On Google and MetaFilter

Posted by: Matt Saler

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.


If you run a Facebook page for yourself or your business and you take the time to monitor the analytics, you’ve probably noticed a trend: the reach of your posts has been heading downward. Your efforts on Facebook are getting back less bang for your buck.

Maybe you’ve recently received a notice from Facebook, which offered to sell you ads to increase your reach. So rather than reach people who chose to Like your page and opted in to see your content in their News Feeds, Facebook is offering you the chance to pay for what you got for free before.

Any way you look at it, this is a classic “moving the goal posts” move by Facebook. Admittedly, they have very real audience size considerations: millions of businesses have Pages in their system, trying to reach over a billion users. Not all of those businesses can get 100% reach across all of their followers’ News Feeds without crowding out more personal connections. That’s a real problem.

But there is also this reality: Facebook is an ad-driven company that makes its money selling ads based on information users feed into the system. Facebook is not in business to help you if helping you costs them. It makes business sense for them to charge other businesses for access to a wider user base, especially after years of better access created a dependency. It’s their pipes you’re using, right?

Facebook isn’t the only platform that is changing the rules of the game. All third party tools are now or will be doing this. Like Facebook, they are not in business for you.

This is only a real problem if you’ve developed too much of a dependency on these services.

A parallel in the real world might be this: your industry has a trade show every year that everybody goes to. Vendors and customers flock to it. It’s a huge competition for eyeballs and if you handle your presence there right, your sales do really well as a result.

If you were to consider that your only chance to reach your customers or maintain sales, however, you would be missing out on opportunities the rest of the year. And if the trade show ever changes the bar for entry, your business would suffer.

It’s the same with Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any of the other social media platforms. If you’re relying too much on them, you make yourself vulnerable to business decision they make, rather than dependent on decisions you make.

To carry the illustration forward, you can go to multiple trade shows or use multiple third party platforms. But you can’t forego the tradition sales and marketing techniques, and stop hitting the pavement.  That’s where the meat is. That’s where the longevity and stability of your business lies.

In the web sphere, this means putting the focus on your own website and on your own publishing. Use those other tools, but don’t rely on them. Make your website great and use the full array of tools available to you to increase the reach of your business through platforms you own.

Facebook’s audience size problem can feel like it cuts both ways. At over a billion users, it’s easy to think they’ve got the whole internet covered. And to be sure, that’s a conversation you want to be a part of. It’s just not the only conversation. It can be intimidating to be faced with getting lost in the wider ocean of the internet with a focus on your own, owned platforms,

But as long as you go after your customers like you always used to, you’ll be okay.

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