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.