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Google : Thou Shalt Do No Evil

by TonyBerkman (editor), Costa Rica, September 02, 2010

Credit: google image search
Google Wields a Mighty Hand

Has Google's culture departed significantly from its 10 guiding principles, "that they know to be true," with the result that the company can no longer truly claim to "do no evil?"

Business Op-ed

Does Google wield such massive power over the search market that their practices are quite questionable? Personally, I feel that their actions towards a partner site - one that I own, indicate that they are.

This wasn't the first time that I have had a Google "experience", however this most recent time had a massive impact on people's lives, including their relationships, their jobs and their health. Yet despite the cost, like every challenge we have in life, there is always a gift. Google's gift to my company is that they made us stronger, better and able to contribute much more to our bloggers and their readers.

A major challenge that almost all website owners, aside from the Twitter's and Facebook's of the web, have with Google, is that Google accounts for most of a website's traffic. If you don't have Google traffic, it is very difficult, though not impossible, to succeed online.

Moreover, while Google has pages where they spell out their webmaster rules, better known as "guidelines," if you happen to honestly cross one of their "guidelines", without any intention of doing so, they "body slam" your site. Thereby becoming the proximate cause of a personal body slam. Once Google "body slams" your site, if you then try to use another company to generate revenues, that they do not approve of, they "body slam" your site again. It's a "double whammy Google body slam," somewhat similar to "Super Size Me."

For example, two years ago my site experienced a 70% drop in Google traffic and a respective drop in revenues. Traffic went from around 240,000 visitors a month to around 100,000 visitors a month, and revenues fell from $25,000 a month to $9,000 a month. Most webmasters would think, "Oh, you must have done something intentional to trick Google, and that's why they did that." That would be a false assumption..

Our focus at BlogCatalog has always been on user experience and taking into account SEO at a base level. Traffic clearly is important and is the lifeblood of an online business. So no one, and Google obviously understands this, can afford to ignore SEO. Like almost every website owner, I received some SEO advice, though since I have a reasonable understanding of what Google looks for in a site, I have always remained on the so-called "white hat" side of SEO; as my living, and those of my 14 employees (as of 6 months ago), depended upon Google traffic. Plus, I have always admired Google. In fact for years I had a framed, Google poster of their logos, hanging on the wall of my house; as my own living and business would never have had the opportunity to generate revenues, had it not been for Google. It was Google that first made it possible for website owners to start making money. For this I am grateful. They launched me into an entirely new career. However, things have changed on the web. They have also changed, and in some cases not changed, at Google.

Google's "business as usual" approach doesn't include giving a site owner the reason why they penalized the entire site, or part of a site. A site owner, after wondering what the *&*%*% happened, has to guess why Google has penalized them. If questioned, Google will answer, "We can't disclose the reason because it will expose our algorithm."

Google, if you happen to be listening, I heard you compared to the "all knowing" before, so that news isn't new. Your search results algorithm doesn't have the value it once had. You know that, too. Yet, you are still willing to harm partner sites, in the process of trying to figure out what to do to improve it. Have you not heard we live in an age of transparency? The Googleplex is not like the Bat Cave, or at least it shouldn't be. I've been invited there for lunch before, though why would I accept an invitation to a company that claims that we are a "Premium Partner" and then negatively impacts the lives of people who work for me?

Google knows, that like Answers.com, and the majority of other consumer-generated content sites, Google accounts for most of their revenues and traffic. Answers.com receives approximately 90% of its traffic from Google, and a majority of their revenues. Imagine a company as large as Answers.com, being an employee there, and knowing that your job depends on Google "being nice". This was no different than at BlogCatalog and I believe it to be the case for Mahalo.com as well as Digg.com and many other large social network type sites. It is a very common problem, one that is probably far too common.

Two years ago, when our revenues dropped by approximately $20,000 a month because of Google, I made the decision to sell text ads on BlogCatalog. This decision was made so that we could stay in business. Selling text ads is a practice that Google now frowns on, though it is an industry that they created. Ten years ago, in fact, they actively promoted the concept of getting good links. They had speakers, including the renowned Matt Cutts at PubCon, an SEO conference talking about links. They spoke about good links versus bad links. Ironically, Google itself has a tool to show a webmaster how many links they have to their site, and what the links are.

At the time, I was fully aware of the risk of selling links. However, employees come first. Within a few months we had non-Google ad revenue of over $25,000 and had managed to keep every employee on board.

However, as Google does, they used the "stick" to get us back in line. Once they found our ads they dropped our page rank. Reacting to the drop in page rank, I decided to remove the text ads from the site and give up the $300K in annual revenues, so as not to lose the traffic that Google was sending us. The moment I made that decision, I realized I had no clue what we were going to do to pay employees and stay in business.

Amazingly, a few days later a Google sales representative called and asked, "Would like to join our premium ad partner program?" He explained that it meant higher cost-per-clicks (i.e., more money), and more features. I'm no dummy. I took enough multiple choice tests in college, so I answered "YES".

Within a couple of months, Google revenues and traffic were up over ten times. Google was paying us over $1 Million in annual revenues and sending us 1/4 Billion visitors a year. We had changed nothing. Why would we? We had traffic back. Google "obviously approved of how the site was set up." Who wants to mess with pages when they are doing well? Of course, I knew there was a risk. Every business school teaches you that you should not rely on one customer. Moreover, who wants to be totally and utterly dependent on one company even if they do call you a "Premium Partner?"

Voila. Five months ago, I checked the site's traffic, and it was down by 80%+. No explanation was given. "Hey I thought we're partners?" This was a problem. Hmmm, can I call it a challenge I thought to myself. Perhaps a gift?

The challenge is we were in expansion mode at the time. We had no reason to believe that we were breaking any of Google's guidelines. The site had remained the same for 18 months. We had hired new employees and were on the road to launching a brand new site. One that was much better for bloggers and their readers. A site that would be fantastic for our visitors; something that Google aspires to live by in their Corporate Philosophy.

When an event like this happens to your company, jokes about Google playing G_d of the web, are not that far off. The omnipresent, omnipotent Google had "decided" we had done something wrong, and that was that. The search pages to which they had been sending 18 million visitors a month, went from 18 million to zero, in less than whatever a "Google" is. I don't know what a Google is but I think it’s some ridiculously, crazy small fraction of a number. Whatever Google means, frankly, I don't care. What it meant to me, at the time, was that our business may have just been killed in a Google.

Is this right? Is it good business practice? Google, you may know, was founded on 10 core principles. To read them visit http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/tenthings.html. Is the number of principles a coincidence? I venture to guess that either Letterman had a powerful influence on the Founders or these 10 principles seem eerily familiar to a story from the Old Testament. Regardless of influence, principle number 6 provides:

"You can make money without doing evil." If we lived 5,000 years ago, it would have read, "Thou can make money without doing evil."

If what happened to BlogCatalog isn't an "evil" business practice, then what is? Do they have underlying guidelines around these principles? Do they have "non-evil" ways of treating partners? A public company has duties to shareholders and making public statements is something to be taken seriously.

Google can't play naive. They have too many PhDs and Ivy league graduates to ignore a page that is 2 clicks from their homepage. Perhaps, though, I underestimate them and the essential essence of the following questions, is already included in their interview process:

1) If a company is doing over $1 Million a year in Google revenues and 80% of their traffic comes from Google, what would happen if we reduced that traffic by 80%?

2) If Google did this to the company, and didn't give them a reason, or warning, and the company hadn't changed anything, and 12 families depended on this income, to make a living, would this be an "evil" thing, under our ten guiding principles, to do?

Perhaps, though, this is too close to the socratic method for a job interview. For BlogCatalog, the direct costs were that four employees were let go or left because of stress; I had to sell all my assets, including my jeep; and I now either walk to work or borrow, Angie, my partner's car. So the great news is that my health has improved though my kidneys are probably no better off, because of the anti-anxiety medication. Angie and I haven't taken a salary in five months. We almost lost our hosting account with Rackspace. We had just moved to 15 spanking new servers, as we were getting ready for the new site's launch, and could no longer afford them. We are still working out this challenge.

And of course employee anxiety has gone up. "I wonder if I'm going to be next?" Must have been a thought that became a mantra in many of their brains; despite my reassurances that they were number 1 and I'd "go to the mat” for them. Fortunately, we have sold off assets (primarily other sites we owned) and have come through the most difficult part of the challenge.

My conclusion, having faced this challenge, is that Google:

  • is not a company that should have their Philosophy Point 6 on their site. It is false and they consistently violate it;
  • has little to no respect for their partner sites. They are not transparent. They provide no warnings to large partner publishers who depend on them;
  • wants you to behave according to their rules. Their rules are a moving target. So you should not try to speak to a human on their search team. Warning: If you do, you will feel as if you were listening to Greenspan talking about the economy and;
  • when you have a Google traffic issue, they refer you to guidelines, which are more like deciphering the Internal Revenue Code for meaning, than they are helpful.

So if you accidentally get someone at Google on search who has a bad day and penalizes your site, or just a part of your site that happens to be the most highly-trafficked page, or if an algorithm is changed, causing your site to go from millions of visitors a day to zero, you don't have much recourse. Your best actions are proactive. Ask yourself the question, "How can I become Google independent?"

Yes, they do have a form that you can use to ask for "forgiveness." Yet, how do you do that if you don't know what you have done wrong. I venture to guess, without having expertise in this area, that Google will implode on the search side. I am reasonably certain that Google's unique number of searches per average user (not including new users who join the web) has gone down with Twitter and FB stealing market share.

The only thing saving them is the number of Google Adsense units, that sit on the long tail of the web. To top it off, everything needs some cream, advertisers are either paying Google less per ad click, or Google has lowered the % paid to publishers, as almost every publisher that I have spoken to laughs out loud when you ask them about Google’s cost-per-click.

Would I like Google to remove whatever "penalty" they imposed? Absolutely. Who wouldn't want that sort of traffic? However, this experience has made me into a far better businessperson, and it has tested our entire team. We are a better company for it.

I treat what Google did as a gift. It is in "Crunch Time" that companies are made. It is during a crunch time that an entrepreneurial company, and in fact, any company, grows and gets stronger, or dies. Fortunately for us, we are better off for this experience. Not because Google didn't harm human lives…they clearly did. They did damage to people's lives, but we are a stronger company for it. We followed the "heroes journey." We are being challenged to replace Google with new traffic sources and different revenue streams. We were forced to rally our resourcefulness and strength to overcome the challenge. And we have.

Our income is down yet we are much better at running a business. Our focus is much more laser like. It is all about our core users: great bloggers and their readers. This is the real gift. By tomorrow we will have an entirely new site launched along with a Blog Reader. Soon thereafter, we will have an iPad application with the "best" long tail blogs on the web. After that we will start making money for bloggers who are under represented by the Apples and Technoratis of the world. In the final chapter, I predict that Google itself will face consequences for its actions. You do not violate your own philosophy, the philosophy that made you who are you are, and not pay the piper.

BlogCatalog remains the largest social community of independent bloggers and blog directories on the web. That hasn't changed. Google changed. And now they should change or eliminate Corporate Philosophy Number 6 from "Do no evil", to something more accurate. Larry and Sergey it worked for you guys when you founded the company, but as a public company you clearly cannot live by this philosophy.



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24 comments on Google : Thou Shalt Do No Evil

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By TonyBerkman on September 02, 2010 at 04:16 pm

I like AdSense. It's a great program. They have added a lot of value to many people's lives in this world.

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By Libdrone on September 02, 2010 at 04:40 pm

Melody,

Do we want to do business with people who are so ethically challenged?

I think the better question is do we have any other choice, as web publishers? Bing brings in about 1% as much traffic to my little site as Google and overall Google sends me about 70% of my traffic. The point, which imho Tony made very well is that pretty much Every web publisher out there is at the mercy of a company that acts very much like an eight year old who has cornered all of the marbles. It's a shitty way to do business and there are precious few alternatives to relying on Google for traffic.

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By TonyBerkman on September 02, 2010 at 04:50 pm

@libdrone, that's right.

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By Digidave on September 02, 2010 at 05:16 pm

I don't think it's that Google is immoral - it's just that it's too big. Whenever a company becomes too big it's bound to have negative impacts on people regardless of the institutions founding principles. To put it another way: Search needs to be more competitive. We need Bing, Yahoo and others to step their game up.

If Google didn't dominate search - then any changes to your sites wouldn't be as drastic. It would still suck, but a company wouldn't rise and fall with its relationship to Google.

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By Arcticulates on September 02, 2010 at 05:18 pm

I am sorry your employees and you had to (and still are) go through all this stress and loss. I predict there will be a turnaround for your company and things will be better then they ever have been despite it all. You can't keep a good thing down for long!

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By Theresa H Hall on September 02, 2010 at 05:52 pm

The full impact of your article has me reeling. I had no real idea about how Google wields its power, and is so unreliable, in certain instances. I hope the powers that be will fix this Number 6 and repair the obvious damage they have caused you and Angie. I really have no idea how this all works, just some bits of computer knowledge. I want to write, not figure things out.

We all are glad that your business savvy and loyalties are so well-intended, and that you are faithful stewards of your business websites. You both have given us so very much. I am grateful for the wonderful sites, where I may continue to write.

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By Dan Ehrlich on September 02, 2010 at 06:02 pm

But for older folks figuring out how google program work is the challenge. I figured out how to out adsense on my site, but just...there are so many variables and tutorials you could be taking a college course. i still don't know if its making any money or how to get paid.

on a different subject, seemingly unaccountable firms such as google pose a future benefit or danger to the free flow of information.

with hard copy and verbal communication becoming more scarce, our dependence on search engines grows and grows...and we have seen what China and Pakistan have done when they didn't like the google content.

this could spread to other nations and what if google falls under the control of a vested interest group? This is why dynamic competition is vital in communications.

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By Libdrone on September 02, 2010 at 06:13 pm

@Dan,

For the past three years plus I have been publishing my website and trying to learn how to be a financially succesful web publisher. I really do feel like I've done the equivalent of a four year degree's worth of study and admit that I remain mostly an amateur. It really is a mind-bogglingly complex business.

With our bought and paid for Congress largely committed to manufacturing sound bites rather than solving the people's problems it is not surprising that the law has failed to evolve with technology such that most of our traditional news-gathering aparatus is no longer a viable business and the global information market is de facto controlled by a monopoly. If this were the 1930's the trustbusters would be all over Google.

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By Barryfromtexas on September 02, 2010 at 06:32 pm

This is an excellent assessment of what Google does - good and bad. I have always found it interesting that Google penalizes for duplicate content (same article in multiple places) yet they encourage people to build sites that are nothing more than a bunch of ads.

They also seem to like to send me to secondary search engines when I am researching, which is downriight silly.

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By Angie Alaniz on September 03, 2010 at 12:33 am

@libdrone, you said it best!

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By Angie Alaniz on September 03, 2010 at 12:38 am

Excellently written Tony and full of facts.

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By Angie Alaniz on September 03, 2010 at 12:51 am

There was a time when I didn't think it was so wise to air every thing out in public about our difficulties and challenges we've had with Google. Today, I feel a tab bit better about it because Tony is right in saying its made us stronger as a company and we've learned to rely on each other, not the odds of what is known as old school thinking.

Besides, we're starting our own religion and it will only has three commandments.

1. Always do the best you can!

2. Always do the right thing!

3. Show them that you care!

Amen


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By Libdrone on September 03, 2010 at 05:15 am


@Theresa imho the biggest problem with trying to deal with Google is that is very rare and for most users utterly impossible to engage even with a customer service representative who can listen to and address your conerns. They have voluminous pages of rules (which really would challenge a good lawyer and a good accountant and a good IT guy to decipher and agree on the meaning of) and there is basically NO WAY to talk to anyone about it. I am genuinely sorry to say that I see almost zero chance of Tony and Angie ever getting to Google to acknowlege let alone make right the havoc they have wrecked. And sadly, I know that this story is only one of many web entreprenurs who have both feasted and famined at Google's table.

@Angie I really do understand your basic reticence to air what some might consider dirty laundry but having now heard the full story, my respect for both is raised immeasureably. I would like to talk to you and tony both about some ideas I have that would provide alteranative sources or revenue and traffic to make good the plan of making all of us Google independent.

When you don't share with your supporters, you're left to fight your battles on your own. I don't think you realize fully how many loyal supporters you actually have nor how powerfully they have the ability to impact the situation. Bringing this out into the open is the smartest move you and Tony could have made, I do believe. And I can see a lot of potential for fun and games in calling Google out publically on their evil actions.

That's probably as much as I want to say on this public board, but my wheels are spinning about this. Depending on how you choose to use the gift that Google has given you, the next chapter in the BC story can see the highest revenues yet and the greatest impact yet on the larger communities.

Let's talk on AIM or Skype when you have time.

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By Jack Bates on September 03, 2010 at 10:17 am

Tony,

Google has done this to so many sites large and small. From my blog that I moved off Blogger to my own wordpress site to CBS Interactive (without warning they lost 60% of their traffice to domains they own like tv.com, theinsider.com, etc.). The questions and sentiments you raise are right on target. The fact that Google changes an algorithm and your site loses traffic isn't good, but that isn't what makes it "evil". The evil comes from Google's unwillingness to help users, even their PARTNERS, to work with the new changes so that traffic issues can be fixed while following the rules. This too shall pass. Competition is coming and some other college grad will write something that will hit Google hard and they will learn and become a better business. They are now too big to go anywhere, but no one is too big to not get bloodied by some smart "upstart" with a killer idea and no fear.

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By Angie Alaniz on September 03, 2010 at 04:26 pm

@Libdrone, Thank you for saying that and sure, we'll love to speak to you. Just say "when" - Tonight? Tomorrow?

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By Ray Colon on September 03, 2010 at 06:25 pm

Hi Tony,

Each of us face certain moments during our lives where we choose, consciously or subconsciously, to turn tail and run or to do everything within our power to persevere. Your story gives hope to those of us who have chosen the latter.

I've never made any money online, so my experiences with Google, for the most part, have been as a user of their various service offerings. They've done many things right along the way, and like any of us, have made their share of mistakes.

While the results of their actions toward your site may have felt as if they were trying to do evil, it's difficult to judge intent. Digidave explained the problem as Google being just "too big” and I think that that is certainly a contributing factor, although I would add "too successful".

An environment without competition is one that is not conducive to good relationships. As many here have predicted, Google will eventually have to take a close look at how they deal with their partners. But in the interim, I'm afraid that many more businesses will have to undergo the type of structural reassessment that you have undertaken because they find themselves in a similar circumstance. Unfortunately, most will not do so until they are forced to.

This was a very compelling Op-ed and a real eye opener. You've hung in there and done well, and I wish you continued growth with all of your endeavors. Ray

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By TonyBerkman on September 04, 2010 at 12:58 am

Hi Ray,

I question whether "intent" is a necessary part of doing evil. You can negligently do an "evil" act. Google has done plenty of things extremely well. If not for Google, I would be in law. So I am eternally grateful for Google.

Yet, if a company proclaims to live by a Corporate Philosophy and they are not able to live up to that standard, whether due to their size, corporate structure, or lack of specific partner standards, then I believe that they should adapt whatever their original philosophy was and replace it with one they can live up to.

The experience we went through is not uncommon. Yet, Google has not addressed this problem. It is a problem that causes people harm.

I am a capitalist, so believe competition is clearly vital. It is happening, in a form that I imagine Google did not anticipate. They probably though that traditional search would have a much longer shelf life. The result is they are adapting and testing to find out what works best to combat this new found competition. This is the greatest part of our capitalist system.

I however believe that with knowledge comes accountability. Since Google continues to engage in practices that have dramatic effects on Partner sites, it is reasonable to expect that a company that has a stated Corporate Philosophy of "Do No Evil" should take the necessary steps to be more transparent and communicate more effectively with publishers, who have built Google.

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By Libdrone on September 04, 2010 at 04:45 pm

Mmmm. I don't believe that intent is required to do something that is evil. I certainly don't think that we should ever let any perceived lack of evil intent dissuade us from identifying, protesting or fighting against evil that his been done to us or our friends, though I would not object to one arguing lack of evil intent in pleading for mercy in punishment.

Seems to me that Google has allowed itself to become isolated from its customers and is vulnerable in a number of ways that, as Tony points out, it does not yet perceive. Imho, the question is whether a sufficient number of people will decide they've had enough and band together to force the giant to listen and change course or lose its revenues. I believe that a sufficiently large number of ordinary users could have a huge impact if they choose. But will they choose to?

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By TonyBerkman on September 04, 2010 at 05:49 pm

Alan, again I agree. Fortunately there is more competition now and other ways to generate traffic, albeit, the traffic generated using social media, in general, still pales in comparison to ranking high on Google.

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By Angie Alaniz on September 07, 2010 at 08:07 pm

@Melody That song does fit :)

Thank you!

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By TonyBerkman on September 09, 2010 at 08:34 pm

It all depends on the piece of the action. It's open to debate whether their approach has been to do "the right thing." They started off being an incredible partner to many business owners. Competition, something I favor, has caused them to change their practices. My belief is whatever changes they have made, and there have been many, have been because of the "new" competitive landscape. They didn't anticipate the rapid rise in social media. They are doing what they can to capture back the loss in momentum. Companies like BC are a "casualty" of their changes. I do not fault their behaviour. However, I do challenge them to either live by their stated philosophy, admit if they don't or remove some elements from their philosophy, if they are no longer able to live by them.

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By huttriverofnz on September 13, 2010 at 12:24 am

What a lot of interesting comments about Google. Great search engine that has coined a new verb in our language - to google!

I'm just a little fellow in the industry. A couple of years ago as a blogger I had earned around US$40.00 through Google adsense adverts. Suddenly one day i was informed that my account was disabled period. I sent many messages through the system but never got a reply from Google. I must have accidently clicked on an add on one of my pages, but have never been officially told or had my sin explained to me. So I lost my previous earnings and any opportunity to earn more. I have had to find alternative means to earn a few pennies online.

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By PetLvr on September 13, 2010 at 04:23 pm

Business Rule #1 never put all your apples in one basket. Google's not that evil .. when you really think of it - just because your site was affected. And - btw - you're not the only site affected. Not to mention - I foresee this happening to me every day, because currently 78% of the traffic on one of my sites comes from google searches.

But -

Can imagine if every little small blogger out there was also offered this "premium ad partner program" that BC was offered and Google gave us all higher rates and promoted traffic 10-fold towards our little sites?

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By DavidBennett on November 22, 2010 at 06:04 pm

I have been a member of BlogCatalog for a year or more and I was constantly asked to look at members' sites and swap links or click on ads.

BlogCatalog was rife with that.

I certainly wasn't going to play the 'pump me up' games that they wanted to play.

So, depending on the quality of the writing, I would look at some sites, but I ignored all the requests to click 'this' and defraud 'that' - because fraud is what it amounted to.

Did you not know that was going on?

I always thought of BC as a large ring of mutual help, with some discussion - but mostly as an invitation to look at each other's sites and increase visitor numbers.

And I found three or four sites that have stood the test of time and which I continue to read. There are probably half a dozen others that were well-written but just not my cup of tea.

As for the rest...

So I am not so much surprised that BC was knocked by Google but rather I am surprised that it was ever highly-regarded by Google.

I was directed to read this article by someone who was trying to help me understand the changes at BlogCatalog.

And I wanted to comment here and therefore I joined Broowaha.

Once I had joined, I received the welcome email which stated that "Your goal is to become popular, but also to remain popular".

Actually it is not my goal.

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