Tumblr Tumbles: Did Yahoo Cool Tumblr’s Hot Streak?

Tumblr’s web traffic appears to be declining. But is it Yahoo’s fault?

Tumblr Tumbles: Did Yahoo Cool Tumblr’s Hot Streak?

The day Yahoo announced it would acquire Tumblr, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised “not to screw it up” and Tumblr CEO David Karp promised the service wouldn’t be “turning purple.” Yet a Quantcast report shows a steady decline in Tumblr’s web traffic beginning around the same date.


Quantcast has Tumblr’s permission to gather data directly from the blog network’s website, which means its report should be more accurate than most third-party data, but it does not account for mobile app traffic. Tumblr’s app could, therefore, be growing at the expense of its website. The obvious opposing theory, however, is that something is different about Tumblr now that it’s part of Yahoo, and some users don’t like it. Could Tumblr be taking a tumble?

The startup has had its share of controversy since joining Yahoo. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of what might be a growing backlash:

May 20 – Yahoo announces Tumblr acquisition, Tumblr fans freak out: For a hotbed of innovation, the Internet really hates change. And Tumblr’s most outspoken users did not take their change in ownership well: They cried. They threatened to never sign in again. They imported their blogs to WordPress. As The Atlantic Wire’s Rebecca Greenfield points out, however, this reaction was both predictable and meaningless. It was like that time everyone said they were going to quit Instagram after Facebook acquired it. Or that time everyone said they were going to quit Instagram because it changed its terms of service. They didn’t.

May 30 – Tumblr Announces In-Stream Ads: Previously constrained to the “radar” section of users’ dashboard, Tumblr added ads to its content stream in the form of sponsored content. Considering that the company launched in-stream ads in its mobile app a month earlier, however, it’s hard to blame Yahoo for the new advertising efforts.

May 31 – Tumblr’s creative director, Jacob Bijani, announces departure: The company’s first designer, creative director, and product engineer was no doubt very creative (we particularly enjoy, for instance, his pretty color project). But would his absence show up on the Quantcast chart? Unlikely.

July – Tumblr makes porn more difficult to find: By removing NSFW from its search and discovery features, and blocking certain tags from search in the mobile app, Tumblr lowered the profile of its adult content. Considering an estimated 11% of Tumblr’s top 200,000 blogs feature adult content, hiding porn was bound to ruffle a few feathers. Problem #2: Tags like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” were among those blocked, despite “rape,” “asshole,” and “moneyshot” remaining accessible within the app, making it seem as though Tumblr was trying to make LBGT content less visible.


In a blog post, Karp positioned both of these problems as bugs. He said porn was back in search for users searching in safe mode and addressed the LBGT filtering issue. “The solution is more intelligent filtering which our team is working diligently on,” he wrote. “We’ll get there soon. In the meantime, you can browse #lgbtq–which is moderated by our community editors–in all of Tumblr’s mobile apps.”

July 16 – Tumblr announces it has discovered a security flaw in its iOS app: More specifically, the app has been sending users’ unencrypted passwords over Wi-Fi, making it easy for anyone on the same Wi-Fi network to steal them. Worse yet, it seems the company waited weeks after learning about the bug before fixing it.

So, the question all of these hiccups and hassles raises is, Is any of this Yahoo’s fault? Tumblr started building its advertising business long before it became a Yahoo company, and it had plans to expand it with or without Yahoo’s help. Part of doing that involves creating a good environment for advertisers (most of whom don’t want to be associated with porn). And though Tumblr hasn’t cited any excuse for its most recent security flaw, my guess is that it wasn’t Yahoo’s idea.

What we might be able to blame on Yahoo is an acceleration of Tumblr’s least popular trends. Under Yahoo, Tumblr has resources for growing its advertising business quickly. And Marissa Mayer has said she is considering putting ads into Tumblr blogs that want them, which could make toning down the porn presence more important. A Yahoo spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Like Facebook and Twitter, Tumblr was always going to make changes in its efforts to become a mature company. Whatever role Yahoo plays in directing those changes and whatever effect they have on traffic, the ailing Internet old-timer will certainly make a convenient scapegoat as its cool new pal hits the awkward years.

[Image: Flickr user Kara Harms | Graph via Quantcast]

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.