Rich Skrenta has a love-hate relationship with Google, and the traffic it drives to the company he leads, Topix.
Skrenta decried to the Wall Street Journal just weeks ago that as Topix is 45% dependent upon Google for its visitors, moves by the number one search engine can yield “catastrophic” impacts on Topix revenues resulting from potentially lower Google SERP rankings.
In Skrenta vs. King Google, sometimes last week, I discussed how Skrenta has been all over the Google map this first quarter 2007.
Skrenta followed up on my analysis of his Google stance with his own post citing my reporting of his “apparent inconsistenencies” in his blog posts over the past four months, saying:
Credit to Donna for actually noticing and calling me on it.
The Skrenta-Google SEO dance continues. Skrenta headlines his explanation for the just announced “reinvention” of Topix “What do you do when your success…sucks?” and begins:
We took a hard look at ourselves at Topix last year. We had built up a strong local audience on the site, but a lot of it was SEO, and while users were clearly getting some value out of our product, we hadn't made something that people really cared about.
Why is Topix reinventing itself now? Skrenta on key insights gleaned:
The first was that users arriving at our site had no idea who we were or what the site was about. "Who the fuck are you guys?" was the question our site needed to answer for vistors, according to the brandologists. In person, and even on our corporate blog, we apparently came across as passionate about what we were doing. But none of this showed through on the site itself. "News untouched by human hands" was what we were actually delivering, and it wasn't working.
The second problem was sort of a structural flaw with our news pages. They didn't conform to any standard web page metaphor.
Google SEO lessons learned translation? While appealing, SEO fueled “free” Google search traffic does not a sustainable business make on its own.
Skrenta and his team engaged in “therapy sessions with brandologists” to pinpoint ways to improve the Topix user experience in order to develop more branded, direct destination traffic with repeat visit loyalty.
Topix Reinvention, as of April 2, 2007, as described by Skrenta:
1) The part of our site that was growing like a weed were the locally-oriented forums. Our new product would emphasize people over the machine.
2) Fix the local pages by making them work like community-edited blogs. Strictly obey the blog metaphor, with chronological posts, and all of the associated visual cues which tell you that you're on a blog, and not on, say, a Google news search result.
3) We would run the show just like DMOZ, although borrowing some subsequent innovations from Wikipedia. This was a reliable model, we had done this before with 75,000 volunteers, but no one had done it for news yet. We needed to build an editorial system that could provide a umbrella quality filter around thousands of daily contributors.
4) Anthropomorphize our existing technology into the roboblogger. It simultaneously solves three problems: a Booting up a new city -- you need posting activity to draw the first editors. The roboblogger would give us that. But he is shy and gets out of the way if humans show up and take over a page. b) If the community editors go on vacation, the roboblogger can step back in and take over while they're gone. c) People know when a robot is editing the page vs. a human. His profile icon is a picture of a little tin-can robot.
5) Kill the home page. It should be an "enter your ZIP code" box. Putting national news on this page created too much confusion with our main mission, which has always been local.
6) Streamline the experience. Most our users are not bloggers, they're not fans of some Silicon Valley Web 2.0 startup. They just want to talk to people in their town. We had to make the experience simple for them.
The official Topix corporate position on its “reinvention”:
Readers reboot local news with Topix
Topix, the largest news community on the Web, today unveiled a new site that gives its established community of millions the power to find, report and edit local news. Topix’s pioneering platform addresses the pent up demand for local news in towns and cities across the country where traditional news media alone can’t cover enough of the hyper-local events and issues that matter most to neighbors.
As part of the launch, Topix also moved its domain to Topix.com to support its continued growth as a major Web destination.
The Topix.com move follows a $1 million purchase of its .com domain.
Topix equity investors Gannett, McClatchy and Tribune upped their financial comittment to Topix by $15 million late last year.
While Google SEO traffic is theoretically "free," Topix is betting its future, and its sharholders' millions, that greater ROI will be had from branded, direct navigation.