The Awl’s John Herrman, always smart on the ebbs and flows of online publishing, wrote a smart piece about the increasingly powerlessness of websites in the social media era. His hook is the great Metafilter, one of the web’s earliest community sites, which has to lay off staff because a change in Google’s algorithms turned off a chunk of the site’s traffic. Herrman (emphasis mine):
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. Google might bless a site with new visitors or take them away. Either way, it was still possible for a site’s fundamentals to be strong, independent of extremely large outside referrers. What’s so disconcerting now is that the new sources of readership, the apps and sites people check every day and which lead people to new posts and stories, make up a majority of total readership, and they’re utterly unpredictable (they’re also bigger, always bigger, every new internet is bigger). People still visit sites directly, but less. Sites still link to one another, but with diminishing results. A site that doesn’t care about Facebook will nonetheless come to depend on Facebook, and if Facebook changes how Newsfeed works, or how its app works, a large fraction of total traffic could appear or disappear very quickly.
Of course a website’s fortunes can change overnight. That these fortunes are tied to the whims of a very small group of very large companies, whose interests are only somewhat aligned with those of publishers, however, is sort of new. The publishing opportunity may be bigger today than it’s ever been but the publisher’s role is less glamorous: When did the best sites on the internet, giant and small alike, become anonymous subcontractors to tech companies that operate on entirely different scales? This is new psychological territory, working for publishers within publishers within publishers. The ones at the top barely know you exist! Anyway, internet people, remember this day in five years: It could happen to you, whether you asked for it or not.