A significant portion of advertising revenue generated from written digital content, both directly and indirectly, falls into the pockets of a single organization: Google.
The company dips into the pot of value with both hands, earning billions from ads in its search listings (which are populated with material scavenged for free from the web) and earning a commission from placing ads on the content itself. .
The lack of competition in search and digital advertising means that Google is effectively free to set the price. As a result, “monopoly rents are imposed on every ad-supported website,” in the words (opens in a new tab) of US Senator Mike Lee.
When market dynamics are framed in this way, it’s hard not to conclude that publishers and other content creators are getting raw supply. But there are those who believe this need not be the case.
SEO Ahrefs is developing a new search engine called Yep, built on a proprietary index completely independent of Google, which is designed to redistribute advertising profits more fairly.
For every $1 in ad revenue generated by Yep, Ahrefs promises to split $0.90 among the creators of the content that makes up its listings.
“We want to offer a search engine that offers privacy for users and profit sharing for content creators as a monetization opportunity,” said Dmytro Gerasymenko, CEO of Ahrefs, in a conversation with Tech Radar Pro. “Creators who make search results possible deserve to receive payments for their work.”
The argument is undoubtedly compelling, but there is still one small question to be settled: the redesign of the Internet’s most dominant company.
Ahrefs began building its own search engine in 2019, guided by two fundamental assumptions: that the web economy is broken, and second, the situation cannot be fixed as long as Google remains unchallenged in search.
The main goal is to restore the balance of remuneration in favor of digital content creators, who Ahrefs says earn too little from their product. Under the current system, “it’s almost as if the index on the back of the book has become more valuable than the book itself,” quips the company’s website.
However, the revenue sharing system also has many potential side benefits. For example, increasing the profit margin would open the door to a range of niche content types that aren’t currently viable, Gerasymenko says.
“On YouTube, some profits are shared with content creators. A lot of media wouldn’t exist if this system wasn’t in place,” he told us.
“We realized that the internet was missing a lot of the content that could have been created if Google had shared ad revenue with creators.”
Separately, the Yep system can help solve the dangerous side effects of the ad-supported model, which has played a role in polluting the information landscape.
Since ad-supported content creators’ earnings are closely tied to the amount of traffic they can generate, they have an economic incentive to misrepresent or overstate the value of their content. The result: clickbait and misinformation.
Although Gerasymenko hasn’t commented on this aspect himself, it follows that offering publishers a new way to generate revenue could limit the extent to which they feel pressured to chase clicks.
Typically, when challenged with the negative effects of the ad-supported model, stakeholders like Google have made moves toward the benefits from an inclusivity perspective. Without advertising, online content currently available for free would have to pay to remain viable for the provider, the argument goes.
Google declined to comment on the record of this story, but a spokesperson told us behind the scenes that the company believes ads are essential to a healthy internet ecosystem in which all participants have access to information, regardless of their financial situation.
The spokesperson also noted that Google is committed to showing only relevant ads, and the majority of search results pages over the past few years have not shown ads at their peak for this reason.
As witnessed new antitrust action on on both sides of the Atlantichowever, people are starting to wonder if justifications like these for corporate dominance in the digital advertising chain can really hold water.
While the motivations behind Ahrefs’ research project are laudable and the logic sound, the concept is beginning to crumble somewhat under scrutiny.
One of the main problems is that the product does not yet exist. Ahrefs is far from ready to implement its revenue-sharing model, in part because the search engine has yet to generate its first ad revenue dollar.
A spokesperson for Ahrefs told us that the current focus is on improving search results to a level “satisfactory in terms of our quality estimates”, and only then can the company will focus on the practicalities and logistics of the revenue sharing system.
“At the moment our algorithm works well for short queries, but we still need to improve longer queries. We also want to have images, news and videos,” added Gerasymenko.
“The project itself is difficult; there are only a few companies that really do search algorithms. Most get results from Bing or Google, but what we do is index the information ourselves, which is difficult and time-consuming.
Until Ahrefs can improve the quality of its product, Yep will not attract users or advertisers. And until the concept of revenue sharing can be tested on a large scale, it will be difficult to assess whether the generous 90:10 split is sustainable in the long term.
Separately, to achieve the level of transformation Ahrefs hopes for, Yep would have to become one of the most widely used search engines in the world. Until publishers are confident that the new model represents a reliable source of revenue, it would be foolhardy to abandon traditional forms of monetization.
But as Google’s behavior shows in markets ranging from web browsers to devices and operating systems, the company has no plans to concede its search monopoly anytime soon.
To add to the complexity, it is necessary to identify the websites and creators who deserve to be compensated under the revenue sharing scheme; in other words, the need to inject fairness into the process.
In the early stages, the plan is to split the revenue with a few hundred smaller websites, otherwise the pool of cash will be too insignificant to have a material impact.
Once the service is more established, the idea is to deploy some form of automated system to determine the appropriate distribution of compensation, but that’s about as accurate as it gets. Until then, everything will depend on human judgment.
The easiest way would be to distribute the compensation according to the number of visitors who land on each website via Yep search results. But in this scenario, the click race would start again.
Sink or swim
It was a risky move to release a new vision for the search engine with virtually none of the specifics ironed out, opening up Ahrefs to more questions than it is currently able to answer.
As a company whose core business is helping website owners improve their Google search rankings, Ahrefs also risks violating one of life’s most useful rules: don’t bite. the hand that feeds you. In a world where there are multiple widely used search engines, helping clients optimize SEO becomes less straightforward.
However, when asked to report on each of the challenges facing the new venture, Gerasymenko remained steadfast in his belief in the value and importance of the idea.
“I know it can work on a large scale,” he told us. “The problem for us is getting from zero to the scale where the idea starts to make sense.”
In some ways, Ahrefs has time on his side as he grapples with this issue. The company claims to be able to support its research project mostly with resources that it would already spend in its regular SEO market activities, which means that the additional overhead is minimal.
Ahrefs also hopes the new antitrust laws will offer a helping hand, limiting the extent to which Google can use the depth and breadth of its product suite to prevent challengers from gaining momentum in search.
One might wonder if Ahrefs has fully internalized the enormity of its task, to overhaul the internet’s most dominant company. But then, the status quo is only ever redefined by dreamers.