Answers.com Loses Significant Google Traffic Despite Google Definition Links

Pretty amazing — Answers.com has issued a press release to warn that its search traffic is down 28 percent due to "a search engine algorithmic adjustment by Google." It raises lots of issues — how dependent should you be on search traffic; how the "definitions" links that Answers.com has from Google don’t seem to generate that much traffic and whether it is really Answers.com that’s on the outs with Google, rather than a general change.

Press releases or any type of official guidance from companies warning of search traffic losses are fairly rare. I just haven’t seen much of them over the years. To me, the most famous example until now was when FTD warned sales were down in 2005 because it failed to pay enough attention to SEO. The head of marketing was replaced as part of that.

Stepping forward to today, Answers.com assures investors that it’s trying to address the situation:

"We are working diligently to analyze and address the recent algorithm change," said Bob Rosenschein, CEO. "We will update investors on the financial impact of this development during our upcoming Q2 earnings conference call on August 13." "The major search engines modify their algorithms all the time," added Mr. Rosenschein.

Indeed, algorithms do change all the time. That’s why it has never been a good idea for any business to be so heavily dependent on search traffic, in case they lose listings driving visitors. Many site owners learned this painful lesson during the Google "Florida" update of 2003 — but even then, many of them should have already known better. Answers.com belatedly understanding it needs to diversify is almost inexcusable.

Belatedly? Sure — because as the release says:

"This change only demonstrates the sound business rationale behind our agreement to purchase Dictionary.com, because it underscores a primary motivation for the deal: to secure a steady source of direct traffic and mitigate our current dependence on search engine algorithms. On a pro forma basis, we expect at least 70% of our total traffic to come from people navigating directly to our Web properties or typing the term ‘dictionary’ in a search engine. We remain optimistic and look forward to completing this transformative acquisition. As we work to restore normal traffic levels to Answers.com, we are confident that our efforts will result in a stronger and more valuable company."

Answers.com shouldn’t have been dependent on search engine traffic this much back in 1997, much less 2007.

What’s even more amazing is that Answers.com has key positioning on Google that you think would be sending tons of traffic to it. Back in January 2005, Google dumped the long-standing relationship it had with Dictionary.com to provide the "definition" links that often appear when you search on Google. For example, search for traffic, and you’ll see this in the blue reverse bar at the upper right-hand side of the page:

Results 110 of about 232,000,000 for traffic [definition]

Click on the link, and you get to this definition of traffic on Answers.com.

FYI, neither company ever formally announced the switch. In March 2005, a deal for Answers.com to carry AdSense was announced. I believe eventually Google made a statement that Answers.com was picked as a definition partner because of the quality its content, not because of AdSense — but I can’t find a reference to that right now. [NOTE: See postscript below. This was NOT a paid deal].

Anyway, as it turns out, the links doesn’t seem to drive that much traffic. Go back to that quote — 70 percent of Answers.com traffic comes from people going to it directly or typing in the word "dictionary." OK, so the remain 30 percent includes the Google direct links, search-related terms, general link traffic to Answers.com and so on. Those definition links are probably a healthy chunk of that, but they’re not the monster source you’d think.

Now how about that algorithm shift? Well, there isn’t one going on. I mean, I checked with Barry Schwartz, who as readers here knows constantly monitors various search forums for news he covers through Search Engine Roundtable. If a big shift is happening, people scream loudly on the forums. No one is screaming.

Instead, it sounds more like Answers.com has been hit in Google. Recall that in July, Squidoo found it had suffered a loss in traffic (Search Spam Fight – Mahalo: 1; Squidoo: 0 covers this more). That seemed related to spam concerns being voiced about Squidoo. So is Answers.com spamming too? Well, maybe.

Google Warning Against Letting Your Search Results Get Indexed from me back in March covered how Google warned that people should block search results from being listed in Google, lest the company view those as spam. Answers.com might find its pages are now being viewed in this way — search results that Google doesn’t want to list. Or not. I’ll come back to some checking that I’m doing below. But regardless the exact reason for the change, the traffic loss Answers.com is having seems more likely related to its own site than to something Google has done across the board.

In my mind, the biggest problem with Answers.com’s pages is they’ve gotten so "heavy" over the years. I used to use the definitions feature at Google a lot. More recently, I’ve found it less convenient as the Answers.com pages have grown. You don’t just get definitions. You get an entire Wikipedia entry coming up, a "Best of the Web" section, shopping links (in case you wanted to buy a traffic signal controller) and more. Geez — I just wanted to know the quick meaning of the word.

I’m getting some questions out to Answers.com, in particular:

  • How much traffic do those definition links send on a percentage basis?
     
  • When’s that deal end?
     
  • What percentage of traffic comes to the site for search terms other than "dictionary"
     
  • What are the top five terms aside from "dictionary" sending Answers.com traffic from Google?

As for Google, I’ll follow up on if they did anything in particular to Answers.com plus get some clarification of how Answers.com got to be the definition link partner. However, Google did tell MediaPost:

"We’re always working to improve search–making it more relevant, more comprehensive, and faster," noted a spokesperson. "Many of the changes we make, including regular updates to our algorithms, are focused on improving the experience for users."

That’s a non-answer. It doesn’t tell you if there was a big shift now or if something hit Answers.com in particular, both of which Google knows, if it wants to share.

Finally, I had to chuckle over this discussion I was once in about Answers.com back in 2005, where some searchers were wondering if Answers.com posed a threat to Google. Said one:

If Google "demotes" Answers from the definitions spot we will know if the majors consider them a threat. Lack of relevancy will not serve as an excuse. If they are dropped it will be because Answers results are so complete the searcher ends their search without returning to the G SERPs. I would love to see Googles study on this.

But here lies the conundrum for the majors. Will they work with someone who can stop a search dead with one page relevancy or turn their backs to such a product?

My response was:

Well, Google dumped Dictionary.com in favor of Answers.com but never said why. From my perspective, Answers.com probably provides a better experience. In both cases, the fact that both carry Google AdSense links — which help Google earn revenue — also had to be a factor. In short, Answers a threat to Google? How — if they send you there, you may hit AdSense and make them money. Go there direct, you may again hit AdSense and make them money. Less money than if you went to them directly, but they’re still earning.

Over two years later, I guess I still don’t see Answers.com as a Google-killer that Google wants to wipe out. But certainly it does compete with Google, the traffic loss is going to make some people question motives anew.

Postscript: I’ve now spoken with Answers.com CEO Bob Rosenschein and chief strategic officer Bruce Smith, who’ve provided some helpful additional information.

First, Rosenschein stressed that there’s no "deal" between Google and Answers.com for the definition links. As I had thought was the case, Google picked Answers.com because it thought Answers.com was a good resource, not because the two companies had negotiated any placement. "They just happened to point to us at the time because we had a lot of rich content in a nice format," Rosenschein said.

Next, some clarification of that 70% percent figure. That’s the amount of traffic that Answers.com expects to get from people directly navigating to both Answers.com and Dictionary.com, if the deal for Answers.com to buy Dictionary.com goes through. The current traffic breakdown is more like this:

  • Answers.com gets about 20-25 percent of its traffic from the Google definition links
     
  • Answers.com gets about 55-60 percent of its traffic from SEO — keyword driven traffic that it doesn’t have to pay for. Most of this traffic comes from Google.
     
  • Answers.com gets about 20 of its traffic from non-search sources.
     
  • Dictionary.com gets about 85 percent of its traffic from people either typing in the domain name directly (which is generally called direct navigation) or those searching for its domain name or just the word "dictionary" on search engines. The "overwhelming majority" of this traffic is from direct navigation.

Those figures really underscore the importance of Dictionary.com to Answers.com — in terms of traffic, they’re complementary. Answers.com receives tons of search traffic; Dictionary.com gets lots of direct navigation — having them both will be more balanced.

As for the ranking drop, Answers.com stressed that they didn’t feel there was any intentional act by Google to hurt the site. Instead, they do feel there was an algorithm change that happened. As for why there aren’t more sites seeing this, that might be down to it hitting a particular class of sites that aggregate material.

For example, muhammad ali use to get this Answers.com page into the top results consistently. Last week, it disappeared, the company said.

That page features content that is pulled from here at Who2, here at Wikipedia and several other sources, all of which Answers.com has agreements with. Possibly Google has done a tweak to try and drop sites that it doesn’t consider original sources more out of the results.

"Maybe they’re saying something like you can list 7 original sources on a page and 3 duplicates," said Smith, speculating on one of just many possibilities. "It’s hard to figure out."

The company hopes that when Google reviews results, the algorithm might shift back in a way that doesn’t hurt Answers.com and perhaps other sites like it so much. But in the meantime, it was compelled to say something.

"Maybe when they review the results, they’ll think they were overly harsh on that factor. But because we’re a public company, we had no choice to share what we thought was a significant downturn," Rosenschein said.

We have had tweaks happen that have impacted only certain classes of sites. Of Disappearing Sex Blogs & Google Updates from me in December covers how several well know and highly regarded sex blogs saw themselves out in the cold at Google.

And the issue of whether Google might view Answers.com’s page as "search results" that shouldn’t be listed? The company said its material isn’t just a collection of search result, nor is it simply a Wikipedia clone, given the 200 or so sources it taps into. Referring to that missing Muhammad Ali page, Smith said:

"You’ll never find a better page."

Answers.com also said that they are reviewing ways to make pages less heavy for those who simply want a more pure dictionary view.

Postscript 2: Google sent the general public statement:

We’re always working to improve search – making it more relevant, more comprehensive, and faster. Many of the changes we make, including regular updates to our algorithms, are focused on improving the experience for users.

And also said the definition link is not through a paid deal (as Answers.com also confirmed) and that “We have the option of changing the provider whenever we see fit.”

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Partnerships | Google: SEO | Search Engines: Answer Search Engines | SEO: General

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Danny, there may be something going with Google tweaking affecting a certain *type* of site – my *guess* is that the key characteristic is something like: “sites which have a HUGE number of links pointing to another site, and the links have text that “looks” like spam or a paid link”.

    The site has to meet both those conditions to be affected, and the spam-qualification might be for just a few keywords.

    But similar type sites have had trouble recently – see the report here:

    http://lists.wikia.com/pipermail/wikia-l/2007-July/001621.html
    [that particular example seems fixed now]

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/wordpress/ Michael Martinez

    Google actually releases algorithmic changes several times a month, according to a comment Matt Cutts made last year. Most of them don’t result in the massive forum screaming that we normally use to gauge the impact of Google’s changes.

    They are doing a better job of identifying mashup pages this year than they were a year ago. I would not be so skeptical of Answers’ belief that something changed at Google which directly (if not intentionally) affected their search visibility more than most people’s.

  • http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/ Matt Cutts

    Seth, the reason that Wikia wasn’t showing up is that Wikia had accidentally blocked Googlebot on Wikia’s side. After we verified that Googlebot was blocked and getting timeout errors trying to fetch from wikia.com, the Wikia folks dug more on their side and found where they had accidentally blocked some of our crawler IP addresses. I’m a little surprised that John Q didn’t follow up on that public thread to clarify that it was Wikia blocking Googlebot that caused their traffic drop.

  • Johnq

    Actually, I did post a response on the 31st to let people know we had crawl errors. Matt was right… we had been the subject of a ddos attack on one of our wikis that covers Hong Kong. An overzealous employee took a number of ip’s and blocked them… one google bot ip was in there. Matt was kind enough to get back to us pretty quickly on what they saw from their end which allowed us to figure this out.

  • Johnq

    Actually, I did post a response on the 31st to let people know we had crawl errors. Matt was right… we had been the subject of a ddos attack on one of our wikis that covers Hong Kong. An overzealous employee took a number of ip’s and blocked them… one google bot ip was in there. Matt was kind enough to get back to us pretty quickly on what they saw from their end which allowed us to figure this out.

  • http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/ Seth Finkelstein

    Ah, this, my bad:

    http://lists.wikia.com/pipermail/wikia-l/2007-July/001630.html

    (I’m not subscribed to the list, I just look at it on occasion from the website archives)

  • http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/ Matt Cutts

    No worries, Seth; I just wanted to nip that misconception in the bud. John Q, thanks for stopping by to say the same thing from Wikia’s side.

  • Sam I Am

    We lost about 60% of our google traffic overnight about three months back and we run a site that isn’t anywhere near as spammy looking and feeling as answers.com. As far as google is concerned we shouldn’t have a penalty since everything on the site is 100% above board (ie. follows their terms and guidelines), and always has been. Over at google groups there have been quite a few reports of high quality sites (we’re talking serious content players, in a case like ours with over 20 000 back links…) losing major amounts of traffic from google in the past few months, but no clear indication as to why it happens or what might be affecting it.

    I think Seth and you have the right idea about these changes only affecting certain sites, or perhaps only sites in certain topics mentioning certain words too much. There is really no logic to it as of yet, excepting that it is either a google bug or some manual change performed by an overzealous intern with a spam button…

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