Google's Threat to Democracy Hits AlterNet Hard
Editor’s note: Like AlterNet, Truthdig has experienced a drop in traffic from Google search engines since the company made changes in its algorithm this year.
The story we are sharing with you is very disconcerting for independent media and America’s future, and frankly unprecedented in AlterNet’s history.
It may be hard to imagine anything scarier than Donald Trump’s presidency. But this problem is actually bigger than Trump, and it is a situation that certainly helps him. This story affects you too, in ways you may not fully be aware of—in fact, it affects our whole media system and the future of democracy.
The New Media Monopoly Is Hurting Progressive and Independent News
The story is about monopoly on steroids. It is about the extreme and unconstrained power of Google and Facebook, and how they are affecting what you read, hear and see. It is about how these two companies are undermining progressive news sources, including AlterNet.
In June, Google announced major changes in its algorithm designed to combat fake news. Ben Gomes, the company’s vice president for engineering, stated in April that Google’s update of its search engine would block access to “offensive” sites, while working to surface more “authoritative content.”
This seemed like a good idea. Fighting fake news, which Trump often uses to advance his interests and rally his supporters, is an important goal that AlterNet shares.
But little did we know that Google had decided, perhaps with bad advice or wrong-headed thinking, that media like AlterNet—dedicated to fighting white supremacy, misogyny, racism, Donald Trump, and fake news—would be clobbered by Google in its clumsy attempt to address hate speech and fake news.
The Numbers Are Striking
We have had consistent search traffic averaging 2.7 million unique visitors a month, over the past two and a half years. (Search traffic makes up 30-40 percent of AlterNet’s overall traffic.) But since the June Google announcement, AlterNet’s search traffic has plummeted by 40 percent—a loss of an average of 1.2 million people every month who are no longer reading AlterNet stories.
AlterNet is not alone. Dozens of progressive and radical websites have reported marked declines in their traffic. But AlterNet ranks at the top in terms of audience loss because we have a deep archive from 20 years of producing thousands of news articles. And we get substantial traffic overall—typically among the top five indy sites.
So the reality we face is that two companies, Google and Facebook—which are not media companies, do not have editors or fact-checkers, and do no investigative reporting—are deciding what people should read, based on a failure to understand how media and journalism function.
The Harvey and Irma of Journalism
Britain’s famed journalist Sir Harold Evans described Facebook and Google as “the Harvey and Irma of journalism and democracy”:
Whatever else they do, the electronic duopoly deprive millions of information and argument as surely as the series of super storms deprive millions of light, power, home and hearth.
“The climate change deniers will go on calling the link between hurricanes and greenhouse gases a ‘hoax’ … but no one can deny the devastating effect of Facebook and Google on the viability of news organizations to investigate complexity and resist suppression.
The Google Hit Goes Right to Our Bottom Line
There are two stories here. The larger one, which everyone should be concerned with, is what information are you not seeing, hearing, or watching, simply because of secret algorithms that Google (and Facebook) never explain or make public.
The second, our more personal story, is that the Google algorithm change hurts us financially.
So we are turning to our readers for support.
Why? Because Google’s undermining of progressive journalism means we have lost a major chunk of audience and as a result are looking at big potential losses in ad revenue.
AlterNet’s long-term success is based on our balanced economic model. We get roughly half of our revenue from advertising and half from contributions from readers and supporters like you, as well as a handful of foundations. But now 40 percent of our traffic, earned over many years, has disappeared due to Google’s arbitrary tactics.
Our goal is to stay strong, keep our great staff and fight Donald Trump and his cult of core supporters. We are proud to have never made a desperate appeal for money. For more than 15 years, we have had a very healthy balance, and our financial supporters contributed what we needed each year to balance the ad revenue. But now, due to media monopoly on steroids, we are very concerned.
This fall fundraising campaign is needed to bolster our finances and prepare to pivot AlterNet so it can survive and continue to be read by a huge audience of millions, without having to mostly rely on Facebook and Google. Can we count on you to help?
Don Hazen, Executive Editor, AlterNet