Given the current dialog surrounding the Google Panda update this week, I thought I would republish this post I wrote back in 2011ish. A lot has changed since then, like BuySellAds doing a fantastic job of helping out with our advertising. I would like to point out that I’ve been really happy with BSA’s attempts at helping us with our ad problems. Roger Byrne over at BSA has been a godsend. Sadly, I didn’t know him at the time I was writing this post.
The general premise of the post is important to revisit, however.
Google has us all by the balls, and even now — two years later — no one has done anything to stop it. It just keeps getting worse
I originally published this post on a personal blog that’s no longer online, but it’s still on Tumblr. You can follow this link for proof of when I wrote this, should you not believe me.
There’s been a lot going on over at Macgasm the last couple of months. To catch you up rather quickly, we moved from MediaTemple to Rackspace, Apache to Nginx and back to Apache, and we’ve gotten our asses handed to us by Google with their Panda change, or so we think.
Most of these changes resulted in one or two major downtime problems, and the other resulted in a pretty serious cut to our bottom line. All of these things had me seriously wondering about writing online for a living, and more importantly the control a search engine has over your earning power, as well as the extent that so many of us rely on Google for our web presence.
We’ve always done very little PR with Macgasm, our philosophy has always been that people will find us if they want to find us, and up until about a year ago that served our visions particularly well. It was during the holiday season of 2009 that everything changed, and I began to realize that I could probably make a decent living writing about technology online. I’ve never been the type to dream about the high-life, but during the holidays of that year it started to look like a meagre and reasonable living could be made from my endeavour into writing about Apple. What changed at that point was pretty simple — Google News.
Google News has been around for a pretty long time at that point, so it’s existence was neither new to me, nor all that innovative at the time, but our inclusion in the listings changed everything. Let’s go back a little bit for some backstory.
Our quick, but not so short advertising history
Advertising on Macgasm.net has always been a bi-polar affair for me. It took me a long time (2yrs) before I even considered placing advertisements on the website. Our first foray into advertising was Google Adsense, but that lasted all of a week when I realized I made a dollar all week long. We then went back to disabling the ads, then eventually, about a year later, I went to BuySellAds.
BuySellAds was great in theory, but like everything ad-related on the internet, making a living from advertisers online was solely linked to our traffic. This is where we entered into what seemed like a never ending chicken and egg scenario for the website. In order to spend more time on the website we had to write more, and in order to write more, the website had to pay out more. The circle began, eventually we broke the cycle and traffic began growing pretty quickly, by our original standards. We went from about 1500 page views a month to about 50,000 in no time at all. Things looked bright for traffic growth, and more importantly for the bottom line.
At the time BuySellAds wasn’t doing a very good job for us. We took a set it and forget it mentality, hoping people would magically find us online. They didn’t, and a majority of our ad inventory went unsold. Looking back, based on our traffic, I’m not all that surprised that inventory went unsold, but at the time, it was pretty heart-breaking.
Here we were, trying to make money with the website, build a community, and somehow cover all the news that needed covering without sacrificing our livelihoods at the day job. Then Google News happened.
Back to the story at hand…
I remember it quite vividly because it was a pretty exciting moment. I was out to dinner with friends I haven’t seen in years (one lived and still lives in SF, the other in Ireland), after watching a particularly crappy movie. During a brief lull in the catching up they both went to the washroom. I opened my iPhone, and checked my email. I had a new unread message from Tamar Weinberg, letting me know that she managed to convince Google to add us to Google News. Just like that we were a semi-legitimate news source for a very large number of people. Man, do I still owe her many thanks for that one (Tamar, if you’re reading this, I owe you large).
What followed after our inclusion into Google News was month after month of pretty crazy growth. Every single month our traffic would surpass the previous month’s traffic. We went from about 50,000 page views per month to over 500,000 page views per month in no time at all. Now, let me say that the growth wasn’t solely based on Google News traffic. We did a lot of stuff with the website, and spent a lot of time working the social networks to gain visibility at this point, but it would be safe to say that a very large chunk, not a majority, but a large enough amount of our traffic came from Google and Google News.
Fast-Forward from Christmas 2009 to ten months ago
After a very long battle with increasing server costs, and BuySellAds still stagnating, I finally decided it was time to put Google Adsense advertisements back on the website. It was a matter of publishing ads, or shutting down the website for good. The results were surprising, within the first month I could easily see that there was potential to finally not only cover the hosting costs, but cover my time also for the first time ever. The second month came and went, and the ad dollars increased again, same for the third, fourth, and fifth months. I fully expected it to eventually even out, and it did for a couple of month. Ad revenue was finally decent enough to not only pay myself, but also pay a couple of writers part-time, or so I thought.
Google Panda kills hopes and dreams
Here we are, back in May 2011. The Macgasm server can’t keep up with the readership demand, so we decide to move to Rackspace. Instantly we noticed problems with our stats and Google Adsense numbers. We expected it, but we also expected for the numbers to rebound slightly. They didn’t, and they haven’t yet. Long story short, it’s starting to look like we got hit by a huge left hook from Google Panda. After analyzing our traffic logs we can see that traffic from Google was down 15.47% the last four months, and Google News traffic was down 20.35%. The bizarre thing was traffic on the whole is up 15%, but everything coming from Google was down, down, down, including our ad revenue.
Here’s where things get a bit confusing. We’re not big on SEO, we don’t content farm, and we desperately don’t try to pull a fast one over Google. We write what we want, when we want, how we wan. Finally, after a quarter of a year, we are now getting earnings similar to we were back when we first launched Google Ads, despite having 4x as many page views now as we did then. Our CPC levels and RPM levels dropped through the floor.
Finally, on to the point of the post
After four months of trying to wrap my head around the case of the missing ad-revenue I realized something, I probably rely more on Google than I do Apple for my daily business. Sure, Apple provides me with the news we cover on Macgasm, but Google makes the coverage possible with Google Reader. Our email … hosted at Google. Our analytics … provided by Google. Our ad-revnue … primarily courtesy of Google. My main IM client of choice for the website … Google Talk. Our number one source of traffic … Google.
See where I’m going with this?
The extent we rely on one company in this industry borders on insanity. The competitors aren’t even close to comparable when it comes to the Google services I rely on on a daily basis. All it takes is Google deciding that Macgasm is spam or not worthy of another ad dollar and the whole site would go down in flames. There wouldn’t be much we could do about it either, no one to call, no one to get answers from, just web forums and outdated FAQ pages that barely even make sense any more.
Doesn’t that worry anyone else? If so, why is no one doing anything about it? Google is pretty close to owning the Internet in a way no other company has in the past. If you’re hoping to do business on the Internet, you better be damn sure you don’t annoy the man, err Google, because with a flick of a switch they could easily make it so you no longer exist. Just ask legitimate businesses left reeling after the Google Panda update.
I may have built a house on the Internet, but it’s certainly Google’s world I’m living in. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was concerned about the future of publishing online.
Today, the state of Macgasm is still shaky at best. We make enough to pay the bills and some writers, but little more than that. Savings? Yeah, not so much.
I’ve heard from a various sources that some of your favorite tech blogs are having serious struggles with revenue.
Google has every right to increase the quality of search results, and page rankings. I’m not against that. What I am against is the complete opaque nature of the whole system.
I’ve had representatives at Google, around the time of this original post, tell me that I needed to push my advertisements into places where people would click them. They encouraged me to place them in-post.
I’ve had representatives at Google, around the time of the original post, tell me that I need to make my advertisements blend into the site by making ad links the same color as text links. I could quickly deduce that they were hinting that I should be tricking people into clicks under the guise of “driving traffic”. The reps would never say “tricking”, but it was obvious at the time what they were suggesting.
Today, it’s a different story. That’s the problem. Today you get penalized for taking Google up on their previous recommendations. They keep moving the goal posts and there’s no way to know your standing until you run afoul of their classifications of the day. They change their mind about something, and you’re in trouble before you even know it happens. Or, even why it’s happening.
A couple of months ago I noticed my ad earning reports adjusting on the fly. Some days as much as 50% of our revenue would suddenly disappear. I talked to Google about it. The told me that it was likely the algorithm adjusting for erroneous clicks. Apparently there’s a time threshold now in place to determine if someone clicks an advertisement, and then the back button too quickly. You don’t get paid for those any more. Now, even if you drive traffic, companies aren’t paying if a customer realizes the product is crap and abandons ship before wasting more of their time. It’s like publishers are now responsible for a crappy products lack of pizzazz, despite driving traffic.
It completely makes sense that they’re implementing these systems in an attempt to remove spam from their index. The problem though is that they once encouraged people to trick readers into clicking ads (which we never did) and the next they’re penalizing people for it. The instability in this whole industry is crazy.
My advice to you? If you’re starting a website and you’re hoping to make a living at it, you better diversify your income streams. Relying on Google for anything is absolutely insane.