On Google and MetaFilter

Posted by: Matt Saler

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Last month, Matt Haughey of MetaFilter published a piece on Medium about the status of one of the true stalwarts of the internet:

MetaFilter is the little weblog that could, established in 1999 as one of the first community blogs. Over its fifteen year history it has expanded from a place to discuss interesting things on the web to include Ask MetaFilter as a community question and answer (Q&A) site, along with more subsections for things like music by members, completed projects by membersmeetups among members, and most recently TV and movies.

While MetaFilter is relatively small (only about 62,000 have paid the one-time $5 for an account to date and 12,000-15,000 of those members come back to interact with the site every day), we have a great group of members, and I think we consistently have some of the best discussion on the web, with the sites attracting over 80 million readers last year. Our commenters are literate and thoughtful, and our site is watched around the clock by a staff of moderators. Despite the site’s modest stature its influence makes waves in the larger world (like mentions on popular TV shows: Tremé andMythbusters).

Unfortunately in the last couple years we have seen our Google ranking fall precipitously for unexplained reasons, and the corresponding drop in ad revenue means that the future of the site has come into question.

Haughey goes on to explain the situation at length.

His story is alarming for a number of reasons. MetaFilter is highly-regarded, with a reputation as a good citizen on the internet and has a community that is generally one of the best. The realities Haughey and his staff now face this are brutal and should have been avoidable.

However, the nature of Google in 2014 is such that determining where MetaFilter went wrong (or even if they went wrong) is difficult.

What we do know is that, as the company has grown over the years, Google has become increasingly opaque and monolithic. It has also become seemingly hostile to some of the principles it was originally known for. The famous but informal Google motto  “Don’t be evil,” has become a punchline to some observers, particularly after the sudden shuttering of Google Reader and the intrusive full-court press on Google+. This MetaFilter story only adds to the narrative of a Google that is losing sight of the open internet, where the cream rises to the top.

At the surface, the MetaFilter situation is related to positive changes Google has made to their algorithm aimed at reducing instances of low-quality content and serving up high-quality content. However, if you do a Google search today, you still get content farm results and low-quality answers from sites like Ask Yahoo! If this were a case of MetaFilter losing out to quality competition, or utilizing unsavory SEO techniques Google is flagging, it wouldn’t be so disturbing—it would be expected. As it is, you have MetaFilter losing out for reasons that remain opaque to the outside.

Here you have an extreme case that offers a harsh lesson: you can do all of the right things and still lose out if you are too dependent on a third party company for your success. It’s true with Facebook and other social media sites, and it’s true with Google too.

MetaFilter, for example, is now pivoting to another, less ad-dependent business model, but it seems they should have done so earlier as a safeguard against the shifting sands of Google’s algorithm.

Our guidelines for customers remain what they were before: keep your SEO efforts clean and produce good content while striving to engage  your users in a meaningful and lasting way. Just remember that what happened to MetaFilter underlines the importance of the engagement component. Search results can change, but a proper web strategy can minimize the damage to your business when they do.

For some more background on the story, check out this episode of the TLDR podcast.

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