How Spam and Google effectively ruined the internet for millions of publishers and other people
The day the indie publisher died, care of Spam and Google
The gold rush of the first Internet wave
Back in the heady days of the 1990s until mid-2000, independent internet publishers were able to easily thrive online, both by email and on the then-nascent world wide web.
Back then, you literally just had to know how to have a web page set up (whether you built it or had a friend do it for you), set up an email list, start publishing to your email list (and sometimes to your web site, too), make sure you were indexed in Yahoo! and AltaVista, and a dozen other engines and directories, and your list would probably start to grow, as long as you delivered a consistent product or service, like a newsletter or research paper or magazine.
Once your traffic was rolling, you could start calling advertisers (by looking them up online or in the yellow pages), and start selling ads for $500 or $2000, minimum, without having to negotiate very much at all. It seemed like a lot of money for independent publishers, and an incredibly cheap deal for advertisers.
Publishers were happy. Advertisers were happy. Everyone seemed happy.
Then something happened, and it wasn’t what you might think.
In October 2000, the tech bubble popped. Billions upon billions of dollars were vaporized, and gone were the masses of well-funded no-value companies, who managed to rake in huge sums of investor funds, without so much as a penny of revenue, let alone profit.
At the same time, independent companies, with real revenue and (cough cough) real profit margins were hit by something much worse: Spam and heavy reliance on vaporware advertisers.
Those advertisers with so much money to spend on low ROI branding, were only too happy to spend a fortune when times were good, money was plentiful, and the living was easy. We were all drunk on the ease of it all. The advertisers did not want or expect results, because they were overloaded with just getting their clients online, anywhere they could be seen.
All of a sudden, they had no more money, because they were too proud of their “burn rate” for far too long. Rather than taking a long, slow approach to building real value with their substantial investments, they spent it all with a splash, and went out with the crash.
Of course, the publisher were not complaining when the dollars were raining down in a torrent. Then again, they were not doing anything to prepare for the likelihood that the party would end, and reality would sink in. The future, for anyone who had a clue, was bleak, difficult, and full of years of survival, let along growing pains.
All of that is just the fault of everyone legitimately involved in the internet publishing industry back in those days. In that sense, we were all to blame.
Even so, that failure to properly manage well-heeled bank accounts to support these fledgling companies, was nothing compared to the illegitimate abuse of internet resources.
The first villain to rear its ugly head in that way, was spam. Unsolicited mail. Junk email. The junk that used to pile up in your inbox, and somehow, despite all the advances in anti-spam filters, still does.
Spam killed email.
Yes, it’s been said before. I just have something particular to say about it.
Spam killed off the publishing of a Pangea-sized ocean of perfectly legitimate, hard-won email lists, built up by wonderful businesses whose primary access to the online world, was their inbox.
Email lists, of all kinds, belonging to all sorts of publishers, from small to large, from independent to large publicly traded corporations, could no longer reach their customers, because spam flooded their inboxes so badly, that people simply switched addresses, or stopped using email as much as possible.
While it may not sound so bad, the net result was that it killed off the creme de la creme of online publishers who had managed to build up real trust with people through their email.
Of course what led to so much spam was also partly to blame on some of the publishers themselves. They had been selling off or renting off lists of their subscribers to the highest bidder, or any buyer who would offer, without knowing anything about those buyers, their interests, their motives, or any of their future use plans. Of course, spammers did not rely solely on buying lists. They used bots. Little software robots that could gather email addresses automatically from emails, web pages, and other places on the internet.
Those little bots not only gathered the lists, they “cleaned” them by merging and purging. They formed them into new lists and automatically started blasting away highly targeted ads for pills, porn, casinos and other delightful adult products and services we all obviously need every single day.
But even that did not finish off the little publisher, or the large publisher who wanted to hang in there and ride out the storm for better days.
Nope. It wasn’t spam. Because after all, smart publishers were able to migrate from one media to the next, and if they were resourceful enough, they could do it without losing too much in the shuffle. They might even find the new media to be more profitable. For a while.
And then Google ate the Internet
It was right around the tech bubble bursting that Google became the rising superstar leading up to the lovable fuzzy cyber monster muppet that it is today.
Google, complete with its whiz-bang algorithms, was the talk of tech. They had secretly formulated the perfect recipe to deliver exactly what you asked for, by searching for things in plain human languages. Or so they said, and most people seemed to believe them.
Google is a brilliant company. Thousands of the best minds, all working together, developing software and applications that mere mortals dare not dream. Google has created many wonderful tools which have vastly improved the usability of the internet, chief among those being their search engine, and their email known as Gmail.
Still, what Google also did, was to use the power of their search engine, to legitimately buy out the online advertising industry, and like a gorilla, crush it.
Anyone could join google’s ad network. Anyone could use google’s search on their site, even customized. Anyone could let google copy their entire website, and forever own the copies they made and store. And anyone could earn a sliver of the amount they could earn with direct advertisers for the same space, before Google decided to stick itself into everyone’s business, and lower the money flow to pennies on the dollar, if that.
So yes, they managed to lower ad rates, and that was good for advertisers. But by doing so, they killed off many good and valuable media by pawning off low value traffic to the same advertisers, and not paying the good media a rate commensurate with their value. Google’s ad network became the largest cesspool of bottom feeders. And that attracted all the web spammers who ruined search, thus decreasing the value of those google ads, even further.
So much for the Google creed, “Don’t be evil.”
Google stole the Internet by asking for it
Permission marketing is a very positive idea in business, developed online by Seth Godin and others of that stream of thought, which says that sales and marketing are like a date: you have to speak to your date before you go together to the dance, or movie, or dinner. You need permission for every step. That sort of behavior builds solid trust. Lacking that behavior shows a lack of trustworthiness.
Google used permission marketing, by offering the greatest app ever (free search) for anyone’s web site, accompanied by the only app that at the time seemed even greater than the greatest app ever. And that application was: Google AdSense.
By opening up the web to millions more websites into the advertising pool, Google managed to lower the bid rate and value of advertising on the web. They effectively killed off the amounts that advertisers were willing to pay for perfectly good media on sites that had actual audiences.
Google, with all its good intentions, may have delivered better search results, but the cost was that it killed off ad revenues by more than 90% for most internet publishers. That, more than Spam, more than the economic disaster that followed the tech bubble, put millions of websites out of business.
The net effect is that now, more than a decade later, we have yet to see a return to any heyday or good times for publishers online. The exception to that are those publishers who have the means to build or buy themselves a significant, targeted distribution network, with a minimum of millions of contacts. For most media companies, even if you were reaching millions of people a day back in 2000, you probably aren’t doing that anymore. And you can thank Google for doing that, by “organizing the world’s information” in the way that they prefer, and destroying its value in the process.
By making everyone believe that they would always find what they wanted on Google, hundreds of millions, if not billions of people are now basically clueless as to other ways of finding information online. Google is not the be all and end all of search engines. Users relying on google innocently caused so much traffic to be lost from sites that had worked to build something of real value, that those sites could no longer support themselves with Google blocking everyone’s way to their sites.
Of course, the GOOG was not the only one to ask for permission to copy and own your content, in exchange for cheap-o advertising and free search tools. But, they were the best, and the fruit they bore was to build the world’s largest internet advertising network, and the most popular search engine, all at the cost of ruining the ad revenue of millions of companies that were around online, long before anyone had heard of Google.
The story doesn’t end in darkness. There is a better future. A brighter day did arrive. It’s for another post.