Before there was Reddit and Quora, there was MetaFilter. The online community, which combines a popular question-and-answer site with a "best of the web" link aggregator and discussion board, was founded in 1999 and matured into one of the Internet’s most popular online communities.
Then everything changed—literally overnight. MetaFilter saw their drop-in audience of readers who found them through search-engine results cut in half and their traffic reduced to mainly a core audience who knew their site and visited it regularly. It was something the site, which relies on one-time, optional $5 donations and Google AdSense advertising to stay solvent, was not expecting. Although there appears to be little danger of the site shuttering right now, MetaFilter announced layoffs of staff members on Monday and went public about their troubles the same day.
Site founder Matt Haughey said that his coworkers and himself believe that the drop in traffic and ad clicks is caused by tweaks Google made to their search engine. He added that he is in contact with Google to try to find a resolution.
"I woke up on Sunday morning in mid-November 2012," Haughey tells Fast Company. "My colleague looked at our traffic stats from the Saturday before, and it was way off. Every once in a while Google works on their systems on Saturdays, which causes low traffic, but that wasn’t it. We lost 40 percent of our traffic that day and it never returned."
Over the last month, the site saw 6.2 million unique visitors. While Google has not yet commented publicly on MetaFilter's allegations, there is some tacit admission by the search giant that changes to their algorithm may have unintentionally hurt small businesses. Matt Cutts, a senior member of Google's webspam team, announced earlier this year that Google is working on a new version of their algorithm designed to help small businesses by pushing spammers and content mills into far less prominent search results. But because algorithms aren't perfect and lack human editors, Google may have accidentally made search results from many small websites, such as MetaFilter, less prominent over time.
Haughey told me his site's initial 40 percent drop in traffic also caused a 40 percent decline in the ad-click revenue MetaFilter relies on to stay solvent. At the moment, according to a post on Hacker News, MetaFilter has approximately 12,000 paid visitors daily with many additional non-paid visitors. Subsequent drops of 5 percent to 10 percent in MetaFilter traffic and ad revenue, he added, happened at the same time as changes to Google's search algorithms.
Earlier this week Haughey announced that MetaFilter was laying off three of their staff members amid a massive loss in revenue. That may not seem like a huge round of layofffs, but the MetaFilter crew is tiny. Out of MetaFilter’s five full-time employees and three contractors, one full-time employee and two contractors were now out of positions as moderators for the busy online community.
Like many small businesses that operate online, MetaFilter depends largely on ad revenue to support itself. Between November 2012 and today, Metafilter’s revenues regressed to what the site was earning in 2007. For better or worse, the site disproportionately relies on Google AdSense as a revenue generator, has not conducted in-depth market research of their audience, and has not embraced responsive design for mobile readers. By relying largely on one advertising mechanism to generate profits and relying on word of mouth and serendipitous discovery for new users to find them, MetaFilter set themselves up for trouble when the almighty Internet search-engine gods shifted their Olympian favors.
Haughey is currently searching for remedies. As John Herrman of The Awl notes, we are increasingly entering a post-link Internet where Google, Facebook, and Pinterest—rather than links within ordinary webpages—are responsible for disproportionate amounts of online traffic.
In the meantime, MetaFilter is planning to experiment with new profit-generating measures. The site, Haughey says, is considering adding a formal, Reddit Gold-like system where users can voluntarily donate. There are, of course, challenges.
"We've been around since 1999 and haven’t changed a ton since then," Haughey says. "Our user base probably skews older, towards people in their thirties and forties who were in their twenties and thirties when the site started. We have a ton of grad students and professors, who are all educated and know nerdy things." MetaFilter’s next challenge will be steering their users through these changes.
In an article just posted to Medium, he gives further details on MetaFilter's fragile financial state. "With recent shifts in search traffic and ad revenue MetaFilter is now losing several thousand dollars per month and if nothing were to change, MetaFilter would be sunk by the middle of summer when our already depleted savings run completely dry," Haughey writes.
MetaFilter’s users have already initiated several donation drives in the absence of a formal outreach effort by the site. While MetaFilter is unlikely to shut down today or in the next few months, their troubles are a call to arms for both the site's users and a reminder of the way the Internet works in 2014. Despite the best efforts of Microsoft/Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, and others, search is still Google's game. And changes in their algorithms designed to offer better user experience can, quite unintentionally, hurt the small sites the Internet was built on.
Haughey says that the easiest way to help MetaFilter out is via donation.
Update: This article was updated with an updated donation link and information from a recent post on Medium.