I'm in the Wall Street Journal today, with a
about our purchase of Topix.com
for $1M and the SEO issues related
to moving the domain.
The story has caused a bit of blog buzz, given the quoted price for
the domain and the open acknowledgement of the SEO concern for us.
Predictably, the two responses are:
- Isn't that a lot of money to spend for a domain?
- Should you really be so dependent on SEO for traffic?
Back in 2003 when we were looking for a name, we came across Topix.net.
The name 'topix' really fit what we were trying to do, it was a
heck of a lot better than the other names we'd come up with. It
turned out we could buy the name from a South Korean squatter for $800.
So we took it.
Of course I knew we were breaking one of the rules of domain names,
which is never get anything besides the .com. But I thought that
advice might be outmoded. In the early days of the Netscape browser,
if you typed a word into the URL bar, the browser would automatically
append ".com" onto it if it wasn't already a domain. But the browser
doesn't do that anymore.
Since those early day, there have also been a flurry of alternate top
level domains released. .tv, .info, .fm, all of the country domains,
and so forth. Surely, the advice that you had to have a .com wasn't
as relevant anymore?
Well, we got our answer when our very first press story came out.
This was in March 2004 when we got a front page business section
launch story in the Mercury News. They gave us sweet coverage since
we were the only startup to come out of palo alto in months (this
was just as the dot-com crash was beginning to thaw). Unfortunately,
while the article clearly spelled "Topix.net", the caption under our
photo -- the most visible part of the story after the headline --
called us Topix.com. Someone had transcribed the name and mistakenly
changed the .net to .com, out of habit, I suppose.
Since that time we've built up quite a bit of usage, and much of it
return visitors who have bookmarked one of our pages, or become active
in our local forums. But still, we continued to have issues where
someone will assume a .com ending for the name. Mail gets sent to
the wrong address, links to us are wrong, stories incorrectly mention
Beyond that, as part of some frank self-evaluations we were doing
around our site and how we could make it better, and the brand
stronger, we ran some user surveys and focus groups. "What do you
think of the name?" was one of the questions we asked. The news
was good & bad; people actually really liked the name 'topix',
but the '.net' was a serious turn-off. It confused users, it made
the name seem technical rather than friendly, and it communicated to
the world that "we didn't own our own name."
So our choice was to 1) live with it, 2) move to a completely new name,
or 3) try to go buy the .com. We'd talked to the owners of Topix.com
since day 1 of our existence. They were a successful Canadian
business, they were actively using the name for their business, and
didn't really need to sell. In essence, the negotiations to buy the
domains, while recently completed, actually took over three years.
So I brought up the question with our board. This is going to be
expensive, should we look into it? They were very supportive.
Their take was, if we were going to invest in our brand, and in
having a better connection with our users, as opposed to remaining
a geek-tool or just getting SEO traffic, that we'd want to make sure
the brand was top-tier.
While the cost seemed expensive, in the context of the dollars behind our
partial acquisition and funding -- $64M -- it wasn't really that large.
Furthermore, unlike other marketing spends which tend to be a quick
shot of attention which dissipates, this would be an asset which we'd
own forever. Names are critically important on the net, and if we were
ever to hope for having a mass audience, it made sense to at least own
our own name.
So we decided to fix this issue once and for all, and we got the name.
What about SEO?
Now to the second question... How dependent should we be on SEO?
Contrary to what Danny Sullivan says,
we have never thought of ourselves as primarily a news search
engine, but rather in the mission of aggregating audience around
localities. We have over 50 feeds of professional content available
on our site (full text articles that we have the rights to display),
including content from Reuters, the AP, and Tribune. Furthermore,
an increasing fraction of our content and traffic is occurring in our
local community forums. This is content 100% unique to Topix and is
a very sticky service for us with our users.
But we do rely on SEO for what we think of as new user trials.
Our goal is not to rely on this traffic, but rather to get
as much adoption as possible. The fraction of "trials" that we
convert to "return users" is our purest guide to how well the site is
delivering value to our visitors, and the goal for all of our product
initiatives is to increase this fraction.
To say that a content site should not rely on search engine traffic --
most of which comes from Google -- is naive. The web is 10 billion
pages now, with a single point of entry. That's the web the way works.
If you want to have a web business, you have to acknowledge this reality.
Sites such as Wikipedia, Answers.com, About.com and TripAdvisor receive
massive amounts of traffic from search engines. I would think that
50% would be a low guess. About, Answers.com and TripAdvisor are
big businesses, and they would be completely clobbered if users
stopped being able to find them from Google. This is not unusual;
it is the norm. Barry Diller talked about the importance of SEO to
his sites in his keynote at a recent conference.
Sometimes retailers get hosed because the city decides to re-pave the
street their business is on. The street is infrastructure. Like it
or not, Google is infrastructure on the net now. They're the source
of all the foot traffic. The three words in retail are "location,
location, location." The three words online are "search engine
optimiziation." It means the same thing.
The good news is that, as we sign more and more users up into our
community system, Topix should become less reliant on external traffic.
But it's never going to be the case that we're not going
to want our content to be findable by someone looking for it, from
the place everyone starts -- Google.