Here at Cointelegraph, we were as shocked as everyone else in and around the crypto-sphere when we learned about the abrupt closure of stalwart crypto media outlet CCN. Established at around the same time as Cointelegraph and CoinDesk, CCN spent years competing for the crypto audience.
However, just a couple days later, as many others, we were relieved to hear that CCN was back — although we couldn’t help but feel sceptical regarding several aspects of the story and puzzled by so many questions swirling around it.
How come a key player in our own industry could go down overnight — and then come back so conveniently after a few days? How could a three-letter-dot-com domain commanding millions of monthly visits be so hooked on Google-fed traffic that a single adjustment in the search algorithm, albeit a major one, cost it 90% of ad revenue momentarily?
What was it, really? A targeted, politically motivated character assassination on behalf of the tech giant (as CCN’s founder claimed)? An unfortunate alignment of circumstances with no one in particular to blame? Possibly a PR stunt, or something else? We felt we owed it to the entire industry to take a sober look into this case to find out whether something similar could happen to any of us at any point in the future.
What happened to CCN?
CCN Markets, established in 2013 by the Norwegian entrepreneur Jonas Borchgrevink as CryptoCoinsNews.com, is currently part of the media company Hawkfish AS, which also operates Hacked, a publication that provides analysis on “future assets” like cryptocurrencies and tech stocks; MoneyMakers, a self-identified “tabloid that produces news with a special focus on money”; and HVY.com, a news platform that is designed to promote journalists rather than news stories. One of the largest global crypto-related news outlets, the majority of traffic to ccn.com comes from the U.S. As of early June 2019, the publication reportedly employed more than 60 full-time, part-time and freelance contributors.
On June 10, CCN founder Jonas Borchgrevink addressed the readers with an extensive post, declaring that the website took a massive blow from Google’s June 2019 Core Update and saw mobile traffic from Google searches drop by 71% overnight, as measured by Sistrix’s Visibility Index (the same graph also showed a 53% decline in desktop traffic). This, Borchgrevink claimed, resulted in an immediate 90% decrease in ad revenue. He added that, although CCN had reached even lower visibility scores on a few occasions throughout the past year, the latest dip proved the most devastating because of the recent expansion of its team.
Borchgrevink suspected a possible “general crypto crackdown by Google,” citing smaller but substantial losses on the same metric allegedly sustained by CNN’s competitors — i.e., CoinDesk and Cointelegraph. However, regarding Cointelegraph, the data Borchgrevink cites is inaccurate, based on conversations with Cointelegraph’s SEO team and public data that shows no reversal or even a slowdown around June 10. On the contrary, it reveals a steady upward trend in Cointelegraph’s Alexa Rank dynamics that is visible since mid-May. According to a Forbes article, other prominent publications in the crypto space, such as Coindesk and The Block, also reported insignificant effects from Google’s update.
CCN’s director went on to discuss other potential reasons for the website’s visibility collapse, including Google’s guidelines for additional scrutiny applied to “Your Money, Your Life” websites — in other words, outlets that provide information related to either health or personal finance and are therefore subject to more stringent content quality requirements. Borchgrevink then ruled out the possibility of having been taken down on the grounds of quality, listing all CCN’s well-deserved awards, quality seals, and editorial and business practices that speak in favor of the publication’s blue-ribbon status.
Finally, CCN’s boss turned to politics as an explanation for Google’s allegedly unfavorable treatment of his website. He noted that, despite being pro-free speech and providing a floor for opinions from all over the ideological spectrum, CCN has recently featured a lot of specifically “Pro-Trump” op-eds, which, he implied, was in line with the publication’s “anti-elite, anti-centralization” stance, which Google, according to him, allegedly opposed. He also pointed out that, as a result of the recent update, some right-leaning British newspapers saw their Google traffic decline, while some of their left-leaning counterparts enjoyed gains.
While there are no direct accusations of Google being politically biased in the text, in the accompanying video, rather fierce language is abundant: For one, Borchgrevink calls it a “fascist corporation” that is trying to censor anyone who “remotely dips its toe out of the left-leaning bubble.” This was followed by calls for everyone who cares about free speech to wake up and rally against the “Googlémocracy” and disrupt the overwhelming corrosive corporate power, along with a list of demands for Google.
The meltdown concluded, rather unexpectedly, with a statement of CCN shutting down in the wake of revenue losses incurred thanks to Google. Reluctant to downsize the team, Borchgrevink announced redeploying everyone to HVY.com.
What is a Google Core Update?
As Google’s numerous products and services, from Gmail to Chrome, have come to dominate their respective market segments, the company’s fundamental value proposition lies in fast and relevant search output. In response to a query, the search engine uses a complex system of proprietary algorithms and filters to furnish the user with lists of web pages ranked by relevance, also called search engine results pages (SERPs).
In order to improve the quality of this output, Google introduces hundreds of subtle tweaks to this system every year — of which, most are barely noticeable — and sometimes rolls out major updates that affect the core algorithm’s functionality. The latter often become milestones for entire businesses reliant on Google-generated traffic, severely affecting their bottom line for better or worse.
The Google June 2019 Core Update is the second large-scale adjustment so far this year, and also the first one ever to be announced by the company in advance. The previous update in March focused on areas where the so-called EAT factors (i.e., Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trust) are deemed the most important, resulting, for example, in massive fluctuations in health care-related websites’ search visibility.
In the wake of that update, Google specifically pointed out that, while improvements are focused on website content, its quality is not a primary criterion, and there is nothing “wrong” with websites that took a dip in visibility rankings. At the same time, there is nothing that could be done to “fix” such websites. With regard to the June update, the precise focus of the adjustment remains unclear, as websites from a variety of regions and subject fields found themselves affected.
As Glen Allsopp, founder of SEO firm Detailed.com, noted to Cointelegraph:
“Past Google updates could certainly be described as targeting certain industries, with an August 2018 update being dubbed ‘Medic’ due to how many health sites were impacted. Health and finance sites appear to have seen big swings once again, as have quite a lot of news sites. That said, this one feels broader to me.”
There are numerous criteria at play when the algorithm determines the rank of a particular web page in search output. Perhaps most prominent in the last few major updates are the aforementioned YMYL and EAT guidelines that prescribe varying quality standards for different categories of websites. In addition, Google routinely locates and takes down various schemes, which shrewd webmasters employ in order to boost traffic and ad revenues.
This Medium post, for instance, describes one such mechanism that large trusted portals use to game the algorithm and profit from the additional unrelated content on their domains. Cointelegraph’s SEO specialists observed that many financial media who took a hit from the June update saw their coupon schemes cut.
Webmaster forum development and CCN’s resurrection
In response to an inquiry from Forbes’ Benjamin Prius, a Google representative reiterated a statement from March 2018 that some websites may experience traffic fluctuations due to a core update. Moreover, the boost for the pages that come to perform better might stem from the fact that they have been undervalued previously. They also pointed to Google webmaster forums as a place to seek advice on issues that arise in the wake of algorithm adjustments.
Indeed, in the original post, CCN’s director reported seeking guidance from the webmaster community but said that their theories explaining the CCN situation did not “appear to be entirely accurate.” Meanwhile, one of the considerations that emerged in that thread around the time of the closure announcement could well be the key to understanding what happened to CCN’s search visibility. Some of the community members noticed that pages from the old domain, cryptocoinsnews.com, resurfaced in search output, redirecting to the current CCN home page — a behavior that one of the webmasters called “a sure fire way to confuse search engines.”
Two days after the closure announcement, Borchgrevink followed up with yet another statement in which he acknowledged the glitch of the old domain showing up in search results — even in search results for recent CCN articles. He also sounded less convinced that the core update was the root of the evil:
“Whether or not the Google June 2019 Core Update is to blame, we are fixing it. […] There’s still a good chance that this won’t correct our visibility on Google overnight, but I’m hopeful we are on the right path to figuring it out.”
And then, even more abruptly than the announcement of CCN shutting down, the announcement of CCN coming back arrived:
“Enough said. CCN.com is back.”
Versions and reactions
Granted, CCN’s own core readership was deeply saddened by the news of CCN’s demise and rejoiced when it was reversed. Some crypto blogs subscribed to the “evil Google” narrative unconditionally; others tried to test their own hypotheses as to what the search engine update could mean for the industry. One of them, Inside Trade, ran an experiment to assess whether the improved algorithm favored websites on Google’s own Adsense network, which yielded mixed results obtained from a tiny sample.
Some of the crypto industry’s experts, though, did not find Borchgrevink’s account of the events all that compelling. “What Bitcoin Did” podcast host Peter McCormack tweeted:
Elad Mor, CEO of MarketAcross and co-founder at InboundJunction — a content marketing, SEO & PR agency for startups — told Cointelegraph that the Google search algorithm might indeed be a headache for publishers, but in this case, it was likely not the only factor:
“Google updates can be vicious. We've seen businesses go from hero to zero after massive Google algorithm updates. ‘Notorious’ updates such as Google ‘Panda’ or ‘Penguin’ have left scorched territories behind them and were real game-changers for SEOs and publishers relying on organic traffic.
“We've been working with CCN's news department for a while, their attitude of straight shooting investigative journalism and compromised quality makes me think that this "penalty" is a very technical one and could be sorted by working closely with Google support and adhering to their strict guidelines. There might also be more to the story, since a big website like CCN doesn't close overnight or changes its decision the day after.”
Trey Ditto, CEO of Ditto PR, a full-service communications firm with crypto and blockchain practice, suspects that more systemic determinants could be at play:
“The media landscape in crypto is shrinking. Either media outlets need to step up to fill the void, or crypto and blockchain projects need to recognize that getting media coverage is a tactic and not a strategy. Most people I’ve talked to don’t seem to be buying the narrative that Google is at fault for CCN’s shutdown. A more logical explanation is that a lot of crypto media outlets are struggling to adapt and mature with the market. If you have a high burn rate or lack a way to monetize outside of ads, you won’t last through the remainder of crypto winter. The same goes for crypto projects: Evolve quickly or die off.”
So, it may appear that at least one of the immediate reasons behind the CCN’s search visibility nosedive was in fact not triggered by the Google June 2019 Core Update, but merely coincided with it. From conversations with Cointelegraph’s SEO team, it emerged that the old domain’s sudden comeback was likely prompted by its 301 redirect — a tool used to establish a permanent redirect from one URL to another — breaking down, which resulted in old pages appearing in the search index again. As two sets of pages with identical content surfaced, Google’s algorithm identified them as a dishonest attempt at gaining visibility and began lowering their ranking accordingly.
Not all SEO professionals subscribe to this view. Glen Allsopp observed to Cointelegraph that the redirect seems to be in place still:
“This is not common, unless the old domain is resurrected in some form, which doesn't appear to have been the case for CCN and their previous domain, cryptocoinsnews.com. You can check Archive.org and all June mentions show their domain redirect still in place. I saw the comments regarding their old domain now ranking in search results but two premium third-party analysis tools I use – Ahrefs and Sistrix – both fail to show any search visibility at all for their old domain name. They may have missed it, but I would be very surprised by that”
The confusion around what has really happened to CCN’s traffic, of course, does not mean that Google’s enormous and unchecked power over online search, advertising and publishing industries is not a pressing issue — or that online journalism’s dominant ad-based business model is not flawed.
Shortly after the news of CCN’s shutdown hit the press, unverified claims of the publication’s attempted acquisition began to circulate online. The alleged benefactor was also specified: Stankevicius MGM, a global PR and advertising firm headquartered in the UAE. If the validity of these talks is not unfounded, the timing of the events would be crucial to understand whether the attempted deal had any influence on the general plot line.
Roma Stankeviciene, Stankevicius MGM’s executive vice president, confirmed that the negotiations did indeed take place. In fact, it turns out that CCN received more than one offer in between shutting down and coming back:
“CCN CEO’s message was quite convincing, so yes, our CEO approached them to discuss whether a sale or an M&A. We were willing to offer 7 digits net for the media site. We didn’t keep this as a secret, and told colleagues and business contacts about our interest in CCN, and so the talks spread.
“We noticed once our story hit the news, another media company decided to make an offer as well, and it was kind of a copycat move in a way because we actually approached the CCN first right after their announcement and we were serious about it, and having another company drop into the deal with a new offer only make things complicated.
“However, later we heard that CCN was not selling anymore as they got their traffic back from Google. It’s unfortunate, we would have done something great with the site.”
The statement therefore suggests that the acquisition negotiations did not prompt the shutdown. If anything, they could only trigger CCN’s decision to go back up defiantly. Meanwhile, Stankevicius MGM executives remained unconvinced by the publication’s own version of the story:
“They claimed that they lost traffic, still even if they lost it, they had more than enough traffic and brand awareness to keep the business going. […] We still think internally that their announcement was not true.”
Amid all the uncertainty, InboundJunction’s Mor aptly summarized:
“Whatever the reason is, we're happy they are still in the game.”