Grist for the Machine

Grist

Much like publishers, employees at the big tech monopolies can end up little more than grist.

Products & product categories come & go, but even if you build "the one" you still may lose everything in the process.

Imagine building the most successful consumer product of all time only to realize:'The iPhone is the reason I'm divorced,' Andy Grignon, a senior iPhone engineer, tells me. I heard that sentiment more than once throughout my dozens of interviews with the iPhone's key architects and engineers.'Yeah, the iPhone ruined more than a few marriages,' says another.

Microsoft is laying off thousands of salespeople.

Google colluded with competitors to sign anti-employee agreements & now they are trying to hold down labor costs with modular housing built on leased government property. They can tout innovation they bring to Africa, but at their core the tech monopolies are still largely abusive. What's telling is that these companies keep using their monopoly profits to buy more real estate near their corporate headquarters, keeping jobs there in spite of the extreme local living costs.

"There's been essentially no dispersion of tech jobs,' said Mr. Kolko, who conducted the research.'Which metro is the next Silicon Valley? The answer is none, at least for the foreseeable future. Silicon Valley still stands apart.'

Making $180,000 a year can price one out of the local real estate market, requiring living in a van or a two hour commute. An $81,000 salary can require a 3 hour commute.

If you are priced out of the market by the monopoly de jour, you can always pray!

The hype surrounding transformative technology that disintermediates geography & other legacy restraints only lasts so long: "The narrative isn't the product of any single malfunction, but rather the result of overhyped marketing, deficiencies in operating with deep learning and GPUs and intensive data preparation demands."

AI is often a man standing behind a curtain.

The big tech companies are all about equality, opportunity & innovation. At some point either the jobs move to China or China-like conditions have to move to the job. No benefits, insurance cost passed onto the temp worker, etc.

Google's outsourced freelance workers have to figure out how to pay for their own health insurance:

A manager named LFEditorCat told the raters in chat that the pay cut had come at the behest of'Big G's lawyers,' referring to Google. Later, a rater asked Jackson,'If Google made this change, can Google reverse this change, in theory?' Jackson replied,'The chances of this changing are less than zero IMO.'

That's rather unfortunate, as the people who watch the beheading videos will likely need PTSD treatment.

The tech companies are also leveraging many "off the books" employees for last mile programs, where the wage is anything but livable after the cost of fuel, insurance & vehicle maintenance. They are accelerating the worst aspects of consolidated power:

America really is undergoing a radical change in the structure of our political economy. And yet this revolutionary shift of power, control, and wealth has remained all but unrecognized and unstudied ... Since the 1990s, large companies have increasingly relied on temporary help to do work that formerly was performed by permanent salaried employees. These arrangements enable firms to hire and fire workers with far greater flexibility and free them from having to provide traditional benefits like unemployment insurance, health insurance, retirement plans, and paid vacations. The workers themselves go by many different names: temps, contingent workers, contractors, freelancers. But while some fit the traditional sense of what it means to be an entrepreneur or independent business owner, many, if not most, do not-precisely because they remain entirely dependent on a single power for their employment.

Dedication & devotion are important traits. Are you willing to do everything you can to go the last mile? "Lyft published a blog post praising a driver who kept picking up fares even after she went into labor and was driving to the hospital to give birth."

Then again, the health industry is a great driver of consumption:

About 1.8 million workers were out of the labor force for "other" reasons at the beginning of this year, meaning they were not retired, in school, disabled or taking care of a loved one, according to Atlanta Federal Reserve data. Of those people, nearly half -- roughly 881,000 workers -- said in a survey that they had taken an opioid the day before, according to a study published last year by former White House economist Alan Krueger."

Creating fake cancer patients is a practical way to make sales.

That is until they stop some of the scams & view those people as no longer worth the economic cost. Those people are only dying off at a rate of about 90 people a day. Long commutes are associated with depression. And enough people are taking anti-depressants that it shows up elsewhere in the food chain.

Rehabilitation is hard work:

After a few years of buildup, Obamacare kicked the scams into high gear. .... With exchange plans largely locked into paying for medically required tests, patients (and their urine) became gold mines. Some labs started offering kickbacks to treatment centers, who in turn began splitting the profits with halfway houses that would tempt clients with free rent and other services. ... Street-level patient brokers and phone room lead generators stepped up to fill the beds with strategies across the ethical spectrum, including signing addicts up for Obamacare and paying their premiums.

Google made a lot of money from that scam until it got negative PR coverage.

At the company, we're family. Once you are done washing the dishes, you can live in the garage. Just make sure you juice!

When platform monopolies dictate the roll-out of technology, there is less and less innovation, fewer places to invest, less to invent. Eventually, the rhetoric of innovation turns into DISRUPT, a quickly canceled show on MSNBC, and Juicero, a Google-backed punchline.

This moment of stagnating innovation and productivity is happening because Silicon Valley has turned its back on its most important political friend: antitrust. Instead, it's embraced what it should understand as the enemy of innovation: monopoly.

And the snowflake narrative not only relies on the "off the books" marginalized freelance employees to maintain lush benefits for the core employees, but those core employees can easily end up thrown under the bus because accusation is guilt. Uniformity of political ideology is the zenith of a just world.

Celebrate diversity in all aspects of life - except thoughtTM.

Free speech is now considered violence. Free speech has real cost. So if you disagree with someone, "people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face" - former Google diversity expert Yonatan Zunger.

Anything but the facts!

Mob rule - with a splash of violence - for the win.

Social justice is the antithesis of justice.

It is the aspie guy getting fired for not understanding the full gender "spectrum."

It is the repression of truth: "Truth equals virtue equals happiness. You cannot solve serious social problems by telling lies or punishing people who tell truth."

Most meetings at Google are recorded. Anyone at Google can watch it. We're trying to be really open about everything...except for this. They don't want any paper trail for any of these things. They were telling us about a lot of these potentially illegal practices that they've been doing to try to increase diversity. Basically treating people differently based on what their race or gender are. - James Damore

The recursive feedback loops & reactionary filtering are so bad that some sites promoting socialism are now being dragged to the Google gulag.

In a set of guidelines issued to Google evaluators in March, elaborated in April by Google VP of Engineering Ben Gomes, the company instructed its search evaluators to flag pages returning'conspiracy theories' or'upsetting' content unless'the query clearly indicates the user is seeking an alternative viewpoint.' The changes to the search rankings of WSWS content are consistent with such a mechanism. Users of Google will be able to find the WSWS if they specifically include'World Socialist Web Site' in their search request. But if their inquiry simply includes term such as'Trotsky,''Trotskyism,''Marxism,''socialism' or'inequality,' they will not find the site.

Every website which has a following & challenges power is considered "fake news" or "conspiracy theory" until many years later, when many of the prior "nutjob conspiracies" turn out to be accurate representations of reality.

Under its new so-called anti-fake-news program, Google algorithms have in the past few months moved socialist, anti-war, and progressive websites from previously prominent positions in Google searches to positions up to 50 search result pages from the first page, essentially removing them from the search results any searcher will see. Counterpunch, World Socialsit Website, Democracy Now, American Civil liberties Union, Wikileaks are just a few of the websites which have experienced severe reductions in their returns from Google searches.

In the meantime townhall meetings celebrating diversity will be canceled & differentiated voices will be marginalized to protect the mob from themselves.

What does the above say about tech monopolies wanting to alter the structure of society when their internal ideals are based on fundamental lies? They can't hold an internal meeting addressing sacred cows because "ultimately the loudest voices on the fringes drive the perception and reaction" but why not let them distribute swarms of animals with bacteria & see what happens? Let's make Earth a beta.

FANG

Monopoly platforms are only growing more dominant by the day.

Over the past three decades, the U.S. government has permitted corporate giants to take over an ever-increasing share of the economy. Monopoly-the ultimate enemy of free-market competition-now pervades every corner of American life ... Economic power, in fact, is more concentrated than ever: According to a study published earlier this year, half of all publicly traded companies have disappeared over the past four decades.

And you don't have to subscribe to deep state conspiracy theory in order to see the impacts.

The revenue, value & profit transfer is overt:

It is no coincidence that from 2012 to 2016, Amazon, Google and Facebook's revenues increased by $137 billion and the remaining Fortune 497 revenues contracted by $97 billion.

Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook ... are all aggressively investing in video content as bandwidth is getting cheaper & they need differentiated content to drive subscription revenues. If the big players are bidding competitively to have differentiated video content that puts a bid under some premium content, but for ad-supported content the relatively high CPMs on video content might fall sharply in the years to come.

From a partner perspective, if you only get a percent of revenue that transfers all the risk onto you, how is the new Facebook video feature going to be any better than being a YouTube partner? As video becomes more widespread, won't that lower CPMs?

No need to guess:

One publisher said its Facebook-monetized videos had an average CPM of 15 cents. A second publisher, which calculated ad rates based on video views that lasted long enough to reach the ad break, said the average CPM for its mid-rolls is 75 cents. A third publisher made roughly $500 from more than 20 million total video views on that page in September.

That's how monopolies work. Whatever is hot at the moment gets pitched as the future, but underneath the hood all compliments get commoditized:

as a result of this increased market power, the big superstar companies have been raising their prices and cutting their wages. This has lifted profits and boosted the stock market, but it has also held down real wages, diverted more of the nation's income to business owners, and increased inequality. It has also held back productivity, since raising prices restricts economic output.

The future of the web is closed, proprietary silos that mirror what existed before the web:

If in five years I'm just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I'm looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and'publications' are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

They've all won their respective markets & are now converging:

We've been in the celebration phase all year as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Facebook take their place in the pantheon of classic American monopolists. These firms and a few others, it is now widely acknowledged, dominate everything. There is no day-part in which they do not dominate the battle for consumers' attention. There is no business safe from their ambitions. There are no industries in which their influence and encroachment are not currently being felt.

The web shifts information-based value chains to universal distribution at zero marginal cost, which shifts most of the value extraction to the attention merchants.

The raw feed stock for these centralized platforms isn't particularly profitable:

despite a user base near the size of Instagram's, Tumblr never quite figured out how to make money at the level Facebook has led managers and shareholders to expect ... running a platform for culture creation is, increasingly, a charity operation undertaken by larger companies. Servers are expensive, and advertisers would rather just throw money at Facebook than take a chance

Those resting in the shadows of the giants will keep getting crushed: "They let big tech crawl, parse, and resell their IP, catalyzing an extraordinary transfer in wealth from the creators to the platforms."

They'll take the influence & margins, but not the responsibility normally associated with such a position:

"Facebook has embraced the healthy gross margins and influence of a media firm but is allergic to the responsibilities of a media firm," Mr. Galloway says. ... For Facebook, a company with more than $14 billion in free cash flow in the past year, to say it is adding 250 people to its safety and security efforts is'pissing in the ocean,' Mr. Galloway says.'They could add 25,000 people, spend $1 billion on AI technologies to help those 25,000 employees sort, filter and ID questionable content and advertisers, and their cash flow would decline 10% to 20%.'

It's why there's a management shake up at Pandora, Soundcloud laid off 40% of their staff & Vimeo canceled their subscription service before it was even launched.

With the winners of the web determined, it's time to start locking down the ecosystem with DRM:

Practically speaking, bypassing DRM isn't hard (Google's version of DRM was broken for six years before anyone noticed), but that doesn't matter. Even low-quality DRM gets the copyright owner the extremely profitable right to stop their customers and competitors from using their products except in the ways that the rightsholder specifies. ... for a browser to support EME, it must also license a "Content Decryption Module" (CDM). Without a CDM, video just doesn't work. All the big incumbents advocating for DRM have licenses for CDMs, but new entrants to the market will struggle to get these CDMs, and in order to get them, they have to make promises to restrict otherwise legal activities ... We're dismayed to see the W3C literally overrule the concerns of its public interest members, security experts, accessibility members and innovative startup members, putting the institution's thumb on the scales for the large incumbents that dominate the web, ensuring that dominance lasts forever.

After years of loosey goosey privacy violations by the tech monopoly players, draconian privacy laws will block new competitors:

More significantly, the GDPR extends the concept of'personal data' to bring it into line with the online world. The regulation stipulates, for example, that an online identifier, such as a device's IP address, can now be personal data. So next year, a wide range of identifiers that had hitherto lain outside the law will be regarded as personal data, reflecting changes in technology and the way organisations collect information about people. ... Facebook and Google should be OK, because they claim to have the'consent' of their users. But the data-broking crowd do not have that consent.

GDRP is less than 8 months away.

If you can't get the fat thumb accidental mobile ad clicks then you need to convert formerly free services to a paid version or sell video ads. Yahoo! shut down most their verticals, was acquired by Verizon, and is now part of Oath. Oath's strategy is so sound Katie Couric left:

Oath's video unit, however, had begun doubling down on the type of highly shareable,'snackable' bites that people gobble up on their smartphones and Facebook feeds. ... . What frustrates her like nothing else, two people close to Couric told me, is when she encounters fans and they ask her what she's up to these days.

When content is atomized into the smallest bits & recycling is encouraged only the central network operators without editorial content costs win.

Even Reddit is pushing crappy autoplay videos for the sake of ads. There's no chance of it working for them, but they'll still try, as Google & Facebook have enviable market caps.

Video ads are good with everything!

Want to find a job? Watch some autoplay video ads on LinkedIn.

Mic laid off journalists and is pivoting to video.

It doesn't work, but why not try.

The TV networks which focused on the sort of junk short-form video content that is failing online are also seeing low ratings.

Probably just a coincidence.

Some of the "innovative" upstart web publishers are recycling TV ads as video content to run pre-roll ads on. An ad inside an ad.

Some suggest the repackaging and reposting of ads highlights the'pivot to video' mentality many publishers now demonstrate. The push to churn out video content to feed platforms and to attract potentially lucrative video advertising is increasingly viewed as a potential solution to an increasingly challenging business model problem.

Publishers might also get paid a commission on any sales they help drive by including affiliate links alongside the videos. If these links drive users to purchase the products, then the publisher gets a cut.

Is there any chance recycling low quality infomercial styled ads as placeholder auto-play video content to run prerolls on is a sustainable business practice?

If that counts as strategic thinking in online publishing, count me as a short.

For years whenever the Adobe Flash plugin for Firefox had a security update users who hit the page got a negative option install of Google Chrome as their default web browser. And Google constantly markets Chrome across their properties:

Google is aggressively using its monopoly position in Internet services such as Google Mail, Google Calendar and YouTube to advertise Chrome. Browsers are a mature product and its hard to compete in a mature market if your main competitor has access to billions of dollars worth of free marketing.

It only takes a single yes on any of those billions of ad impressions (or an accidental opt in on the negative option bundling with security updates) for the default web browser to change permanently.

There's no way Mozilla can compete with Google on economics trying to buy back an audience.

Mozilla is willing to buy influence, too - particularly in mobile, where it's so weak. One option is paying partners to distribute Firefox on their phones.'We're going to have to put money toward it,' Dixon says, but she expects it'll pay off when Mozilla can share revenue from the resulting search traffic.

They have no chance of winning when they focus on wedge issues like fake news. Much like their mobile operating system, it is a distraction. And the core economics of paying for distribution won't work either. How can Mozilla get a slice of an advertiser's ad budget through Yahoo through Bing & compete against Google's bid?

Google is willing to enter uneconomic deals to keep their monopoly power. Look no further than the $1 billion investment they made in AOL which they quickly wrote down by $726 million.

Google pays Apple $3 billion PER YEAR to be the default search provider in Safari. Verizon acquired Yahoo! for $4.48 billion. There's no chance of Yahoo! outbidding Google for default Safari search placement & if Apple liked the idea they would have bought Yahoo!. It is hard to want to take a big risk & spend billions on something that might not back out when you get paid billions to not take any risk.

Even Microsoft would be taking a big risk in making a competitive bid for the Apple search placement. Microsoft recently disclosed "Search advertising revenue increased $124 million or 8%." If $124 million is 8% then their quarterly search ad revenue is $1.674 billion. To outbid Google they would have to bid over half their total search revenues.

Regulatory Capture

"I have a foreboding of an America in which my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of america is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance." - Carl Sagan, The Demon-haunted World, 1996

The monopoly platforms have remained unscathed by government regulatory efforts in the U.S. Google got so good at lobbying they made Goldman Sachs look like amateurs. It never hurts to place your lawyers in the body that (should) regulate you: "Wright left the FTC in August 2015, returning to George Mason. Just five months later, he had a new position as'of counsel' at Wilson Sonsini, Google's primary outside law firm."

Remember how Google engineers repeatedly announced how people who bought or sold links without clear machine & human readable disclosure are scum? One way to take .edu link building to the next level is to sponsor academic research without disclosure:

Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the Journal in public-records requests of more than a dozen university professors. The professors don't always reveal Google's backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics, the Journal found. ... Google officials in Washington compiled wish lists of academic papers that included working titles, abstracts and budgets for each proposed paper-then they searched for willing authors, according to a former employee and a former Google lobbyist. ... Mr. Sokol, though, had extensive financial ties to Google, according to his emails obtained by the Journal. He was a part-time attorney at the Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which has Google as a client. The 2016 paper's co-author was also a partner at the law firm, which didn't respond to requests for comment.

As bad as that is, Google has non profit think tanks fire ENTIRE TEAMS if they suggest regulatory action against Google is just:

"We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points,' Ms. Slaughter wrote in an email to Mr. Lynn, urging him to'just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.'

"What happened has little to do with New America, and everything to do with Google and monopoly power. One reason that American governance is dysfunctional is because of the capture of much academic and NGO infrastructure by power. That this happened obviously and clumsily at one think tank is not the point. The point is that this is a *system* of power. I have deep respect for the scholars at New America and the work done there. The point here is how *Google* and monopolies operate. I'll make one other political point about monopoly power. Democracies all over the world are seeing an upsurge in anger. Why? Scholars have tended to look at political differences, like does a different social safety net have an impact on populism. But it makes more sense to understand what countries have in common. Multi-nationals stretch over... multiple nations. So if you think, we do, that corporations are part of our political system, then populism everywhere monopolies operate isn't a surprise. Because these are the same monopolies. Google is part of the American political system, and the European one, and so on and so forth." - Matt Stoller

Any dissent of Google is verboten:

in recent years, Google has become greedy about owning not just search capacities, video and maps, but also the shape of public discourse. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Google has recruited and cultivated law professors who support its views. And as the New York Times recently reported, it has become invested in building curriculum for our public schools, and has created political strategy to get schools to adopt its products. This year, Google is on track to spend more money than any company in America on lobbying.

"I just got off the phone with Eric Schmidt and he is pulling all of his money." - Anne-Marie Slaughter

They not only directly control the think tanks, but also state who & what the think tanks may fund:

Google's director of policy communications, Bob Boorstin, emailed the Rose Foundation (a major funder of Consumer Watchdog) complaining about Consumer Watchdog and asking the charity to consider "whether there might be better groups in which to place your trust and resources."

They can also, you know, blackball your media organization or outright penalize you. The more aggressive you are with monetization the more leverage they have to arbitrarily hit you if you don't play ball.

Six years ago, I was pressured to unpublish a critical piece about Google's monopolistic practices after the company got upset about it. In my case, the post stayed unpublished. I was working for Forbes at the time, and was new to my job.
...
Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting. Instead, a Google spokesperson told me that I needed to unpublish the story because the meeting had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes. (I had signed no such agreement, hadn't been told the meeting was confidential, and had identified myself as a journalist.)

Sometimes the threat is explicit:

"You're already asking very difficult questions to Mr. Juncker,' the YouTube employee said before Birbes' interview in an exchange she captured on video.'You're talking about corporate lobbies. You don't want to get on the wrong side of YouTube and the European Commission… Well, except if you don't care about having a long career on YouTube.'

Concentrated source of power manipulates the media. Not new, rather typical. Which is precisely why monopolies should be broken up once they have a track record of abusing the public trust:

As more and more of the economy become sown up by monopolistic corporations, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for entrepreneurship. ... By design, the private business corporation is geared to pursue its own interests. It's our job as citizens to structure a political economy that keeps corporations small enough to ensure that their actions never threaten the people's sovereignty over our nation.

How much control can one entity get before it becomes excessive?

Google controls upwards of 80 percent of global search-and the capital to either acquire or crush any newcomers. They are bringing us a hardly gilded age of prosperity but depressed competition, economic stagnation, and, increasingly, a chilling desire to control the national conversation.

Google thinks their business is too complex to exist in a single organization. They restructured to minimize their legal risks:

The switch is partly related to Google's transformation from a listed public company into a business owned by a holding company. The change helps keep potential challenges in one business from spreading to another, according to Dana Hobart, a litigator with the Buchalter law firm in Los Angeles.

Isn't that an admission they should be broken up?

Early Xoogler Doug Edwards wrote: "[Larry Page] wondered how Google could become like a better version of the RIAA - not just a mediator of digital music licensing - but a marketplace for fair distribution of all forms of digitized content."

A better version of the RIAA as a north star sure seems like an accurate analogy:

In an explosive new allegation, a renowned architect has accused Google of racketeering, saying in a lawsuit the company has a pattern of stealing trade secrets from people it first invites to collaborate. ...'It's cheaper to steal than to develop your own technology,' Buether said.'You can take it from somebody else and you have a virtually unlimited budget to fight these things in court.' ...'It's even worse than just using the proprietary information - they actually then claim ownership through patent applications,' Buether said.

The following slide expresses Google's views on premium content

No surprise the Content Creators Coalition called for Congressional Investigation into Google's Distortion of Public Policy Debates:

Google's efforts to monopolize civil society in support of the company's balance-sheet-driven agenda is as dangerous as it is wrong. For years, we have watched as Google used its monopoly powers to hurt artists and music creators while profiting off stolen content. For years, we have warned about Google's actions that stifle the views of anyone who disagrees with its business practices, while claiming to champion free speech.

In a world where monopolies are built with mission statements like 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful' it makes sense to seal court documents, bury regulatory findings, or else the slogan doesn't fit as the consumer harm was obvious.

"The 160-page critique, which was supposed to remain private but was inadvertently disclosed in an open-records request, concluded that Google's 'conduct has resulted - and will result - in real harm to consumers.' " But Google was never penalized, because the political appointees overrode the staff recommendation, an action rarely taken by the FTC. The Journal pointed out that Google, whose executives donated more money to the Obama campaign than any company, had held scores of meetings at the White House between the time the staff filed its report and the ultimate decision to drop the enforcement action.

Some scrappy (& perhaps masochistic players) have been fighting the monopoly game for over a decade:

June 2006: Foundem's Google search penalty begins. Foundem starts an arduous campaign to have the penalty lifted.
September 2007: Foundem is'whitelisted' for AdWords (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its AdWords penalty).
December 2009: Foundem is'whitelisted' for Google natural search (i.e. Google manually grants Foundem immunity from its search penalty)

For many years Google has "manipulated search results to favor its own comparison-shopping service. ... Google both demotes competitors' offerings in search rankings and artificially inserts its own service in a box above all other search results, regardless of their relevance."

After losing for over a decade, on the 27th of June a win was finally delivered when the European Commission issued a manual action to negate the spam, when they fined Google €2.42 billion for abusing dominance as search engine by giving illegal advantage to own comparison shopping service.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation." - Margrethe Vestager

That fine looks to be the first of multiple record-breaking fines as "Sources expect the Android fine to be substantially higher than the shopping penalty."

That fine was well deserved:

Quoting internal Google documents and emails, the report shows that the company created a list of rival comparison shopping sites that it would artificially lower in the general search results, even though tests showed that Google users'liked the quality of the [rival] sites' and gave negative feedback on the proposed changes. Google reworked its search algorithm at least four times, the documents show, and altered its established rating criteria before the proposed changes received'slightly positive' user feedback. ... Google's displayed prices for everyday products, such as watches, anti-wrinkle cream and wireless routers, were roughly 50 percent higher - sometimes more - than those on rival sites. A subsequent study by a consumer protection group found similar results. A study by the Financial Times also documented the higher prices.

Nonetheless, Google is appealing it. The ease with which Google quickly crafted a response was telling.

The competitors who were slaughtered by monopolistic bundling won't recover'The damage has been done. The industry is on its knees, and this is not going to put it back,' said Mr. Stables, who has decided to participate in Google's new auctions despite misgivings.'I'm sort of shocked that they've come out with this,' he added.

Google claims they'll be running their EU shopping ads as a separate company with positive profit margins & that advertisers won't be bidding against themselves if they are on multiple platforms. Anyone who believes that stuff hasn't dropped a few thousand dollars on a Flash-only website after AdWords turned on Enhanced campaigns against their wishes - charging the advertisers dollars per click to send users to a blank page which would not load.

Hell may freeze over, causing the FTC to look into Google's Android bundling similarly to how Microsoft's OS bundling was looked at.

If hell doesn't freeze over, it is likely because Google further ramped up their lobbying efforts, donating to political organizations they claim to be ideologically opposed to.

The Fight Against Rising (& Declining) Nationalism

As a global corporation above & beyond borders, Google has long been against nationalism. Eric Schmidt's Hillary Clinton once wrote: "My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere."

Apparently Google flacks did not get that memo (or they got the new memo about Eric Schmidt's Donald Trump), because they were quick to denounce the European Commission's move as anti-American:

We are writing to express our deep concerns about the European Union's aggressive and heavy-handed antitrust enforcement action against American companies. It has become increasingly clear that, rather than being grounded in a transparent legal framework, these various investigations and complaints are being driven by politics and protectionist policies that harm open-competition practices, consumers, and unfairly target American companies,.

The above nonsense was in spite of Yelp carrying a heavy load.

Yelp celebrated the victory: "Google has been found guilty of engaging in illegal conduct with the aim of promoting its vertical search services. Although the decision addresses comparison shopping services, the European Commission has also recognized that the same illegal behavior applies to other verticals, including local search."

The EU is also looking for an expert to monitor Google's algorithm. It certainly isn't hard to find areas where the home team wins.

Virtual Real Estate

Wrastlin With The News

The current presidential cabinet includes a WWE co-founder & this passes for modern political discourse:

CNN promised vengeance.

Something To Believe In

The pretense of objectivity has been dropped:

These reporters aren't ideologues. They're just right-thinking people who lean left. Somewhere along the line, they stopped pretending to be objective about Trump. ... People don't just disagree with each other. They can't imagine how a decent caring human being could disagree with their own view of race or the minimum wage or immigration or Trump. Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are irrational, or worse, evil. They're not people to engage in conversation with. They are barriers to be ignored or pushed aside on the virtuous path to paradise. This intolerance and inability to imagine the virtue of the other side is the road to tyranny and chaos. It dehumanizes a good chunk of humanity and that in turn justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of.

The WSJ, typically a right-leaning publication, is differentiating their coverage of the president from most other outlets by attempting to be somewhat neutral.

The news is fake. Even historically left-leaning people are disgusted with outlets like CNN.

  • "I think the president is probably right to say, like, look you are witch-hunting me. You have no smoking gun, you have no real proof." - CNN supervising producer John Bonifield
  • "When you do shitty reporting like CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times & Rachel Maddow especially. When you do that & it is revealed to be bullshit, what you're doing is building up Trump. There's no greater way to build up Trump than to falsely report on him. There's no better way to build up Trump than to make him the victim." - Jimmy Dore
  • "Rachel Maddow was given the facts, she ignored them, & she kept right on going. That's MSNBC, that's CNN, that's the New York Times, the Washington Post - they're all horrible. That's why we had the Iraq war. That's why we have the Syria war. That's why we are still in Afghanistan. That's why we had Libya. That's why we have the biggest income disparity since the gilded age. Meanwhile we are spending more on the military than the rest of the world." - Jimmy Dore

And, since people need something to believe in, there are new American Gods:

"A half hour of cable news delivers enough psychic trauma for a whole year. The newspapers are talking of nothing but treason, espionage, investigations, protests." ... "Stocks are rallying because of how little faith we have in the government. The Mega Blue Chip Corporation is the new Sovereign."

Current Headwinds for Online Publishing

I struggle to keep up with the accelerating rate of change. A number of common themes in the current ecosystem are:

  • We are moving toward a world where more things are becoming fake (only accelerated by the demonetization of neutrality & the algorithmic boost associated with reliably delivering confirmation bias in an algorithmic or manual fashion)
  • risk keeps being radiated outward to the individual while monopoly platforms capture the spoils (forced-place health insurance purchases where the insurance company arbitrarily drops the sick member on the policy even though that is supposed to be illegal, more temp jobs where people don't get enough hours to get health insurance through their employer, under-funded pensions, outsourcing of core business functions to sweatshops where part-time workers don't get paid for dozens to hundreds of hours of required training & get to watch beheading videos all day)
  • the barrier to entry keeps increasing (increased marketing cost due to brand bias, heavy ad loads on dominant platforms, & central platforms making partners do "bet the farm" moves in how they adjust distribution to drive adoption of proprietary formats & temporarily over-promote select content formats)
  • the increasing chunk size of competition is making it much harder for individuals to build sustainable businesses. (Yes the tools of the trade are improving quickly, BUT the central platforms are demonetizing the adjacent fields faster than publishing tools & business options improve.)
  • In Europe publishers are aggressively leaning on regulators to try to rebalance power.

Some of this stuff is cyclical. About a decade ago the European Commission went after Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer. Google complained about the monopolistic practices to ensure Microsoft was fined. And we've went from that to a web where Google syndicates native ads that blend into page content while directly funding robot journalism. And then Google is ranking the robot-generated crap too.

But to keep the ecosystem clean & spam free, Google is also planning to leverage their web browser to further dictate the terms of online publishing. Chrome will block autoplay audio & will automatically reroute .dev domains to https. Cutting edge developers suggest using a web browser other than Google Chrome to prevent proprietary lock in across the web.

While Google distributes their Chrome browser as unwanted bundleware, other web browsers must display uninstall links front & center when trying to gain awareness of their product using Google AdWords. Microsoft Edge is coming to Android, but without a BrowserChoice.eu screen it is unlikely most users will change their web browser as most are unaware of what a web browser even is, let alone the limitations of any of them or the tracking embedded in them.

If you go back several years, there was celebration of the fact that the cost of doing a startup was so low. You didn't have to pay Oracle a million dollars for a server license any more. You didn't even have to rack your own hardware. Now you can just dial it up on Amazon. But there are now these gatekeepers and toll-takers. Back in 2004, you had the wide-open internet. - Jeremy Stoppelman

The Mobile Revolution

If you are an anti-social work at home webmaster who has dual monitors it is easy to dismiss cell phones as inefficient and chalk most mobile usage up to the following.

The reality is cell phones are more powerful than they seem if you are strictly consuming rather than working.

And that is how the unstoppable quickly becomes the extinct!

Many people the world over are addicted to their cell phones to where viral game makers are self-regulating before regulators step in: "From Tuesday, users below 12 years of age will be limited to one hour of play time each day, while those aged between 12 years and 18 years will be limited to two hours a day, Tencent said."

While China is using their various tools to clamp down on Honour of Kings, Tencent is bringing the game to the west, which makes blocking VPN services (with Apple's help - they must play along or have the phones reduced to bricks) & requiring local data storage & technology transfer more important. Anything stored locally can be easily disappeared: "China's already formidable internet censors have demonstrated a new strength-the ability to delete images in one-on-one chats as they are being transmitted, making them disappear before receivers see them."

China has banned live streaming, threatened their largest domestic social networks, shut down chat bots, require extensive multimedia review: "an industry association circulated new regulations that at least two "auditors" will, with immediate effect, be required to check all audiovisual content posted online" AND they force users to install spyware on their devices.

In spite of all those restrictions, last year "Chinese consumers spent $5.5 trillion through mobile payment platforms, about 50 times more than their American counterparts." In the last quarter Baidu had ¥20.87 billion in revenues, with 72% of their revenues driven by mobile.

People can not miss that which they've never seen, thus platform socialism works. Those who doubt it will be tracked & scored accordingly.

History, as well, can be scrubbed. And insurance companies watch everything in real-time - careful what you post. The watchful eye of the Chinese pre-crime team is also looking over every move.

Last quarter Facebook had revenues of $9.164 billion, with 87% coming from mobile devices.

Simulacrum has ALMOST been perfected:

"We didn't have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people." ... "Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones." ... "Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy."

The web is becoming easier to get addicted to due to personalization algorithms that reinforce our worldviews even as they make us feel more isolated and left out. And the barrier to entry for consumers into one of the few central gatekeeper ecosystems is dropping like a rock due to the falling cost of mobile devices, coupled with with images & video displacing text making literacy optional. As we become more "connected" we feel more isolated:

"Social isolation, loneliness or living alone was each a significant factor contributing to premature death. And each one of these factors was a more significant risk factor for dying than obesity. ... No one knows precisely why loneliness is surging, threatening the lives of many millions of people, but it does seem that the burgeoning use of technology may have something to do with it. Personally, I would contend that technology may be the chief factor fueling it."

The primary role of the big data mining companies is leveraging surveillance for social engineering

App Annie expects the global app economy to be worth $6.3 trillion by 2021.

The reason those numbers can easily sound fake & mobile can seem overblown is how highly concentrated usage has become: "over 80 percent of consumer time on mobile devices is now spent on the apps, websites and properties" of just five companies: Facebook, Google, Apple, Yelp and Bing.

eMarketer stated Google will have more mobile ad revenue than desktop ad revenue in the US this year. They also predicted Google & Facebook will consume over 2/3 of US online ad spend within 2 years.

The central network operators not only maintain an outsized share of revenues, but also maintain an outsized share of profits. When the home team gets a 30% rake of any sale it is hard for anyone else to compete. Even after buying and gutting Motorola Google bought part of HTC for $1.1 billion. The game plan has never changed: commoditize the compliment to ensure user data & most of the profits flow to Google. Put up arbitrary roadblocks for competing services while launching free parallel offerings to drive lock-in.

Central data aggregators can keep collecting more user data & offer more granular ad distribution features. They can tell you that this micro moment RIGHT NOW is make or break:

it's intended to create a bizarre sense of panic among marketers - "OMG, we have to be present at every possible instant someone might be looking at their phone!" - which doesn't help them think strategically or make the best use of their marketing or ad spend.

The reality is that if you don't have a relationship with a person on their desktop computer they probably don't want your mobile app either.

If you have the relationship then mobile only increases profits.

Many people attempting to build "the next mobile" will go bust, but wherever the attention flows the ads will follow.

Those with a broad & dominant tech platform can copy features from single-category devices and keep integrating them into their core products to increase user lock-in. And they can build accessories for those core devices while prohibiting the flow of data to third party devices to keep users locked into their ecosystem.

Smaller Screens, Shallower Attention

People often multi-task while using mobile devices.

When multi-tasking it is easier to accidentally click an ad. This happens 10s of billions of times a year:

This year, in-app mobile ad spend will reach $45.3 billion, up $11 billion from last year, according to eMarketer. And apps are where the money is at for mobile advertising, comprising 80 percent of all U.S. media dollars spent on mobile.

But multi-tasking means doing almost everything else worse. The "always on" mode not only increases isolation, but also lowers our ability to focus:

"while our phones offer convenience and diversion, they also breed anxiety. Their extraordinary usefulness gives them an unprecedented hold on our attention and vast influence over our thinking and behavior. ... Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren't using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens. ... when people hear their phone ring but are unable to answer it, their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens, and their problem-solving skills decline. ... As the phone's proximity increased, brainpower decreased. ... Anticipating that information would be readily available in digital form seemed to reduce the mental effort that people made to remember it. ... people are all too quick to credit lies and half-truths spread through social media by Russian agents and other bad actors. If your phone has sapped your powers of discernment, you'll believe anything it tells you."

Further, the shallow attention stream makes it easy to displace content with ads:

4 Ads
3 map carrousel results
5 organic results
4 Ads

Then "see more results"

4 more Ads
5 organic results
4 more Ads

On desktop devices people don't accidentally misclick on ads at anywhere near the rate they fat thumb ads on mobile devices.

Desktop ad clicks convert to purchases. Mobile ad clicks convert to ad budget burned: "marketers are still seeing few shoppers purchasing on mobile. The 52% of share in traffic only has 26% share of revenue."

For traditional publishers mobile users drastically under-monetize desktop users due to

  • drastically lower conversion rates (true for almost everyone in ecommerce outside of Amazon perhaps)
  • limited cross-device tracking (how do you track people who don't even hit your site but hit a cached page hosted via Google AMP or Facebook Instant Articles?)
  • lower ad load allowed on publisher sites due to limited screen size
  • aggressive filtering of fat thumb ad clicks on partner sites from central ad networks

For the central network operators almost all the above are precisely the exact opposite.

  • higher ad CTR by making entire interface ads (& perhaps even disappearing the concept of non-ads in the result set)
  • great cross-device user tracking
  • higher ad load allowed by the small screen size pushing content below the fold
  • more lenient filtering of fat thumb accidental ad clicks

If you look at raw stats without understanding the underlying impact, it is easy to believe the ecosystem is healthy.

However the huge number of "no click" results are demonetizing easy publisher revenues, which have traditionally helped to fund more in-depth investigative reporting. Further, much of the direct navigation which happened in the past is now being passed through brand-related search result pages. You can argue that is an increase in search traffic, or you can argue it is shifting the roll of the address bar from navigation to search.

The first page is nothing but ads

On mobile so is the second, and most of the third

If a search query has lots of easy to structure crap around it, a user might need 6 or 7 scrolls to get to an organic result

Then if third parties go "well Google does this, so I should too" they are considered a low quality user experience and get a penalty.

31% ad coverage on mobile website is excessive / spam / low quality user experience for a publisher, while 301% coverage is reasonable for the central network operators.

Google not only displaces the result set, but also leverages their search suggestion features & algorithmic influence to alter how people search & what they search for.

Ads are getting integrated into mobile keyboards.

And when a user finally reaches the publisher's website (provided they scroll past the ads, the AMP listings, and all the other scrape-n-displace trash) then when they finally land on a publication Google will overlay other recommended articles from other sites.

That feature will eventually end up including ads in it, where publishers will get 0.00% of the revenue generated.

Remember how Google suggested publishers should make their websites faster, remove ads, remove clutter, etc. What was the point of all that? To create free real estate for Google to insert a spam unit into your website?

This wouldn't be bad if mobile were a small, fringe slice of traffic, but it is becoming the majority of traffic. And as mobile increases desktop traffic is shrinking.

Even politically biased outlets that appear to be nearly perfectly optimized for a filter bubble that promotes identity politics struggle to make the numbers work: "As a result of continued decline in direct advertising, [Salon's] total revenue in the fiscal year 2017 decreased by 34% to $4.6 million. Following the market trend, 84% of our advertising revenue in fiscal year 2017 was generated by programmatic selling. ... [Monthly unique visitors to our website saw] a decrease of 23%. We attribute the decline primarily to the changes in the algorithms used by Facebook."

The above sorts of numbers are the logical outcome to this:

we've heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it's difficult to find the actual content, they aren't happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don't have much content"above-the-fold" can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn't have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site's initial screen real estate to ads, that's not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.

Especially when combined with this:

As you scroll through it, you are then given travel ads for flight options through Google Flight search, hotels through Google Hotel search and restaurants through Google Local results. Then towards the bottom of the knowledge graph card, all the way at the end in a small grayish font, you have a link to "see web results."

Bad news for TripAdvisor.

And amongst the good news for Expedia, there's also a bit of bad news for Expedia. The hotels are fighting Airbnb & OTAs. In travel Google is twice as big as the biggest OTA players. They keep eating more SERP real estate and adding more content behind tabs. On mobile they'll even disappear the concept of organic results.

Room previews in the search results not only means that second tier players are worth a song, but even the new growth players propped up by aggressive ad buying eventually hit a wall and see their stock crash.

As the entire ecosystem gets squeezed by middlemen and the market gets obfuscated with an incomplete selection it is ultimately consumers who lose: "Reservations made through Internet discount sites are almost always slated for our worst rooms."

The New York Times pitched Yelp as a pesky player holding a grudge:

"For six years, his company has been locked in a campaign on three continents to get antitrust regulators to punish Google, Yelp's larger, richer and more politically connected competitor. ... Yelp concluded that there was no better way to get Google's attention than to raise the specter of regulation. ... something [Mark Mahaney] calls the Death of Free Google. As the internet has migrated to mobile phones, Google has compensated for the smaller screen space by filling it with so many ads that users can have a hard time finding a result that hasn't been paid for."

In spite of how quick The New York Times was to dismiss Yelp, the monopoly platforms are stiffing competition & creativity while bundling fake reviews & junk features into their core platforms.

People can literally switch their name to "Loop dee Loop"

and leave you terrible, fake reviews.

Google's lack of effort & investment to clean up trash in their local services department highlights that they don't feel they need to compete on quality. Pay for core search distribution, throw an inferior service front & center, and win by default placement.

As AI advancements make fake reviews look more legit Google's lack of investment in creating a quality ecosystem will increasingly harm both consumers and businesses. Many low margin businesses will go under simply because their Google reviews are full of inaccurate trash or a competitor decided to hijack their business listing or list their business as closed.

To this day Google is still egregiously stealing content from Yelp:

Yelp said it investigated and found that over one hour, Google pulled images from Yelp's servers nearly 386,000 times for business listings in Google Maps, which Google exempted from its promise to not scrape content. Yelp then searched Google for 150 of the businesses from those map listings and found that for 110 of them, Google used a Yelp photo as the lead image in the businesses' listings in search results.

Stealing content & wrapping it in fake reviews is NOT putting the user first.

Facebook has their own matching parallel shifts.

The aggregate quality of mobile ad clicks is quite low. So as mobile becomes a much higher percent of total ad clicks, those who don't have scale and narrative control are reduced to taking whatever they can get. And mainstream media outlets are reduced to writing puff pieces so the brands they cover will pay to promote the stories on the main channels.

As programmatic advertising, ad blockers, unpatched Android-powered botnets & malware spread each day gets a little uglier for everyone but the central market operators. It is so bad that some of the central market operators offer surveillance apps which claim to protect user privacy! Other app makers not connected to monopoly profit streams monetize any way they can.

The narrative of growth can be sold (we are launching a new food channel, we are investing in our internal video team, we have exclusive real estate listings, and, um, we acquired a food channel) but the competition is a zero sum game with Google & Facebook eating off the publisher's plates.

That's why Time is trying to shave $400 million off their expenses & wants to sell their magazine division. Newspaper companies are selling for $1. It is also why Business Insider is no longer chasing growth & the New York Times is setting up a charitable trust.

The rise of ad blocking only accelerates the underlying desperation.

As long as news websites make their own customer experience worse than what can be found as a cached copy on the monopoly platforms there is no reason to visit the end publisher website. That is why the proprietary formats promoted by the monopoly platforms are so dangerous. They force lighter monetization & offset the lack of revenue by given preferential placement:

click through rate from Google search went from 5.9% (Regular) to 10.3% (AMP), and average search position went from 5.9 (Regular) to 1.7 (AMP). Since then, we have deployed AMP across fifteen of our brands and we have been very pleased with the results. Today, AMP accounts for 79% of our mobile search traffic and 36% of our total mobile visits.

As long as almost nobody is using the new proprietary, ghetto lock-in format the math may work out there, but once many people adopt it then it becomes another recurring sunk cost with no actual benefit:

the only voices promoting AMP's performance benefits are coming from inside Google. ... given how AMP pages are privileged in Google's search results, the net effect of the team's hard, earnest work comes across as a corporate-backed attempt to rewrite HTML in Google's image.

Even if you get a slight uptick in traffic from AMP, it will lead to lower quality user engagement as users are browsing across websites rather than within websites. Getting a bit more traffic but 59% fewer leads is a fail.

No amount of collaborative publisher partnerships, begging for anti-trust exemptions, or whining about Google is going to fix the problem.

"The only way publishers can address this inexorable threat is by banding together. If they open a unified front to negotiate with Google and Facebook-pushing for stronger intellectual-property protections, better support for subscription models and a fair share of revenue and data-they could build a more sustainable future for the news business. But antitrust laws make such coordination perilous. These laws, intended to prevent monopolies, are having the unintended effect of preserving and protecting Google and Facebook's dominant position."

Wait a minute.

Wasn't it the New York Times which claimed Yelp was holding an arbitrary grudge against Google?

The following sounds a lot more desperate:

newspapers that once delivered their journalism with their own trucks increasingly have to rely on these big online platforms to get their articles in front of people, fighting for attention alongside fake news, websites that lift their content, and cat videos.

Well maybe that is just smaller publications & not the gray lady herself

"the temperature is rising in terms of concern, and in some cases anger, about what seems like a very asymmetric, disadvantageous relationship between the publishers and the very big digital platforms." - NYT CEO Mark Thompson

In unrelated news, there's another round of layoffs coming at the New York Times.

And the New York Times is also setting up a nonprofit division to expand journalism while their core company focuses on something else.

Apparently Yelp does not qualify as a publisher in this instance.

Or does it?

The Times is backing the move for what is called an anticompetitive safe haven, in part, Mr. Thompson said, "because we care about the whole of journalism as well as about The New York Times."

Ah, whole of journalism, which, apparently, no longer includes local business coverage.

You know the slogan: "news isn't news, unless it isn't local."

The struggles are all across the media landscape. The new Boston Globe CEO lasted a half-year. The San Diego Union-Tribune resorted to using GoFundMe. The Chicago Sun-Times sold for $1. Moody's issued a negative outlook for the US newspaper sector. As the industry declines the biggest players view consolidation as the only solution.

These struggles existed even before the largest brand advertisers like P&G cut back on low & no value ad venues like YouTube:

In the fourth quarter, the reduction in marketing that occurred was almost all in the digital space. And what it reflected was a choice to cut spending from a digital standpoint where it was ineffective: where either we were serving bots as opposed to human beings, or where the placement of ads was not facilitating the equity of our brands.

Google & Facebook are extending their grip on the industry with Google launching topical feeds & Facebook wanting to control subscription management.

Best of luck to journalists on the employment front:

The initiative, dubbed Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR), will see a team of five journalists work with Natural Language Generation software to produce over 30,000 pieces of content for local media each month.

Hopefully editors catch the subtle errors the bots make, because most of them will not be this obvious & stupid.

The cost of parasitic content recycling is coming down quickly:

In a show of strength last year, Microsoft used thousands of these chips at once to translate all of English Wikipedia into Spanish-3 billion words across five million articles-in less than a tenth of a second. Next Microsoft will let its cloud customers use these chips to speed up their own AI tasks.

Voice search makes it even easier to extract the rewards without paying publishers. Throwing pennies at journalists does nothing to change this.

And that voice shift is happening fast: "By 2020 half of search will be via voice"

If Google is subsidizing robotic journalism they are thus legitimizing robotic journalism. As big publishers employ the tactic, Google ranks it.

It is almost impossible to compete economically with an entity that rewrites your work & has zero marginal cost of production.

YouTube has perhaps the worst comments on the web. Some mainstream news sites got rid of comments because they couldn't justify the cost of policing them. That in turn shifts the audience & attention stream to sites like Facebook & Twitter. Some news sites which are still leaving comments enabled rely on a Google filter, a technology Google can use on YouTube as they see fit.

Any plugins publishers use to lower their costs can later disappear. It looked like FindTheBest was doing well financially, but when it was acquired many news sites quickly found out the cost of free as they now have thousands of broken articles in their archives: "Last month, Graphiq announced that features for news publishers would no longer be available after Friday."

Driving costs toward zero by piling on external dependencies is no way to build a sustainable business. Especially when the central network operators are eating the playing field:

"Between fast-loading AMP articles from major news brands hosted in its domain, full pages of information scraped from outside sites that don't require you to visit them, basic shopping functions built into ads, YouTube, and a host of other features, the Google-verse is more of a digital walled garden than ever. ... If Google continues to choke these sites out, what incentive will there be for new ones to come along?"

Unprofitable partners which were buying growth with artificially cheap pricing eventually find out investors want profits more than growth & either reprice or go away. The longer you use something & the more locked in you are to it the more aggressively it can afford to reprice. Symbiotic relationships devolve into abusive ones:

  • "for every pound an advertiser spends programmatically on the Guardian only 30 pence actually goes to the publisher." - Mediatel
  • "Google wants to cut out the middlemen, which it turns out, are URLs." - MobileMoxie
  • "[AMP is] a way for Google to obfuscate your website, usurp your content & remove any personal credibility from the web" - TheRegister
  • "Though the stated initiative of ads.txt is to stop inventory resale, it achieves this by establishing 'preferred' channels, which naturally favors the industry's most influential companies" - Ad Exchanger

That Apple does extra work to undo AMP says a lot.

Those who think the central network operators are naive to the power structure being promoted by the faux solutions are either chasing short-term goals or are incredibly masochistic.

Arbitraging brand is the core business model of the attention merchant monopoly.

we've found out that 98% of our business was coming from 22 words. So, wait, we're buying 3,200 words and 98% of the business is coming from 22 words. What are the 22 words? And they said, well, it's the word Restoration Hardware and the 21 ways to spell it wrong, okay?

Publishers buying the "speed" narrative are failing themselves. The Guardian has 11 people working on AMP integration. And what is Google doing about speed? Google shut down Google Instant search results, often displays a screen or two full of ads which mobile users have to scroll past to find the organic search results AND is testing auto-playing videos in the search results.

Facebook is also promoting fast loading & mobile-friendly pages.

To keep bleeding clicks out of the "organic" ecosystem they don't even need to have explicit malicious intent. They can run a thousand different tests every month (new vertical sitelink formats, swipable sitelinks, showing 8 sitelinks on tiny mobile devices, MOAR sitelinks, message extensions, extensions on call-only ads, price discount labels, frame 3rd party content inline, dramatically ramp up featured snippets +QnA listings, more related searches, more features in ad units, larger ad units, ad units that replace websites & charge advertisers for sending clicks from Google to Google, launch a meta-search service where they over-promote select listings, test dropping URLs from listings, put ads in the local pack, change color of source links or other elements, pop ups of search results inside search results, etc.) & keep moving toward whatever layout drives more ad clicks, keeps users on Google longer & forces businesses to buy ads for exposure, claiming they are optimizing the user experience the whole time.

They can hard-code any data type or feature, price it at free to de-fund adjacent businesses, consolidate market power, then increase rents after they have a monopoly position in the adjacent market.

And they can fund research on how to remove watermarks from images.

Why not make hosting free, get people to publish into a proprietary format & try to shift news reading onto the Google app. With enough attention & market coverage they can further extort publishers into accepting perpetually worse deals. And free analytics & business plugins which are widely adopted can have key features get pushed into the paid version. Just look at Google Analytics - its free or $150,000+/yr.

The above sorts of moves can be done in isolation, or in a combinatorial approach. Publishers aloof of the ecosystem shifts may use microformats to structure their content. They'll then find it is integrated in Google's new image search layout, where Google copies the content wholesale &
shows it near other third party images framed by Google.

How about some visually striking, yet irrelevant listings for competing brands on branded searches to force the brand ad buy. And, of course rounded card corners to eat a few more pixels, along with faint ad labeling on ads coupled with vibrant colored dots on the organic results to confuse end users into thinking the organic results are the ads.

While Google turns their search results into an adspam farm, they invite you to test showing fewer ads on your site to improve user experience. Google knows best - let them automate your ad load & ad placement.

What is the real risk of AI? Bias.

"It's important that we be transparent about the training data that we are using, and are looking for hidden biases in it, otherwise we are building biased systems," Giannandrea added. "If someone is trying to sell you a black box system for medical decision support, and you don't know how it works or what data was used to train it, then I wouldn't trust it."

And how does Google justify their AI investments? Through driving incremental ad clicks: "The DeepMind founders understand that their power within [Alphabet], and their ability to get their way with [Alphabet CEO] Larry Page, depends on how many eyeballs and clicks and ad dollars they can claim to be driving"

No bias at all there!

And if publishing was killed in 2015, things have only got worse since then:

Looking at 2015 vs 2017 data for all keywords ranking organically on the first page, we’ve seen a dramatic change in CTR. Below we’ve normalized our actual CTR on a 1–10 scale, representing a total drop of 25% of click share on desktop and 55% on mobile.

SEOs who were overly reliant on the search channel were the first to notice all the above sorts of change, as it is their job to be hyper-aware of ecosystem shifts. But publishers far removed from SEO who never focused on SEO are now writing about the trends SEOs were writing about nearly a decade ago. Josh Marshall recently covered Google's awesome monopoly powers.

few publishers really want to talk about the depths or mechanics of Google's role in news publishing. Some of this is secrecy about proprietary information; most of it is that Google could destroy or profoundly damage most publications if it wanted to. So why rock the boat? ... Google's monopoly control is almost comically great. It's a monopoly at every conceivable turn and consistently uses that market power to deepen its hold and increase its profits. Just the interplay between DoubleClick and Adexchange is textbook anti-competitive practices. ... Is your favorite website laying off staff or 'pivoting to video'. In most cases, the root cause is not entirely but to a significant degree driven by the platform monopolies

His article details how Google owns many points of the supply chain

So let's go down the list: 1) The system for running ads, 2) the top purchaser of ads, 3) the most pervasive audience data service, 4) all search, 5) our email. ... But wait, there's more! Google also owns Chrome, the most used browser for visiting TPM.

He also covers the price dumping technique that is used to maintain control

In many cases, alternatives don't exist because no business can get a footing with a product Google lets people use for free.

And he shared an example of Google algorithms gone astray crippling his business, even though it was not related to search & unintentional:

Because we were forwarding to ourselves spam that other people sent to us, Google decided that the owner of the TPM url was a major spammer and blocked emails from TPM from being sent to anyone.

If the above comes across as depressing, don't worry. The search results now contain a depression diagnostic testing tool.

Rank Checker Update

Recently rank checker started hanging on some search queries & the button on the SEO Toolbar which launched rank checker stopped working. Both of these issues should now be fixed if you update your Firefox extensions.

If ever the toolbar button doesn't work one can enable the Menu bar in Firefox, then go under the tools menu to the rank checker section to open it.

Years ago we created a new logo for rank checker which we finally got around to changing it today. :)

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DMOZ Shut Down

Last August I wrote a blog post about how attention merchants were sucking the value out of online publishing. In it I noted how the Yahoo! Directory disappeared & how even DMOZ saw a sharp drop in traffic & rankings over the past few years.

The concept of a neutral web is dead. In its place is agenda-driven media.

  • Politically charged misinformed snippets.
  • Ads cloaked as content.
  • Public relations propaganda.
  • Mostly correct (but politically insensitive) articles being "fact checked" where a minor detail is disputed to label the entire piece as not credible.

As the tech oligarchs broadly defund publishing, the publishers still need to eat. Aggregate information quality declines to make the numbers work. Companies which see their ad revenues slide 20%, 30% or 40% year after year can't justify maintaining the labor-intensive yet unmonetized side projects.

There is Wikipedia, but it is not without bias & beyond the value expressed in the hidden bias most of the remaining value from it flows on through to the attention merchant / audience aggregation / content scraper platforms.

Last month DMOZ announced they were closing on March 14th without much fanfare. And on March 17th the directory went offline.

A number of people have pushed to preserve & archive the DMOZ data. Some existing DMOZ editors are planning on launching a new directory under a different name but as of the 17th DMOZ editors put up a copy at dmoztools.net. Jim Boykin scraped DMOZ & uploaded a copy here. A couple other versions of DMOZ have been published at OpenDirectoryProject.org & Freemoz.org.

DMOZ was not without criticism or controversy,

Although site policies suggest that an individual site should be submitted to only one category, as of October 2007, Topix.com, a news aggregation site operated by DMOZ founder Rich Skrenta, has more than 17,000 listings.

Early in the history of DMOZ, its staff gave representatives of selected companies, such as Rolling Stone or CNN, editing access in order to list individual pages from their websites. Links to individual CNN articles were added until 2004, but were entirely removed from the directory in January 2008 due to the content being outdated and not considered worth the effort to maintain.

but by-and-large it added value to the structure of the web.

As search has advanced (algorithmic evolution, economic power, influence over publishers, enhanced bundling of distribution & user tracking) general web directories haven't been able to keep pace. Ultimately the web is a web of links & pages rather than a web of sites. Many great sites span multiple categories. Every large quality site has some misinformation on it. Every well-known interactive site has some great user contributions & user generated spam on it. Search engines have better signals about what pages are important & which pages have maintained importance over time. As search engines have improved link filtering algorithms & better incorporated user tracking in rankings, broad-based manual web directories had no chance.

The web of pages vs web of sites concept can be easily observed in how some of the early successful content platforms have broken down their broad-based content portals into a variety of niche sites.

When links were (roughly) all that mattered, leveraging a website's link authority meant it was far more profitable for a large entity to keep publishing more content on the one main site. That is how eHow became the core of a multi-billion Dollar company.

Demand Media showed other publishers the way. And if the other existing sites were to stay competitive, they also had to water down content quality to make the numbers back out. The problem with this was the glut of content was lower ad rates. And the decline in ad rates was coupled with a shift away from a links-only view of search relevancy to a model based on weighting link profiles against user engagement metrics.

Websites with lots of links, lots of thin content & terrible engagement metrics were hit.

Kristen Moore, vp of marketing for Demand Media, explained what drove the most egregious aspects of eHow's editorial strategy: “There’s some not very bright people out there.”

eHow improved their site design, drastically reduced their ad density, removed millions of articles from their site, and waited. However nothing they did on that domain name was ever going to work. They dug too deep of a hole selling the growth story to pump a multi-billion Dollar valuation. And they generated so much animosity from journalists who felt overwork & underpaid that even when they did rank journalists would typically prefer to link to anything but them.

The flip side of that story is the newspaper chains, which rushed to partner with Demand Media to build eHow-inspired sections on their sites.

Brands which enjoy the Google brand subsidy are also quite hip to work with Demand Media, which breathes new life into once retired content: "Sometimes Demand will even dust off old content that’s been published but is no longer live and repurpose it for a brand."

As Facebook & Google grew more dominant in the online ad ecosystem they aggressively moved to suck in publisher content & shift advertiser spend onto their core properties. The rise of time spent on social sites only made it harder for websites to be sought out destination. Google also effectively cut off direct distribution by consolidating & de-monetizing the RSS reader space then shutting down a project they easily could have left run.

As the web got more competitive, bloggers & niche publications which were deeply specialized were able to steal marketshare in key verticals by leveraging a differentiated editorial opinion.

Even if they couldn't necessarily afford to build strong brands via advertising, they were worthy of a follow on some social media channels & perhaps an email subscription. And the best niche editorial remains worthy of a direct visit:

Everything about Techmeme and its lingering success seems to defy the contemporary wisdom of building a popular website. It publishes zero original reporting and is not a social network. It doesn’t have a mobile app or a newsletter or even much of a social presence beyond its Twitter account, which posts dry commodity news with zero flair for clickability.

As a work around to the Panda hits, sites like eHow are now becoming collections of niche-focused sites (Cuteness.com, Techwalla.com, Sapling.com, Leaf.tv, etc will join Livestrong.com & eHow.com). It appears to be working so far...

...but they may only be 1 Panda update away from finding out the new model isn't sustainable either.

About.com has done the same thing (TheSpruce.com, Verywell.com, Lifewire.com, TheBalance.com). Hundreds of millions of Dollars are riding on the hope that as the algorithms keep getting more granular they won't discover moving the content to niche brands wasn't enough.

As content moves around search engines with billions of Dollars in revenue can recalibrate rankings for each page & adjust rankings based on user experience. Did an influential "how to" guide become irrelevant after a software or hardware update? If so, they can see it didn't solve the user's problem and rank a more recent document which reflects the current software or hardware. Is a problem easy to solve with a short snippet of content? If so, that can get scraped into the search results.

Web directories which are built around sites rather than pages have no chance of competing against the billions of Dollars of monthly search ads & the full cycle user tracking search companies like Google & Bing can do with their integrated search engines, ad networks, web browsers & operating systems.

Arguably in most cases the idea of neutral-based publishing no longer works on the modern web. The shill gets exclusive stories. The political polemic gets automatic retweets from those who identify. The content which lacks agenda probably lacks the economics to pay for ads & buy distribution unless people can tell the creator loves what they do so much it influences them enough to repeatedly visit & perhaps pay for access.

New gTLDs are Like Used Cars

There may be a couple exceptions which prove the rule, but new TLDs are generally an awful investment for everyone except the registry operator.

Here is the short version...

And the long version...

Diminishing Returns

About a half-decade ago I wrote about how Google devalued domain names from an SEO perspective & there have been a number of leading "category killer" domains which have repeatedly been recycled from startup to acquisition to shut down to PPC park page to buy now for this once in a lifetime opportunity in an endless water cycle.

The central web platforms are becoming ad heavy, which in turn decreases the reach of anything which is not an advertisement. For the most valuable concepts / markets / keywords ads eat up the entire interface for the first screen full of results. Key markets like hotels might get a second round of vertical ads to further displace the concept of organic results.

Proprietary, Closed-Ecosystem Roach Motels

The tech monopolies can only make so much money by stuffing ads onto their own platform. To keep increasing their take they need to increase the types, varieties & formats of media they host and control & keep the attention on their platform.

Both Google & Facebook are promoting scams where they feed on desperate publishers & suck a copy of the publisher's content into being hosted by the tech monopoly platform de jour & sprinkle a share of the revenues back to the content sources.

They may even pay a bit upfront for new content formats, but then after the market is primed the deal shifts to where (once again) almost nobody other than the tech monopoly platform wins.

The attempt to "own" the web & never let users go is so extreme both companies will make up bogus statistics to promote their proprietary / fake open / actually closed standards.

If you ignore how Google's AMP double, triple, or quadruple counts visitors in Google Analytics the visit numbers look appealing.

But the flip side of those fake metrics is actual revenues do not flow.

Facebook has the same sort of issues, with frequently needing to restate various metrics while partners fly blind.

These companies are restructuring society & the race to the bottom to try to make the numbers work in an increasingly unstable & parasitic set of platform choices is destroying adjacent markets:

Have you tried Angry Birds lately? It’s a swamp of dark patterns. All extractive logic meant to trick you into another in-app payment. It’s the perfect example of what happens when product managers have to squeeze ever-more-growth out of ever-less-fertile lands to hit their targets year after year. ... back to the incentives. It’s not just those infused by venture capital timelines and return requirements, but also the likes of tax incentives favoring capital gains over income. ... that’s the truly insidious part of the tech lords solution to everything. This fantasy that they will be greeted as liberators. When the new boss is really a lot like the old boss, except the big stick is replaced with the big algorithm. Depersonalizing all punishment but doling it out just the same. ... this new world order is being driven by a tiny cabal of monopolies. So commercial dissent is near impossible. ... competition is for the little people. Pitting one individual contractor against another in a race to the bottom. Hoarding all the bargaining power at the top. Disparaging any attempts against those at the bottom to organize with unions or otherwise.

To be a success on the attention platforms you have to push toward the edges. But as you become successful you become a target.

And the dehumanized "algorithm" is not above politics & public relations.

Pewdiepie is the biggest success story on the YouTube platform. When he made a video showing some of the absurd aspects of Fiverr it led to a WSJ investigation which "uncovered" a pattern of anti-semitism. And yet one of the reporters who worked on that story wrote far more offensive and anti-semetic tweets. The hypocrisy of the hit job didn't matter. They still were able to go after Pewdiepie's ad relationships to cut him off from Disney's Maker Studios & the premium tier of YouTube ads.

The fact that he is an individual with broad reach means he'll still be fine economically, but many other publishers would quickly end up in a death spiral from the above sequence.

If it can happen to a leading player in a closed ecosystem then the risk to smaller players is even greater.

In some emerging markets Facebook effectively *is* the Internet.

The Decline of Exact Match Domains

Domains have been so devalued (from an SEO perspective) that some names like PaydayLoans.net sell for about $3,000 at auction.

$3,000 can sound like a lot to someone with no money, but names like that were going for 6 figures at their peak.

Professional domain sellers participate in the domain auctions on sites like NameJet & SnapNames. Big keywords like [payday loans] in core trusted extensions are not missed. So if the 98% decline in price were an anomaly, at least one of them would have bid more in that auction.

Why did exact match domains fall so hard? In part because Google shifted from scoring the web based on links to considering things like brand awareness in rankings. And it is very hard to run a large brand-oriented ad campaign promoting a generically descriptive domain name. Sure there are a few exceptions like Cars.com & Hotels.com, but if you watch much TV you'll see a lot more ads associated with businesses that are not built on generically descriptive domain names.

Not all domains have fallen quite that hard in price, but the more into the tail you go the less the domain acts as a memorable differentiator. If the barrier to entry increases, then the justification for spending a lot on a domain name as part of a go to market strategy makes less sense.

Brandable Names Also Lost Value

Arguably EMDs have lost more value than brandable domain names, but even brandable names have sharply slid.

If you go back a decade or two tech startups would secure their name (say Snap.com or Monster.com or such) & then try to build a business on it.

But in the current marketplace with there being many paths to market, some startups don't even have a domain name at launch, but begin as iPhone or Android apps.

Now people try to create success on a good enough, but cheap domain name & then as success comes they buy a better domain name.

Jelly was recently acquired by Pinterest. Rather than buying jelly.com they were still using AskJelly.com for their core site & Jelly.co for their blog.

As long as domain redirects work, there's no reason to spend heavily on a domain name for a highly speculative new project.

Rather than spending 6 figures on a domain name & then seeing if there is market fit, it is far more common to launch a site on something like getapp.com, joinapp.com, app.io, app.co, businessnameapp.com, etc.

This in turn means that rather than 10,000s of startups all chasing their core .com domain name off the start, people test whatever is good enough & priced close to $10. Then only after they are successful do they try to upgrade to better, more memorable & far more expensive domain names.

Money isn't spent on the domain names until the project has already shown market fit.

One in a thousand startups spending $1 million is less than one in three startups spending $100,000.

New TLDs Undifferentiated, Risky & Overpriced

No Actual Marketing Being Done

Some of the companies which are registries for new TLDs talk up investing in marketing & differentiation for the new TLDs, but very few of them are doing much on the marketing front.

You may see their banner ads on domainer blogs & they may even pay for placement with some of the registries, but there isn't much going on in terms of cultivating a stable ecosystem.

When Google or Facebook try to enter & dominate a new vertical, the end destination may be extractive rent seeking by a monopoly BUT off the start they are at least willing to shoulder some of the risk & cost upfront to try to build awareness.

Where are the domain registries who have built successful new businesses on some of their new TLDs? Where are the subsidies offered to key talent to help drive awareness & promote the new strings?

As far as I know, none of that stuff exists.

In fact, what is prevalent is the exact opposite.

Greed-Based Anti-Marketing

So many of them are short sighted greed-based plays that they do the exact opposite of building an ecosystem ... they hold back any domain which potentially might not be complete garbage so they can juice it for a premium ask price in the 10s of thousands of dollars.

While searching on GoDaddy Auctions for a client project I have seen new TLDs like .link listed for sale for MORE THAN the asking price of similar .org names.

If those prices had any sort of legitimate foundation then the person asking $30,000 for a .link would have bulk bought all the equivalent .net and .org names which are listed for cheaper prices.

But the prices are based on fantasy & almost nobody is dumb enough to pay those sorts of prices.

Anyone dumb enough to pay that would be better off buying their own registry rather than a single name.

The holding back of names is the exact opposite of savvy marketing investment. It means there's no reason to use the new TLD if you either have to pay through the nose or use a really crappy name nobody will remember.

I didn’t buy more than 15 of Uniregistry’s domains because all names were reserved in the first place and I didn’t feel like buying 2nd tier domains ... Domainers were angry when the first 2 Uniregistry’s New gTLDs (.sexy and .tattoo) came out and all remotely good names were reserved despite Frank saying that Uniregistry would not reserve any domains.

Who defeats the race to the bottom aspects of the web by starting off from a "we only sell shit" standpoint?

Nobody.

And that's why these new TLDs are a zero.

Defaults Have Value

Many online verticals are driven by winner take most monopoly economics. There's a clear dominant leader in each of these core markets: social, search, short-form video, long-form video, e-commerce, auctions, real estate, job search, classifieds, etc. Some other core markets have consolidated down to 3 or 4 core players who among them own about 50 different brands that attack different parts of the market.

Almost all the category leading businesses which dominate aggregate usage are on .com domains.

Contrast the lack of marketing for new TLDs with all the marketing one sees for the .com domain name.

Local country code domain names & .com are not going anywhere. And both .org and .net are widely used & unlikely to face extreme price increases.

Hosing The Masses...

A decade ago domainers were frustrated Verisign increased the price of .com domains in ~ 5% increments:

Every mom, every pop, every company that holds a domain name had no say in the matter. ICANN basically said to Verisign: "We agree to let you hose the masses if you stop suing us".

I don't necessarily mind paying more for domains so much as I mind the money going to a monopolistic regulator which has historically had little regard for the registrants/registrars it should be serving

Those 5% or 10% shifts were considered "hosing the masses."

Imagine what sort of blowback PIR would get from influential charities if they tried to increase the price of .org domains 30-fold overnight. It would be such a public relations disaster it would never be considered.

Domain registries are not particularly expensive to run. A person who has a number of them can run each of them for less than the cost of a full time employee - say $25,000 to $50,00 per year.

And yet, the very people who complained about Verisign's benign price increases, monopolistic abuses & rent extraction are now pushing massive price hikes:

.Hosting and .juegos are going up from about $10-$20 retail to about $300. Other domains will also see price increases.
...
Here's the thing with new TLD pricing: registry operators can increase prices as much as they want with just six months' notice.
...
in its applications, Uniregistry said it planned to enter into a contractual agreement to not increase its prices for five years.

Why would anyone want to build a commercial enterprise (or anything they care about) on such a shoddy foundation?

If a person promises...

  • no hold backs of premium domains, then reserves 10s of thousands of domains
  • no price hikes for 5 years, then hikes prices
  • the eventual price hikes being inline with inflation, then hikes prices 3,000%

That's 3 strikes and the batter is out.

Doing the Math

The claim the new TLDs need more revenues to exist are untrue. Running an extension costs maybe $50,000 per year. If a registry operator wanted to build a vibrant & stable ecosystem the first step would be dumping the concept of premium domains to encourage wide usage & adoption.

There are hundreds of these new TLD extensions and almost none of them can be trusted to be a wise investment when compared against similar names in established extensions like .com, .net, .org & CCTLDs like .co.uk or .fr.

There's no renewal price protection & there's no need, especially as secondary market prices on the core TLDs have sharply come down.

Domain Pricing Trends

Aggregate stats are somewhat hard to come by as many deals are not reported publicly & many sites which aggregate sales data also list minimum prices.

However domains have lost value for many reasons

  • declining SEO-related value due to the search results becoming over-run with ads (Google keeps increasing their ad clicks 20% to 30% year over year)
  • broad market consolidation in key markets like travel, ecommerce, search & social
    • Google & Facebook are eating OVER 100% of online advertising growth - the rest of industry is shrinking in aggregate
    • are there any major news sites which haven't struggled to monetize mobile?
    • there is a reason there are few great indy blogs compared to a decade ago
  • rising technical costs in implementing independent websites (responsive design, HTTPS, AMP, etc.) "Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don't like standardization ... it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction" - Gabe Newell
  • harder to break into markets with brand-biased relevancy algorithms (increased chunk size of competition)
  • less value in trying to build a brand on a generic name, which struggles to rank in a landscape of brand-biased algorithms (inability to differentiate while being generically descriptive)
  • decline in PPC park page ad revenues
    • for many years Yahoo! hid the deterioration in their core business by relying heavily on partners for ad click volumes, but after they switched to leveraging Bing search, Microsoft was far more interested with click quality vs click quantity
    • absent the competitive bid from Yahoo!, Google drastically reduced partner payouts
    • most web browsers have replaced web address bars with dual function search boxes, drastically reducing direct navigation traffic

All the above are the mechanics of "why" prices have been dropping, but it is also worth noting many of the leading portfolios have been sold.

If the domain aftermarket is as vibrant as some people claim, there's no way the Marchex portfolio of 200,000+ domains would have sold for only $28.1 million a couple years ago.

RegistrarStats shows .com registrations have stopped growing & other extensions like .net, .org, .biz & .info are now shrinking.

Both aftermarket domain prices & the pool of registered domains on established gTLDs are dropping.

I know I've dropped hundreds & hundreds of domains over the past year. That might be due to my cynical views of the market, but I did hold many names for a decade or more.

As barrier to entry increases, many of the legacy domains which could have one day been worth developing have lost much of their value.

And the picked over new TLDs are an even worse investment due to the near infinite downside potential of price hikes, registries outright folding, etc.

Most of the registration graphs for new TLDs are far uglier than the one posted above. China will not save the new gTLDs.

Into this face of declining value there is a rush of oversupply WITH irrational above-market pricing. And then the registries which spend next to nothing on marketing can't understand why their great new namespaces went nowhere.

As much as I cringe at .biz & .info, I'd prefer either of them over just about any new TLD.

Any baggage they may carry is less than the risk of going with an unproven new extension without any protections whatsoever.

Losing Faith in the Zimbabwe Dollar

Who really loses is anyone who read what these domain registry operators wrote & trusted them.

Uniregistry does not believe that registry fees should rise when the costs of other technology services have uniformly trended downward, simply because a registry operator believes it can extract higher profit from its base of registrants.

How does one justify a 3000% price hike after stating "Our prices are fixed and only indexed to inflation after 5 years."

Are they pricing these names in Zimbabwe Dollars? Or did they just change their minds in a way that hurt anyone who trusted them & invested in their ecosystem?

Frank Schilling warned about the dangers of lifting price controls

The combination of "presumptive renewal" and the "lifting of price controls on registry services" is incredibly dangerous.
Imagine buying a home, taking on a large mortgage, remodeling, moving in, only to be informed 6 months later that your property taxes will go up 10,000% with no better services offered by local government. The government doesn't care if you can't pay your tax/mortgage because they don't really want you to pay your tax… they want you to abandon your home so they can take your property and resell it to a higher payer for more money, pocketing the difference themselves, leaving you with nothing.

This agreement as written leaves the door open to exactly that type of scenario

He didn't believe the practice to be poor.

Rather he felt he would have been made poorer, unless he was the person doing it:

It would be the mother of all Internet tragedies and a crippling blow to ICANN’s relevance if millions of pioneering registrants were taxed out of their internet homes as a result of the greed of one registry and the benign neglect, apathy or tacit support of its master.

It is a highly nuanced position.

Update: Shortly after the sharp pricing increases were announced GoDaddy dropped Uniregistry domain names. Tucows later followed suit in dropping the new TLDs with exponential price increases.

Update 2: Many new TLDs exist primarily to arbitrage existing brands & monetized defensive trademarks. With that in mind, trademark holders have been more aggressive with trying to push trademark protections on the new TLDs even for nebulous misspellings. The EFF has recommended avoiding new gTLDs.

you'll want to think twice about registering in any of the newer global top-level domains (gTLDs), which provide brand owners access to a privately-run Trademark Clearinghouse that gives them veto powers that go far beyond those they would receive under the trademark law of the United States or those of most other countries.

Disappearing Clicks

When Compete.com launched with credits-based pricing well over a decade ago I felt like a kid in a candy store using their competitive research tool. Recently Compete.com announced they were shutting down, but many of the link analysis & competitive research tools which leverage scraping have also started licensing clickstream data from sources like Clickstre.am & JumpShot.

These sorts of features add a lot of value to traditional keyword tools, as they can highlight the CTR on ads vs organic results & show if people click on anything after they search for a particular term.

When I read Ahref's recent blog post about integrating clickstream data I got that same kid in a candy store feeling I got when I first used Compete. Some highlights...

  • their keyword database contains over 3 billion keywords
  • they offer localized search volumes
  • searches with clicks vs searches without clicks
  • clicks per search
  • repeat searches metric
  • organic vs ad clicks

As an example of how the searches with clicks feature is helpful, consider Google's recently announced RGB conversion feature

In that image you can see how the feature displaces the result set.

What's cool about the Ahrefs feature is you can also see what sort of impact that feature has on click volumes.

After 1 month, 20% of the searches for [RGB to HEX] no longer had any clicks to an external website.

On the second month it looks like the "no click" rate was closer to 7%, so perhaps some of the initial additional search volume was driven by people searching for the related keywords after blogs covered the new feature.

But the nice thing about the feature is you can see how the click rate changes over time as the feature evolves.

In some areas like weather Google ends up dominating most the user behavior with their in-SERP feature.

About half of all weather keyword searches do not click on any listings. And then of those which do click, about 20% of people click on an ad.

That means the potential organic click volume for that keyword is only about 40% of the initial search volume estimates.

Search results keep getting more interactive features & some of them appear to be click black holes. Literally...

Here is a new item comparison feature table.

As more of the value chain appears in the search results, more of the value chain which formerly appeared on websites disappears. This is true from a wide range of aspects including ad sales, content hosting, ad blocking & brand value.

General Ad Sales

No click into the publisher's site means no ad revenue for the publisher. Voice search will only accelerate the declines seen from mobile, which shifted user attention away from large screens with many listings to smaller screens with fewer listings & a far higher ad ratio in the search results.

Facebook Instant Articles & Google AMP

Google has already pushed hard to make hotel searches a pay-to-play vertical & yet some publishers are adopting AMP formatting in that vertical. Google is also forcing AMP down publisher's throats in other verticals like recipes.

If central ad networks host your content then they get better user data for your content than you do as a publisher.

User Tracking, in Aggregate

Increased user tracking depresses premium ad sales & moves value from niche players to broad networks "Whether it’s a third party like Facebook or Google tracking across the web or an ISP leveraging its distribution arm, this is outside of consumer expectations. Importantly to the digital media industry, it also devalues the context and relationship of consumer trust which drives the businesses of premium publishers."

Ad Blocking

Some large sites like Google or Facebook either pay ad blockers or technically work around them within their apps. By funding ad blockers exempting the search result page from having their ads blocked, Google is ultimately defunding competing ad networks.

Brand Value

As search results get noisier & more ad heavy, Google is trying to coerce brands into re-buying their pre-existing brand equity. These efforts are effective, as on some branded & navigational searches over half the click volume goes to the ads. Here are a few examples from Ahrefs. The orange bar shows what percent of the SERP clicks are on ads.

And the above doesn't even account for...

  • Google Maps being an ad-heavy search engine.
  • the Google Trips app which prevent searches from happening on Google.
  • The mid-tail of travel search on mobile where Google does away with the concept of organic search results.
  • Direct booking features complementing traditional AdWords ads & hotel price ads.
  • Google buying ITA Software to dominate flight search. Notice the most popular term is Google's branded term & for the generic term [flights] 72% of people don't click on any external site while 37% of the remaining 28% of searches click on an AdWords ad.

    And almost everyone else in that industry is stuck licensing flight data from Google, as they own ITA Software.

So Google is eating the generic terms, the brand terms, and the search query pool more broadly.

There's a reason Google's online travel business is over twice the size of anyone else & has their biggest advertisers seeking more sustainable & more legitimate alternatives.

The biggest travel players are accustomed to Google’s moves and trying their best to adjust and work around them. Missing from this story is the fact that Google’s latest moves are making it nearly impossible for all but the smallest number of consumer travel startups to succeed. — Dennis Schaal

And some of the aggressive stuff carries over into other lines of business outside of travel. Google is also testing large image extensions on AdWords ads on cell phones that don't leave room for even a second AdWords listing on the screen. When one invests in brand they have to start thinking about how much they are willing to pay Google as an ongoing tithing for their success. Look at the following ads where a competitor bidding on a competing brand drives the brand owner's official site below the fold.

Google is willing to make their results worse (to the point they would consider something that looked like their search result page as an ad-heavy doorway redirect page of spam if hosted by anyone other than themselves) in order to monetize navigational searches.

What's more, you can't just opt out & ignore. When brands make agreements to not cross-bid Google has the FTC sue them.

On some high end fashion brands Google lists shopping ads which lead to third party sellers who sell used goods. Quite often counterfeits will also be in the mix. When the counterfeits are destroyed in the first wash, it is the brand owner who was took to the cleaners.

But there's a solution to that... they can pay Google ever-increasing protection.

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.

Penguin 4.0 Update

On Friday Google's Gary Illyes announced Penguin 4.0 was now live.

Key points highlighted in their post are:

  • Penguin is a part of their core ranking algorithm
  • Penguin is now real-time, rather than something which periodically refreshes
  • Penguin has shifted from being a sitewide negative ranking factor to a more granular factor

Things not mentioned in the post

  • if it has been tested extensively over the past month
  • if the algorithm is just now rolling out or if it is already done rolling out
  • if the launch of a new version of Penguin rolled into the core ranking algorithm means old sites hit by the older versions of Penguin have recovered or will recover anytime soon

Since the update was announced, the search results have become more stable.

They still may be testing out fine tuning the filters a bit...

...but what exists now is likely to be what sticks for an extended period of time.

Penguin Algorithm Update History

  • Penguin 1: April 24, 2012
  • Penguin 2: May 26, 2012
  • Penguin 3: October 5, 2012
  • Penguin 4: May 22, 2013 (AKA: Penguin 2.0)
  • Penguin 5: October 4, 2013 (AKA Penguin 2.1)
  • Penguin 6: rolling update which began on October 17, 2014 (AKA Penguin 3.0)
  • Penguin 7: September 23, 2016 (AKA Penguin 4.0)

Now that Penguin is baked into Google's core ranking algorithms, no more Penguin updates will be announced. Panda updates stopped being announced last year. Instead we now get unnamed "quality" updates.

Volatility Over the Long Holiday Weekend

Earlier in the month many SEOs saw significant volatility in the search results, beginning ahead of Labor Day weekend with a local search update. The algorithm update observations were dismissed as normal fluctuations in spite of the search results being more volatile than they have been in over 4 years.

There are many reasons for search engineers to want to roll out algorithm updates (or at least test new algorithms) before a long holiday weekend:

  • no media coverage: few journalists on the job & a lack of expectation that the PR team will answer any questions. no official word beyond rumors from self-promotional marketers = no story
  • many SEOs outside of work: few are watching as the algorithms tip their cards.
  • declining search volumes: long holiday weekends generally have less search volume associated with them. Thus anyone who is aggressively investing in SEO may wonder if their site was hit, even if it wasn't.
    The communications conflicts this causes between in-house SEOs and their bosses, as well as between SEO companies and their clients both makes the job of the SEO more miserable and makes the client more likely to pull back on investment, while ensuring the SEO has family issues back home as work ruins their vacation.
  • fresh users: as people travel their search usage changes, thus they have fresh sets of eyes & are doing somewhat different types of searches. This in turn makes their search usage data more dynamic and useful as a feedback mechanism on any changes made to the underlying search relevancy algorithm or search result interface.

Algo Flux Testing Tools

Just about any of the algorithm volatility tools showed far more significant shift earlier in this month than over the past few days.

Take your pick: Mozcast, RankRanger, SERPmetrics, Algaroo, Ayima Pulse, AWR, Accuranker, SERP Watch & the results came out something like this graph from Rank Ranger:

One issue with looking at any of the indexes is the rank shifts tend to be far more dramatic as you move away from the top 3 or 4 search results, so the algorithm volatility scores are much higher than the actual shifts in search traffic (the least volatile rankings are also the ones with the most usage data & ranking signals associated with them, so the top results for those terms tend to be quite stable outside of verticals like news).

You can use AWR's flux tracker to see how volatility is higher across the top 20 or top 50 results than it is across the top 10 results.

Example Ranking Shifts

I shut down our membership site in April & spend most of my time reading books & news to figure out what's next after search, but a couple legacy clients I am winding down working with still have me tracking a few keywords & one of the terms saw a lot of smaller sites (in terms of brand awareness) repeatedly slide and recover over the past month.

Notice how a number of sites would spike down on the same day & then back up. And then the pattern would repeat.

As a comparison, here is that chart over the past 3 months.

Notice the big ranking moves which became common over the past month were not common the 2 months prior.

Negative SEO Was Real

There is a weird sect of alleged SEOs which believes Google is omniscient, algorithmic false positives are largely a myth, AND negative SEO was never a real thing.

As it turns out, negative SEO was real, which likely played a part in Google taking years to roll out this Penguin update AND changing how they process Penguin from a sitewide negative factor to something more granular.

Update != Penalty Recovery

Part of the reason many people think there was no Penguin update or responded to the update with "that's it?" is because few sites which were hit in the past recovered relative to the number of sites which ranked well until recently just got clipped by this algorithm update.

When Google updates algorithms or refreshes data it does not mean sites which were previously penalized will immediately rank again.

Some penalties (absent direct Google investment or nasty public relations blowback for Google) require a set amount of time to pass before recovery is even possible.

Google has no incentive to allow a broad-based set of penalty recoveries on the same day they announce a new "better than ever" spam fighting algorithm.

They'll let some time base before the penalized sites can recover.

Further, many of the sites which were hit years ago & remain penalized have been so defunded for so long that they've accumulated other penalties due to things like tightening anchor text filters, poor user experience metrics, ad heavy layouts, link rot & neglect.

What to do?

So here are some of the obvious algorithmic holes left by the new Penguin approach...

  • only kidding
  • not sure that would even be a valid mindset in the current market
  • hell, the whole ecosystem is built on quicksand

The trite advice is to make quality content, focus on the user, and build a strong brand.

But you can do all of those well enough that you change the political landscape yet still lose money.

Google & Facebook are in a cold war, competing to see who can kill the open web faster, using each other as justification for their own predation.

Even some of the top brands in big money verticals which were known as the canonical examples of SEO success stories are seeing revenue hits and getting squeezed out of the search ecosystem.

And that is without getting hit by a penalty.

It is getting harder to win in search period.

And it is getting almost impossible to win in search by focusing on search as an isolated channel.

Efforts and investments in chasing the algorithms in isolation are getting less viable by the day.

Anyone operating at scale chasing SEO with automation is likely to step into a trap.

When it happens, that player better have some serious savings or some non-Google revenues, because even with "instant" algorithm updates you can go months or years on reduced revenues waiting for an update.

And if the bulk of your marketing spend while penalized is spent on undoing past marketing spend (rather than building awareness in other channels outside of search) you can almost guarantee that business is dead.

"If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits." - Matt Cutts

Free Google AdWords Keyword Suggestion Tool Alternative

Google recently made it much harder to receive accurate keyword data from the AdWords keyword tool.

They have not only grouped similar terms, but then they broadened out the data ranges to absurdly wide ranges like 10,000 to 100,000 searches a month. Only active AdWords advertisers receive (somewhat?) decent keyword data. And even with that, there are limitations. Try to view too many terms and you get:

"You’ve reached the maximum number of page views for this day. This page now shows ranges for search volumes. For a more detailed view, check back in 24 hours."

Jennifer Slegg shared a quote from an AdWords advertiser who spoke with a representative:

"I have just spoken to a customer service manger from the Australia support help desk. They have advised me that there must be continuous activity in your google ad-words campaign (clicks and campaigns running) for a minimum of 3-4 months continuous in order to gain focused keyword results. If you are seeing a range 10-100 or 100-1k or 1k -10k its likely your adwords account does not have an active campaign or has not had continuous campaigns or clicks."

So you not only need to be an advertiser, but you need to stay active for a quarter-year to a third of a year to get decent data.

Part of the sales pitch of AdWords/PPC was that you can see performance data right away, whereas SEO investments can take months or years to back out.

But with Google outright hiding keyword data even from active advertisers, it is probably easier and more productive for those advertisers to start elsewhere.

There are many other keyword data providers (Wordtracker, SEMrush, Wordze, Spyfu, KeywordSpy, Keyword Discovery, Moz, Compete.com, SimilarWeb, Xedant, Ubersuggest, KeywordTool.io, etc.) And there are newer entrants like the Keyword Keg Firefox extension & the brilliantly named KeywordShitter).

In light of Google's push to help make the web more closed-off & further tilt the web away from the interests of searchers toward the interest of big advertisers*, we decided to do the opposite & recently upgraded our keyword tool to add the following features...

  • expanded the results per search to 500
  • we added negative match and modified broad match to the keyword export spreadsheet (along with already having phrase, broad & exact match)

Our keyword tool lists estimated search volumes, bid prices, cross links to SERPs, etc. Using it does require free account registration to use, but it is a one-time registration and the tool is free. And we don't collect phone numbers, hard sell over the phone, etc. We even shut down our paid members area, so you are not likely to receive any marketing messages from us anytime soon.

Export is lightning quick AND, more importantly, we have a panda in our logo!

Here is what the web interface looks like

And here is an screenshot of data in Excel with the various keyword match types

If the tool looks like it is getting decent usage, we may upgrade it further to refresh the data more frequently, consider adding more languages, add a few more reference links to related niche sites in the footer cross-reference section, and maybe add a few other features.

"Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them."Ha-Joon Chang

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.
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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?

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