You aren’t imagining it: The web is a mess

by Michael Robinson

You remember way back in the early ’00s when your favorite blogs posted a few times a day at most, had a handful of great writers, and were a joy to read. Then something happened. Your beloved Lifehacker got out of hand, and you couldn’t keep up. TechCrunch bombarded you with shallow coverage of every little funding round and seemed to create ten new scandals a day.

The story repeated itself over and over, and you turned to the filters of Twitter and Facebook to keep up on the news. I want you to do a little experiment, to confirm that you aren’t losing your mind.

Go back to that favorite blog you abandoned when you realized you couldn’t keep up. You’ll find that it posts between 40 and 100 things a day. It’s no coincidence. Let’s face it: no person can keep up with that kind of volume on more than one blog and stay sane. You might be able to follow one or two, but not much more than that if you have anything else to do during the day.

These blogs don’t do it for you.  They do it for Google. They flood every keyword you might put into a search engine to deny that traffic to any blog that dares to compete with a low volume of high quality content.

I’m going to let you in on the dirty little secret: digital publishing lost its mind. The mind that kept the quality high and the volume low. The mind that cared about your time, and only shared the best with you. That mind is gone, lost in the mad dash for advertising dollars, trampled under diminishing CPMs and acquisitions that ripped editorial control away from the people who built your favorite sites.

Most top blogs don’t deserve the top slot anymore. All they do is generate a flood of shallow writing, hoping to collect all the traffic from people searching for news. I’ve seen this effect on a smaller scale when I write posts on events in the news. I’ll instantly get 20-100 hits on the topic, and enjoy a small spike in traffic over the following few days as the story runs its course. Now imagine you’re running a huge website with plenty of poorly or unpaid writers to flood every news topic with content.

Coverage of a single story could get thousands of dollars worth of ad impressions from the traffic on one of the bigger sites like Huffington Post. And the writers will see little if any of that money.

And it works. A blog with only a few hundred thousand readers might pop up in the #2 or #3 slot on Google, but the first result looks like a better match to most search engine users. If I ran a search engine, I would ban these sites from the index. Google and Bing can’t do that without drawing the gaze of regulators.

I have no solution to offer. I’ve thought about this for years, worked on ideas, and haven’t made any progress in breaking through the noise without doing the same thing the big sites do. This is an unhappy position for someone who’d like to make a living giving content away while making the money from ad dollars.

I don’t see a way to do that when an ad pays a pittance for thousands of impressions.

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