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Kafka-esque!

I'm in the Wall Street Journal today, with a story 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 our URL.

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.

Coverage:

Comments (11)

Wow! You really made the big time! And to think I knew you when... :) If not for you, I would not be married today!

Cheers, and congrats on your success.

WebProNews implied that you guys were worried, but you probably know by now that a 301 is far better than a 302 in terms of redirecting your traffic to the new domain.

Also, FYI, topix.net is down with a server error.

Yeah, there've been a whole bunch of the seo posts saying essentially "hey, it's easy to move a domain, you just 301 it." Of course I know about 301 and 302 redirects. The problem is that half of these people follow up and say "you'll only be out of the index for a few months". They also ignore the problems that big sites have. A redirect for a small site may work great, but if you have hundreds of thousands of pages or more, there are lots of cases where this caused some form of not-in-the-index-anymore doom.

The number of seo consultants who claim to know how to move a 100k+ page site is much smaller than the number who have actually done it.

Thanks for the post, Rich -- I'll get it postscripted when I'm back on the blog tomorrow (or just drop a link in the comments there, if you want).

I still remain surprised that the 301 is that much of a problem for even a big site. I just haven't heard of that trouble, of half the people saying you'll be out or whatever. If that's what you had been hearing, I can understand your concern. But it seems a pretty straight-forward change, and it shouldn't even be a burden on the server in that you're not actually talking about 100,000 of physical redirects that have to be created and check but a change of one domain to the other.

All the best with the eventually move. At least you can be assured plenty of people will watch out for you on this one :)

joy:

Rich,

You must have just purchased topix.com, as the old owners are still showing in the Google SERPS this morning Google Search for Topix.

Having pointed that out, I do internal SEO (i.e. I am not a consultant) and I have just to say that you've got the least impactful 301 redirect ever, since y'all are merely changing the TLD and not the whole domain name.

One thing I would not do, though, and the WSJ article kind of implied this, would be to serve the same content on the .com and the .net. Having been there and done that, I would not recommend serving dupe content.

Anonymous:

In addition to the massive SEO issue, which I think is a big challenge, I'm interested in your thoughts regarding Google's statement suggesting search sites explicitly exclude their results in their robots.txt file. Do you foresee this to be an issue for Topix?

Topix does restrict search engines from its pure news search result in its robots.txt file. As for our local and topic pages, they are very similar to many typical news sites, with a mixture of external links, hosted news copy, and local commentary. Our local forum posts, which are 100% unique to topix, are now nearly half of our pageviews and growing each month.

Further, within the next few weeks we'll be announcing some big changes which will move topix even further towards providing custom, unique and value-added content, and further away from the automated aggregation we began with in 2004.

It's not really appropriate to label the South Korean person who owned the topix.net domain name before you did a 'squatter'. They paid for their domain just like everyone else does, and were not infringing upon your trademark rights, because they registered it before you even launched your company (i.e. you had no existing TM rights).

Your definition of 'squatter' would appear to be 'anyone who won't sell me their domain for $35' or 'is not using it in a manner that I approve.'

If Nintendo wants to launch a new product called the "Wii", for example, but wii.com is already registered to you --- should you be expected to simply bow before your new King, and hand over wii.com for free? I think not. That's like getting mad at a neighbour for not selling their 5,000 square foot home to you for $100,000, and throwing some slur at them.

Take a look at where beautiful.com points (nowhere), or kids.com (parked page) or crackers.com (parked page). Would you label Procter & Gamble, CNET, and Yahoo as "squatters" too, if they wanted $800 (or substantially more) for their domains? My company has purchased domains for substantially more than $800, but has not had to resort to calling other legitimate businesspeople such insults.

While there are indeed cybersquatters out there (folks who knowingly register and use domains in bad faith, infringing upon the pre-existing trademark rights of others, e.g. typos like wwwtopix.net which you don't own, but could likely win in a UDRP) putting that label on the South Korean businessperson just sounds like sour grapes.

Good point. The guy was actually quite reasonable to deal with, we had no complaints. And it's true that we've registered plenty of names we never did anything with, for the chance that we might one day need one of them. The system kind of encourages that. I've even sold a couple of names myself that I had registered but hadn't done anything with, so I guess I'd have to call myself a squatter too. :-)

At the bulk end are folks registering names by the thousands with the specific intent of flipping some of them to make a profit. I don't really have a problem calling those people 'squatters', but perhaps 'speculators' or 'domain traders' would be more fair. But in any event, the former topix.net owner didn't fit that category. Thanks for the viewpoint here.

Dan:

I'm a strong opponent of "dot-com-itis", the malady that leads to people insisting that all sites have .com addresses whether or not it makes sense (for instance, even for noncommercial sites). To combat this, I go out of my way to use non-dot-com addresses for all of my personal sites, and I dislike it whenever a site that's made a good name for itself in a non-dot-com address goes "over to the dark side" by switching to .com, even at great expense and risk of loss of search engine position, as in your case. (One very notable site that went the other direction is Wikipedia, which early in its history switched from .com to .org, when it officially became a nonprofit organization.)

I have always been a proponent of getting the same domain as the one Google registers to operate its search engines. When Google/MSN/Yahoo start have search engines that operate for the .net domain, then I will consider a .net domain. I agree that people are wired to type in .com for everything.

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