Publisher Blocking: How the Web Was Lost


Streaming Apps

Google recently announced app streaming, where they can showcase & deep link into apps in the search results even if users do not have those apps installed. How it works is rather than users installing the app, Google has the app installed on a computer in their cloud & then shows users a video of the app. Click targets, ads, etc. remain the same.

In writing about the new feature, Danny Sullivan wrote a section on “How The Web Could Have Been Lost”

Imagine if, in order to use the web, you had to download an app for each website you wanted to visit. To find news from the New York Times, you had to install an app that let you access the site through your web browser. To purchase from Amazon, you first needed to install an Amazon app for your browser. To share on Facebook, installation of the Facebook app for your browser would be required. That would be a nightmare.

The web put an end to this. More specifically, the web browser did. The web browser became a universal app that let anyone open anything on the web.

To meaningfully participate on those sorts of sites you still need an account. You are not going to be able to buy on Amazon without registration. Any popular social network which allows third party IDs to take the place of first party IDs will quickly become a den of spam until they close that loophole.

In short, you still have to register with sites to get real value out of them if you are doing much beyond reading an article. Without registration it is hard for them to personalize your experience & recommend relevant content.

Desktop Friendly Design

App indexing & deep linking of apps is a step in the opposite direction of the open web. It is supporting proprietary non-web channels which don’t link out. Further, if you thought keyword (not provided) heavily obfuscated user data, how much will data be obfuscated if the user isn’t even using your site or app, but rather is interacting via a Google cloud computer?

  • Who visited your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Where were they located? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Did they have problems using your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • What did they look at? Can you retarget them? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.

Is an app maker too lazy to create a web equivalent version of their content? If so, let them be at a strategic disadvantage to everyone who put in the extra effort to publish their content online.

If Google has their remote quality raters consider a site as not meeting users needs because they don’t publish a “mobile friendly” version of their site, how can one consider a publisher who creates “app only” content as an entity which is trying hard to meet end user needs?

We know Google hates app install interstitials (unless they are sold by Google), thus the only reason Google would have for wanting to promote these sorts of services would be to justify owning, controlling & monetizing the user experience.

App-solutely Not The Answer

Apps are sold as a way to lower channel risk & gain direct access to users, but the companies owning the app stores are firmly in control.

Everyone wants to “own” the user, but none of the platforms bother to ask if the user wants to be owned:

We’re rapidly moving from an internet where computers are ‘peers’ (equals) to one where there are consumers and ‘data owners’, silos of end user data that work as hard as they can to stop you from communicating with other, similar silos.

If the current trend persists we’re heading straight for AOL 2.0, only now with a slick user interface, a couple more features and more users.

You’ve Got AOL

The AOL analogy is widely used:

Katz of Gogobot says that “SEO is a dying field” as Google uses its “monopoly” power to turn the field of search into Google’s own walled garden like AOL did in the age of dial-up modems.

Almost 4 years ago a Google engineer described SEO as a bug. He suggested one shouldn’t be able to rank highly without paying.

It looks like he was right. Google’s aggressive ad placement on mobile SERPs “has broken the will of users who would have clicked on an organic link if they could find one at the top of the page but are instead just clicking ads because they don’t want to scroll down.”

In the years since then we’ve learned Google’s “algorithm” has concurrent ranking signals & other forms of home cooking which guarantees success for Google’s vertical search offerings. The “reasonable” barrier to entry which applies to third parties does not apply to any new Google offerings.

And “bugs” keep appearing in those “algorithms,” which deliver a steady stream of harm to competing businesses.

From Indy to Brand

The waves of algorithm updates have in effect increased the barrier to entry, along with the cost needed to maintain rankings. The stresses and financial impacts that puts on small businesses makes many of them not worth running. Look no further than MetaFilter’s founder seeing a psychologist, then quitting because he couldn’t handle the process.

When Google engineers are not focused on “breaking spirits” they emphasize the importance of happiness.

The ecosystem instability has made smaller sites effectively disappear while delivering a bland and soulless result set which is heavy on brand:

there’s no reason why the internet couldn’t keep on its present course for years to come. Under those circumstances, it would shed most of the features that make it popular with today’s avant-garde, and become one more centralized, regulated, vacuous mass medium, packed to the bursting point with corporate advertising and lowest-common-denominator content, with dissenting voices and alternative culture shut out or shoved into corners where nobody ever looks. That’s the normal trajectory of an information technology in today’s industrial civilization, after all; it’s what happened with radio and television in their day, as the gaudy and grandiose claims of the early years gave way to the crass commercial realities of the mature forms of each medium.

If you participate on the web daily, the change washes over you slowly, and the cumulative effects can be imperceptible. But if you were locked in an Iranian jail for years the change is hard to miss.

These sorts of problems not only impact search, but have an impact on all the major tech channels.

If you live in Goole, these issues strike close to home.

And there are almost no counter-forces to the well established trend:

Eventually they might even symbolically close their websites, finishing the job they started when they all stopped paying attention to what their front pages looked like. Then, they will do a whole lot of what they already do, according to the demands of their new venues. They will report news and tell stories and post garbage and make mistakes. They will be given new metrics that are both more shallow and more urgent than ever before; they will adapt to them, all the while avoiding, as is tradition, honest discussions about the relationship between success and quality and self-respect.

If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and “publications” are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

A Deal With the Devil

As ad blocking has grown more pervasive, some publishers believe the solution to the problem is through gaining distribution through the channels which are exempt from the impacts of ad blocking. However those channels have no incentive to offer exceptional payouts. They make more by showing fewer ads within featured content from partners (where they must share ad revenues) and showing more ads elsewhere (where they keep all the ad revenues).

So far publishers have been underwhelmed with both Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. The former for stringent ad restrictions, and the latter for providing limited user data. Google Now is also increasing the number of news stories they show. And next year Google will roll out their accelerated mobile pages offering.

The problem is if you don’t control the publishing you don’t control the monetization and you don’t control the data flow.

Your website helps make the knowledge graph (and other forms of vertical search) possible. But you are paid nothing when your content appears in the knowledge graph. And the knowledge graph now has a number of ad units embedded in it.

A decade ago, when Google pushed autolink to automatically insert links in publisher’s content, webmasters had enough leverage to “just say no.” But now? Not so much. Google considers in-text ad networks spam & embeds their own search in third party apps. As the terms of deals change, and what is considered “best for users” changes, content creators quietly accept, or quit.

Many video sites lost their rich snippets, while YouTube got larger snippets in the search results. Google pays YouTube content creators a far lower revenue share than even the default AdSense agreement offers. And those creators have restrictions which prevent them from using some forms of monetization while forces them to accept other types of bundling.

The most recent leaked Google rater documents suggested the justification for featured answers was to make mobile search quick, but if that were the extent of it then it still doesn’t explain why they also appear on desktop search results. It also doesn’t explain why the publisher credit links were originally a light gray.

With Google everything comes down to speed, speed, speed. But then they offer interstitial ad units, lock content behind surveys, and transform the user intent behind queries in a way that leads them astray.

As Google obfuscates more data & increasingly redirects and monetizes user intent, they promise to offer advertisers better integration of online to offline conversion data.

At the same time, as Google “speeds up” your site for you, they may break it with GoogleWebLight.

If you don’t host & control the user experience you are at the whim of (at best, morally agnostic) self-serving platforms which could care less if any individual publication dies.

It’s White Hat or Bust…

What was that old white hat SEO adage? I forget the precise wording, but I think it went something like…

Don’t buy links, it is too risky & too uncertain. Guarantee strong returns like Google does, by investing directly into undermining the political process by hiring lobbyists, heavy political donations, skirting political donation rules, regularly setting policy, inserting your agents in government, and sponsoring bogus “academic research” without disclosing the payments.

Focus on the user. Put them first. Right behind money.


SEO Book


Language and the Lost Art of Letter Writing


Writing by hand

How does language create the mind?

Language is one of the most sophisticated cognitive skills we possess as humans. It expresses and shapes thought. It contains an implicit classification of experience and is designed to change the neural pathways to the brain, thus changing minds.

The changing patterns occur through the use of sounds and symbols. It’s a process like that of using metaphors. A metaphor finds connections between things in the mind and new connections enable the mind to see the world differently.

In Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say metaphors are pervasive in our everyday lives and they influence not just language, but also our thoughts and actions. But:

Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.

Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. And we have found a way to begin to identify in detail what the metaphors are that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do.

Take for example the concept of argument and the corresponding conceptual metaphor that argument is war. “This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language in a variety of expressions:”

  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He attackedevery weak point in my argument
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • I demolished his argument
  • I’ve never won an argument with him
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out
  • He shot down all my arguments


Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground.

Imagine where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

We would not think of it as “arguing” in the sense we typically do at all. Thus we would have the ability — and the freedom — to structure out thinking around discourse differently. This would bring about different outcomes. When we’re busy arguing, we don’t see all the other options we could have as part of the exchange — because we’re down the warpath, of bringing that metaphor to life.

Now let’s think about another very common metaphor — that of time. In this linguistic analysis we can see how “time is money” permeates our realities:

  • You’re wasting my time
  • This gadget will save you hours
  • I don’t have the time to give you
  • How do you spend your time these days?
  • That flat tire cost me an hour
  • I’ve invested a lot of time in her
  • I don’t have enough time to spare for that
  • You’re running out of time
  • You need to budget your time
  • Put aside some time for ping pong
  • Is that worth your while?
  • Do you have much time left?
  • He’s living on borrowed time
  • You don’t use your time profitably
  • I lost a lot of time when I got sick
  • Thank you for your time


Corresponding to the fact that we act as if time is a valuable commodity — a limited resource, even money — we conceive of time that way.

It is a relatively new metaphorical concept of our culture. “There are cultures where time is none of these things,” say the authors of Metaphors we Live By. Globalization and access are spreading ideas, images, and goods faster and more, but our identity is still tied to many elements that are cultural — made of heritage, environment, needs, interactions in the world where we grow up and live.

When we think of all this, communication may seem like a miracle. We should marvel that it happens at all. Two or more beings engaged in changing each other’s brains. Sometimes, we enter conversations open to changing our minds as well. 

Many neurolinguistic studies have been conducted on how the mind creates language. Yet few follow the opposite direction — figuring out how language changes minds. By language I intend the deliberate and considerate use of terminology and phraseology to communicate intent, share vision, engage in thought, reach out to someone to connect and inspire.

In my welcome note more than nine years ago I talked briefly about how engaging in a dialogue is a way of thinking together and creating something new.

Writers often say that they do not know what they think until they put pen to paper. Putting pen to paper is a very different sensory experience than typing on a machine. Letter writing combines our desire to express what we think and feel with the art of calligraphy and more of our senses — touch, manual ability, and language — in a system that also provides stimulation back to us in a form of sensory feedback.

Letter writing is a lost art. Writing a letter is giving a gift of more. It implies a reciprocity that creates a two-way relationship with our experience and that of the person for whom we write. Addressee and writer connect in the tangible act through the power of the handwritten word and the container in which it comes — the letter, or card.

But we live in a culture of time is money, where we make efficient use of resources by automating messages, sending quick emails, text messages, chat notes, quick hashtags and tweets, one day perhaps grunts. For this reason, with no time for conversation we indulge in narcissistic monologues instead of dances, or exchanges, barely seeing the person behind the avatar.

In this “time is money” context there is little space for letter writing. We’ve done away with writing letters in the name of efficiency.

Email is helping us stay in rapid-fire contact with one another. Memos and emails give companies the ability to communicate with hundreds of employees simultaneously.

But there is something to be said for a hand-written note — it’s personal, it’s intimate, it communicates much more than just a desire to stay in touch. It touches us back. And maybe, just maybe dedicating the time to write a letter helps us change the conceptual metaphor of time itself.


[image via Unsplash]

Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni