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Publishers or Leeches?

One of the more irksome narratives in the Google FTC investigation is the notion that some businesses are totally dependent on Google's organic traffic and that gives Google too much influence in the market. Horse feathers! I will go so far as to say there are NO legitimate businesses that are totally dependent on Google's organic traffic, and that any business that is so dependent for any length of time is ipso facto not a legitimate business. A business that relies solely on traffic from Google must have no brand. That fact carries some interesting implications:
  • If almost no one navigates to your site directly you must do no marketing other than in search. That's a choice a business owner has made, not the fault of a search engine.
  • If no one passes a link to your site to their friends, or recommends your site to their friends, that says a great deal about your business, none of it good.
  • If all the links pointing to your site were created by you, that says quite a bit about your business, none of it good.
  • If you're a small business just getting started, okay, you get a pass for a while, and good luck to you. Back in the day, Fred's lawn service might have been wholly dependent on the local yellow pages for a time. People searched for lawn services, some called Fred and that got him going. Over time though, repeat business and word of mouth had to carry Fred's business if he was going to make it. Growth would allow him to diversify his marketing efforts and broaden his reach. If that didn't happen Fred would have and should have gone out of business.
  • Businesses that are dependent on Google traffic are dependent because they provide no valuable service to users.
So what are these 'businesses' that rely on Google? Most describe themselves as "publishers," but stain the name they use. I heard a stat the other day that went something like this: All of human publishing from the beginning of time until 2003 produced 40 ExaBytes of data (40 x 10 exp 18). In 2010 800 ExaBytes of data was 'published'. Clearly, the web has freed many from the shackles of publishers disapprobation, and blogs like ours are part of this explosion of published information. That said, it's also certainly the case that there is an inverse relationship between the quantity and quality of what is put out, and I'd dare say that the great preponderance of what came out in 2010 was utter rubbish: stolen content, cut and paste, and machine generated crap. The people complaining about the damage Google's algorithm changes do to their 'businesses' are primarily publishers of crap. They make money from advertisements placed on their sites that lost surfers either see or sadly click upon. Some even play the arbitrage game with paid search ads bringing in traffic at a lower cost than the revenue made from advertising. Some of these 'publishers' have probably convinced themselves that they have legitimate businesses. They work hard at it, have employees, have developed expertise in SEO and paid search and they make real money. None of that makes them businesses worthy of the title. They are leeches, sucking the blood of both the search engines and the advertisers they claim to help.
  • Users of search engines don't want to be on these sites and don't return by choice.
  • The job of search engines has gotten exponentially more difficult because of all the crap. Google and Bing have mountains more hay to sift through to find the needles of quality sites users actually want to find.
  • Advertisers don't benefit either. The lost souls who find themselves on these garbage sites can't find what they're looking for, and the ads they see aren't likely to help. The quality of this traffic to advertisers is awful, leading to advertising inefficiency. That, in turn, leads to lowered bids, and lowered CPMs across the spectrum of sites on which they advertise. That hurts the publishers of legitimate sites who serve these same ads but now at lower revenues, and hurts the advertisers because they lose visibility on the higher quality sites that users actually like.
Listening to these purveyors of crap whining about how much Panda has hurt their 'business' makes me sick to my stomach. It is like leeches complaining about the taste of their host's blood. I'm a free-market capitalist, and certainly don't advocate legal action to close down these garbage businesses. It would be hard to come up with a bright-line, objective distinction between a site that provides useful content and one that doesn't -- indeed, that's part of Google's challenge. Aunt Millie's favorite recipes may all be awful, but no one questions her right to put them out there. At the end of the day it's about intent. The folks who develop or organize content in the hopes that people will find it useful and they'll develop a following are great; the folks who develop content simply to lure spiders and unlucky users to a site they know is worthless...I just don't know how they sleep at night. The key is this: members of Congress, the FTC, the SEC and others with regulatory authority will be bombarded by people who want to guide their thinking about the issues. Those folks need to understand that Google's efforts to algorithmically define 'crap' are beneficial to real businesses, and those who suffer probably should. Do some quality sites get caught by these filters? Sure, but no one has a right to rank, and biting the hand that feeds you just doesn't make sense.
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