Chaos in the SERP

This week, I took a visit to the SEO fighting pits with SEO expert Glen Allsop. The fragmentation of search will have far-reaching effects on many publishers. 

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Chaos in the SERP

Google is embarking on a wide-ranging effort to clean up the current mess of the SERP. The dominance of Google search – it’s being sued by the Department of Justice for using its dominant position to squelch competition – has raised the stakes in the SEO fighting pits, attracting a motley crew of mom-and-pop site operators and a phalanx of the biggest digital media companies. Search is the backbone of the internet, and any change has far reaching implications.

The current update, dubbed a strike against “reputation abuse,” follows a far-reaching crackdown begun last September as part of a “helpful content update.” The descriptions alone tell the story: Google needs to get rid of spam. Google’s reward of Reddit and discussion sites implies a pox-on-all-houses approach that recognizes content sites of all stripes are pushing the envelope too far. (One big digital publishing CEO referred pointedly to Google’s data licensing deal with Reddit and connected the dots to Reddit’s rise in the SERP.) The gathering deluge of AI-created content threatens a tsunami of crap. Of course, one person’s SEO spam is another’s valuable intent traffic. 

Google has brought much of these issues on itself. Ed Zitron has detailed how Google has put its thumb on the scale of search results because, well, the money is simply too great. Search is possibly the greatest money-making engine invented in modern history. Internet technology companies have broadly entered their extractive phases.

Glen Allsop, an SEO who runs the very informative SEO-focused site, told me on this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show that in the eyes of many “niche site owners” the bad guys are the big digital publishers, who have rolled up tons of properties and spun up commerce-focused SEO operations that have flooded the SERP. 

Air purifier site House Fresh has become a martyr of this community, having lost much of its traffic in an earlier SERP update and a further 91% of traffic in the latest update. Home Fresh blames tactics like “keyword swarming” by big media companies, a David vs Goliath tale.

I try not to be moralistic. People respond to incentives, and the incentives when you combine search and affiliate is to flood the zone. There’s a a reason Forbes is so into puppies. Pet insurance fetches a lucrative affiliate bounty.

Big publishers aren’t immune to the crackdown. News has already been hit hard. SEO Lilly Ray posted search dashboard stats showing steep drops in visibility in the SERP by major news publishers.

The SEO-affiliate nexus creates clear incentives for publishers to arbitrage their site reputations to get curious about pets and all kinds of topics that have little to nothing to do with their specializations. Google seems to want to send a message by zeroing in particularly on coupon subdomains. I have to admit, I had no idea this tactic exists at major publishers. They basically rent out their domains to coupon providers to arbitrage their SEO juice. That’s found money: no work required. The internet loves a promise of passive income.

This is a particularly viable strategy for legacy media brands that have frankly outlived their economic utility. I joke about being sent off to the SEO glue factory, but it’s accurate. There is still value left in these brands to harvest. This is the grimy part of our capitalistic system. I grew up eating scrapple; I’m not squeamish.

Google is ending this game. The coupon hustle was nice while it lasted. This is the way of the world. Arb windows always close. 

Google has clearly seen enough. For a company with a $2 trillion market cap, Google has never seemed more vulnerable, with the DoJ case awaiting judgment, an embarrassing failure to transition from the third-party cookie – can it be this hard for a $2 trillion company to figure out? – and the looming threat that generative AI will end the 10 blue links era and erode Google’s (dominant) market power. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella promised to make Google” dance,” and it is – and publishers have a history of getting trampled when the platform giants start to get frisky.

It points to a future where search is more fragmented. This is mostly a return to normal. Markets rarely stay as concentrated as the search market has been for a generation. That decentralization in the long run should benefit publishers that hopefully have learned at this point that dependence on an algorithm is a road to ruin.

Check out my full conversation with Glen. We cover the winners and losers of this massive update, why Google is favoring UGC, how big publishers have turned to SEO as a bulwark of their strategies and what the end of the 10 blue links era means. Listen on Apple | Spotify | other platforms


Trust is slippery. “Trust” is a byword of much discussion when it comes to the current state of the news business. It’s obviously an important concept in any business and human endeavor. Often, we assume trust is built with an audience through doing the right things, but a research project from Schibsted found that reinforcing an existing worldview is better at establishing trust than providing diverse perspectives. (Schibsted)

Newsroom civil wars. In my podcast with Wall Street Journal EIC Emma Tucker, I asked her about new generations of journalists arriving with more of an activist bent that is in opposition to the impartiality that was a hallmark of journalism. This is an issue that will keep rearing its head, as is evidenced by Ben Smith’s interview of NYT executive editor Joe Kahn, who said, “I don’t think that this generation of college grads has been fully prepared for what we are asking our people to do, which is to commit themselves to the idea of independent journalism.” (Semafor)

The perils of the rep firm model. Federated Media was a great idea during the blog era. It provided publisher services to the growing crop of weblogs that were springing up. Those blogs ended up gaining traction and moving on from Federated and skipping the revenue split. The same will inevitably happen with creator services, as evidenced by Mr. Beast splitting from Night Media. (Semafor)

Deal or no deal? Everything is a a negotiation. Publishers have an exceedingly weak hand in their negotiations with AI giants. Morality and even copyright law might be on their side, but tech companies have a near-perfect track record of lawyering up and muscling through those type of challenges. The issues are murky enough that it’s hard to see a “Napster moment.” (Axios

The false god of perfect measurement. “This obsession with perfect quantification, with every business case requiring a ROI calculated in advance to the seventh decimal point, has now infected the whole of marketing. It is, I think, a false God. It prevents experimentation, and simply sets too high a burden of proof for innovation. The greater part of any worthwhile marketing activity will never be reducible to that level of precision, measurement and prediction. The value of fame, for instance is incalculable. The only parts that do submit to such perfect quantification and attribution, are those at the bottom of the funnel. You simply can't measure brand building, and other longer-term investment with such precision.” (Rory Sutherland) 

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