinese e-commerce operation to the #2 Chinese ecommerce company & then there's this from the top Chinese ecommerce company:

“The problem is the fake products today are of better quality and better price than the real names. They are exactly the same factories, exactly the same raw materials but they do not use the names.” - Alibaba's Jack Ma

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