There’s a lot of talk about the death of MetaFilter. After a round of layoffs, the Washington Post called the site a relic of a pre-social media web, and others have put out theories about peak ads and the decline of advertising value over time.
According to CEO Matt Haughey, 90 percent of MetaFilter’s ad revenue comes from AdSense, which took a hit when Google’s “Panda” indexing updates removed 40% of search traffic to AskMetaFilter overnight. Despite a team of moderators who are supposed to curate content, MetaFilter still receives daily emails from Google requesting the removal of “inorganic” links, which Haughey believes is a symptom of Google’s inability to treat MetaFilter as the legitimate community that it is.
Things have gotten better in recent weeks, as this DIgiday interview with Haughey explains: the site has redesigned its UI, and traffic has improved after Google made corrections to its indexing.
The problem is that MetaFilter’s method of making money has never been aligned with the core usage of the site.
Google is under no obligation to index MetaFilter’s pages if they aren’t relevant to search results. MetaFilter has been around since 1999, and even its “new” spinoff AskMetaFilter has been around since 2003, which is 11 in human years and 1100 in internet years. While hundreds of pages from these past 15 years probably are the most qualified for a given search result, there are tens of thousands more that aren’t.
Trusting in the “long tail” of content plus whatever algorithm Google currently uses to determine authoritativeness is not a sustainable revenue strategy, especially when that strategy is banked by the notoriously fickle AdSense (who, as Haughey points out, flags pages as adult content for containing medical terms).
Long tail content and AdSense creatives aren’t useful to the MetaFilter community either, who are far more likely to respond to the latest posts and discussions than to dig in the archives for content. Search results may be useful for the casual Googler, but the casual Googler should not be (and is not) MetaFilter’s community, and MetaFilter shouldn’t try to cater to them to drive revenue.
MetaFilter did take a step in the right direction by introducing The Deck network to their inventory. They’ve run these premium ads (geared for designers and coders) since 2010, which are better aligned with the values of the community that whatever Google throws into an AdSense slot.
But a single ad network isn’t going to do it. The Deck makes up only 10% at most of MetaFilter’s advertising revenue. The entire network brings in around 300k a month, so MetaFilter would literally need 100% of the entire network’s revenue just to replace what they’re making currently.
So is MetaFilter destined to be a relic of the past, clinging to old monetization strategies until the well runs dry?
I don’t think so.
Instead of trying to get enough content into Google and playing the SEO cat and mouse game (hint: people like Answers.com are always going to be better at this than you are) they need to find a way to monetize MetaFilter in a way that is in line with how their core audience uses the site.
They’ve been asking, “how can we generate the most amount of content and put ads on it?”
This philosophy assumes that increasing the volume of ad placements and/or increasing the amount of traffic will lead to greater revenue. It’s also the same philosophy behind content farms, which is what Google once perceived MetaFilter to be.
The real question is “how can we make our community available to advertisers?”
The past ten years have shown us that banners alone aren’t the answer. Good, sustainable online revenue comes from the intersection of a marketer’s message and how a user interacts with a site. In other words, it comes from native ads.
MetaFilter’s next goal should be discovering a native ad unit that caters to their community while creating an opportunity for advertisers to be heard. That could be lots of things: sponsored questions, sponsored comments, sponsored anything.
I don’t know what ad unit will resonate with the MetaFilter community the most, but I’m sure their team has some great ideas. Native ads have been around long enough now to show real results, like polls where respondents found sponsored content to be equal or greater value than organic content. What the MetaFilter team needs to do is recruit brands to test which units create the best response.
The last thing they need to do is to continue their AdSense strategy. Facebook, Twitter, reddit, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. don’t make money from Google optimized results, and they don’t need to. They create revenue from the way their communities are structured: sponsored updates, sponsored tweets, sponsored links, and so on.
We’re also now in the era of ad filtering (AdBlock and Adblock Plus are the most popular plugins for Chrome, Safari and Firefox) which also means we’re now in the era of AdSense decline. Optimizing that strategy is like bailing out a slowly sinking ship with a bucket.
Full disclosure: I should mention that I’ve reached out to MetaFilter’s CEO to discuss how my company Adzerk could help them built the native ad unit of their choice. I haven’t gotten a response, and I’m not sure if this post will help or hurt my efforts to get in touch…
In any case, I’m offering MetaFilter a free year on the Adzerk platform if they’re interested. I really don’t want to see MetaFilter disappear, and I’d love to work hand and hand with their team to help them discover the best ways to build back their revenue. If Matt Haughey or anyone else on their team wants to try this out, shoot me an email.