One of my favorite collaborative websites, Metafilter, is facing hard times. The community weblog’s founder Matt Haughey wrote last week about the financial difficulties the site is currently experiencing and the possible causes of its recent decrease in readership. Although many dedicated users still visit the site every day, it appears that difficulties with the world’s leading search engine Google have caused Metafilter’s page views to drop and therefore its revenue to decrease.

At length, Haughey speaks about how the weblog is nearly 15 years old and that, for 13 of those years, it has grown. But just over a year and a half ago, he says, something drastic occurred.

metafilter“We woke up one day to see a 40% decrease in revenue and traffic to Ask MetaFilter, likely the result of ongoing Google index updates,” Haughey says. “We scoured the web and took advice of reducing ads in the hopes traffic would improve but it never really did, staying steady for several months and then periodically decreasing by smaller amounts over time.”

“The long-story-short is that the site’s revenue peaked in 2012, back when we hired additional moderators and brought our total staff up to eight people. Revenue has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, down to levels we last saw in 2007, back when there were only three staffers,” he continues.

Due to the financial problems plaguing the company, three moderators — Jessamyn, LobsterMitten, and goodnewsfortheinsane — will be leaving come June 1. The resulting five-member skeleton crew will  reportedly and expectedly be working longer hours to keep up with the site’s moderation needs.

Larger news organizations have taken note of Metafilter’s situation. Notably, the Washington Post discusses the nature of the site’s traffic. It quotes The Alw’s John Herman as saying, “MetaFilter came from two or three internets ago, when a website’s core audience–people showing up there every day or every week, directly–was its main source of visitors.”

This is how I show up to the site most often because I make a point to check it. But that is not how a majority of the Web world works. Many viewers show up on Metafilter because any number of search engines brought them there. The king of the search engine castle is, no surprise, Google, and it is coming under fire following this spread of news about Metafilter.

Social Media tablet

Image: Shutterstock

The most in-depth analysis of the issue I have come across is at Medium and Search Engine Land. At Medium, Haughey lays out the details of how a possible change in Google’s search algorithm may have caused fewer Metafilter pages to show up in related Google search results. Search Engine Land expands on his analysis and provides information about how exactly Google’s algorithms work, when they are updated, and what websites can do to ensure their sites do not lose traffic.

I do not know what will come of Metafilter. It has not gone completely broke just yet, and there appears to be a number of supporters flocking to its new donation page. As with other similar situations, though, the public fervor and outcry about Metafilter’s situation will inevitably fizzle and the donations will begin to fade in the same way its readership has. A core will certainly still exist, but only time will tell if that core can or will continue to support the weblog enough even to maintain its reduced staff.

I do not want to see it flop. Yet, I cannot imagine a realistic situation where Metafilter continues to exist, let alone thrive, largely on the donations of its fanbase without resorting to selling the company or forcing it into a strict paywalled system. And neither of those options mesh with the way the site has always operated.

Even assuming that its advertisement revenue holds steady at the current level, readers do not strictly attend Metafilter as their only form of entertainment or virtual social connection. They surely visit other news organizations and social media networks that Google can help make or break. And if Google props up those other sites while it continues to squash Metafilter, I imagine people will begin to migrate elsewhere. I hope that day will not come soon — if ever — but when pressed against the wall like this, what options does it really have?

Image courtesy of chrismear via Flickr