Demand Media's Traffic Drops, After Google Search Change (Exclusive)

Last Updated Feb 28, 2011 2:18 PM EST

Google adjusted its search algorithms to improve search results to better emphasize high quality content. What exactly that means, the search giant didn't say. But it looks as though content mills like Demand Media and Helium.com already may have experienced traffic declines, according to a study done by a German SEO firm as well as preliminary data pulled together by Compete.com for BNET.

According to German SEO firm Sistrix, keyword results for many content farms took a big hit. In some cases, results plummeted by more than 90 percent. And according to the Compete.com data, some sites lost more than half of their traffic.

Because Google compared the results of the changed search algorithm to the information coming back from its personal site block list Chrome extension, which lets users block domains with lower quality content, many have assumed that the company had targeted so-called content mills or farms, which mass large amounts of cheap content to help draw page views and the resulting advertising revenue.

The high tech and media industries have been busy debating the ultimate effect on companies like Demand Media (DMD), Helium.com, and Examiner.com that strongly depend on search results to deliver traffic. Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand spoke with Google's head of spam fighting, Matt Cutts, about the changes.

Cutts wouldn't address whether Google had targeted the farms, but Sullivan has the sense that Google has not aimed at the farm sites so much as at low quality content. And Sullivan paraphrases Cutts as having said that "the top 50 sites that were most reported as spam by users of the tool, 84% of them were impacted by the new ranking changes."

As Peter Kafka of All Things Digital noted on Friday, Demand Media investors yawned at the news of the Google search changes. A Demand Media blog post by EVP of Media and Operations Larry Fitzgibbon confirmed that "a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results." But on the average, what happened?

Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand has a roundup of analysis. The most widely discussed n the tech blogs over the weekend were the Sistrix numbers. Some noticed that eHow.com, Demand Media's most popular property, actually seemed to improve in keyword standings. But that company only offered a bare before and after view based on keywords. So it was impossible to tell whether a site had a significant change in its traffic at all and if any change seemed to correlate with the new Google algorithms.

To help untangle the picture, Compete.com, which estimates Web site traffic in the U.S., responded to our request, pulled together daily metrics for a number of Demand Media's sites as well as Helium.com and Examiner.com. Graphs from Compete show two different measurements:
  • Reach measures what percentage of all U.S. Internet users visit is given web site.
  • Attention measures what percentage of all the time U.S. Internet users collectively spend online and was spent on a given site.
On a first glance, the data for eHow.com seems to confirm the Sistrix view that eHow gained from the change (click to enlarge):


Take a closer look and you see that on the 25th, traffic took a slight drop. On the 26th, there was some rebound. However, as the graph shows, eHow traffic is strongly cyclic. What seems to be a jump may be a normal increase, which raises the question of whether it would have been larger without the algorithm changes. That's why some context of previous traffic patterns are important for such an analysis. It will take at least another full week for the overall trend to begin to develop.

The results for some other Demand sites were more obvious -- and negative. Livestrong.com, Demand's second biggest site, took a significant hit (click to enlarge):


Answerbag.com saw a loss, with traffic sharply dropping off at around the time Google put its changes into effect (click to enlarge):


Trails.com had a sharp fall. A Demand site that sports the brand of supermodel Tyra Banks, typeF.com, launched in the middle of February, hit a traffic high, and then immediately started a steep slide. It seems that the site has significant problems other than Google's algorithm changes (click to enlarge):



Demand's Cracked.com humor site, branded for the magazine, had a spike the day before the changes, but then traffic quickly cooled.

Examiner.com, which is not owned by Demand, saw a continuation of a traffic drop trend, so it's unclear whether the site was actually hurt. Helium.com, on the other hand, took an enormous walloping (click to enlarge):



As other companies in this space, Compete takes samples from large sets of people who are willing to have their Internet use monitored, so the results may not be statistically representational of U.S. Internet users in general.

Related: Image: morgueFile user wintersixfour, sites standard license.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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