Google Is Killing Retro Dodo & Other Independent Sites

retro dodo vs google

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It honestly breaks my heart to write this article, but I want to be as transparent as possible with our readers because you are the ones that have quite literally kept our lights on over the past five years, and you deserve to know the truth about what’s happening behind the scenes, so here it is. 

Retro Dodo is on the brink of collapse… because of Google.

Back in 2019, I took the big risk of leaving my comfortable, full-time job and pursuing my own goal of creating a content brand that informs and educates retro gamers. I had very little money back then, just enough to sustain myself for a few months, and because I built up a small fan base on YouTube before leaving my job, I could start to earn a little bit of income through that platform while freelance video editing for large media companies.

I grafted solo for a long time and created the website that you are reading today to share my opinions on retro handhelds and old video games. It took 12 months or so before my blog started to make money through the installation of display advertising. Combined with my YouTube revenue, I could finally drop all of my freelancing gigs and go all in.

retro dodo's website in 2019
our website in 2019

I needed support creating content so I employed one of my good friends Seb Santabarbara who is our Editor in Chief and has produced hundreds of articles over the last few years.

With Seb on board, Retro Dodo finally became a business, earning enough to sustain us both and to allow us to enjoy our time testing and reviewing retro gaming products.

The main source of our traffic was through Google Search. Whenever you searched for something retro gaming-related, our hope was that you would stumble across our website for advice, as we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into expert journalists to provide you with answers to your retro gaming queries. It worked incredibly well; Google’s search engine did what it entailed, showing users informative content created by human experts.

Small websites like ours had a chance to compete with larger websites because Google’s guidelines were fair, and if users were happy, then Google was happy. And to reward giving users a great and informative experience, Google would place websites higher or lower in the search results depending on how great your content was without much bias.

retro dodo team
our current team

After two years of this and seeing steady revenue growth, we decided to increase our team, expanding into covering Retro Gaming news and features with Jason Brown and Theo Litston, and also bringing on our new video producer Rob Page to help with video output. I was incredibly busy keeping an eye on industry trends, working on our new book series that took two years to make, managing the team to produce the best possible content, and heck, even collaborating with Casey Neistat in New York, and this period was incredibly fun.

Well, that all came to an abrupt end in September 2023 when Google decided to release an algorithm update that completely obliterated thousands of independent content businesses overnight, and we are one of them.

Since September 2023, Google has hidden our site from millions of retro gamers, reducing our organic traffic and revenue by 85% and causing our business to be on the edge of going under.

our traffic data from search console and ahrefs

Google Is Now Playing Unfairly & Unlawfully

Before I go in on Google, I would like to mention that I have always been an advocate of Google before this. They have allowed me and many other creatives to earn a living and feed our families through their platform, and for that, I will always be grateful (even if their platform wasn’t perfect). But this recent update is a direct attack on content website owners, and it’s happening while Google makes some incredibly unlawful and disgusting changes behind closed doors.

Google’s search results are no longer fair and no longer abide by their own guidelines, which they repeatedly share with website owners when they speak up, alongside Google’s spokespersons replying with cover-up quotes such as “make better content for your readers”.

So what’s changed? Google continuously states (and very publicly) that their goal is to show helpful content, to reduce spam, and make the search results fairer to all sized websites. But the opposite is happening, and aggressively.

Google’s algorithms now favor a handful of results BEFORE “normal” websites, results that rarely show independent websites. And when I mention them, it’s likely that you’ve seen these changes yourself:

Firstly, Google wants to completely eradicate users leaving their search results and will now show you their own “From Sources” answers to search terms. These answers are taken without consent from the publisher’s content and are stolen from creators’ work so that Google can give you “their” answer instead, lowering the chances of readers exploring websites… the websites that are paying to create the exact content that Google now shows for themself. It’s straight-up intellectual property theft.

Secondly, if you manage to scroll past Google’s stolen answer, you will undoubtedly be bombarded with sponsored ads, and lots of them. These results are purposely designed to look like normal results and can bend Google’s guidelines when it comes to content quality. This is straight-up pay-to-play, again lowering the need for creators’ articles.

sponsored ads and “from sources” example

Type in “best home arcade cabinets” into Google, and you’ll see a prime example of a response filled with sponsored slots. And, if you look closely, you will notice the articles ranking highest are likely from websites also paying for Google for clicks. There are barely any professional reviews in sight. I understand that this is a query with a buyer’s intent, but there are many terms like this where it’s straight-up pay-to-win.

This is after Google’s spokespersons saying that ‘creatives who have seen a loss in traffic should lower their ad density’… one rule for us, another for them, hey?

Thirdly, and this is the biggest change I have ever seen in the search results over the last 5 years, is the fact that you will likely now see Reddit results upon searching for something. Reddit has its place on the internet, but certainly not for search terms where you seek expert and professional advice (what Google’s guidelines state). 

Reddit is the single biggest winner in recent algorithm changes, seeing millions of more clicks every single day thanks to recent updates. But my understanding of the guidelines was that Google said they want to show results written by experts.

That’s what they say publicly, but in actual reality, Google has recently partnered with Reddit to pay them $60M a year to crawl their website so that they can train Google’s AI. This news became public just days before the update that catapulted Reddit’s traffic to the moon and weeks away from Reddit launching their IPO, which hockey-sticked their share price. 

As of March 27th, Reddit’s CEO sold a bunch of his shares at the peak too, making him and likely many other investors incredibly rich. I am no detective, but it all smells very fishy, and as a creator seeing this all happen just makes me lose all trust in Google. They have replaced many creative’s incomes with Reddit results just so they can have more data for their AI. And maybe there’s a behind-the-scenes deal happening that might match up to the launch of their IPO?

But that’s just me speculating, and I’m no detective.

Don’t you worry, the list doesn’t stop there! 

Most of the websites that have not seen a decline in traffic are owned and operated by huge media companies. Just 16 media companies who own over 400+ websites receive over 3.8 billion clicks a month from Google (thanks for the data Detailed), leaving little to no space for smaller websites to have a voice, even if these smaller websites make far better content (according to Google’s guidelines).

These goliath websites can bend the rules and get away with things that smaller websites are punished for. For example, we have spent years of testing handheld devices for our “best retro handhelds” article; you can see we have tested every single one, have dedicated images showing you the product, highly produced video reviews for many of the devices that took weeks to make, and our written content proves our opinions and comparisons. Large media companies, however, can get away with simply not testing the products, adding stock images, adding a bit of text, and directing you to their affiliate links as you can see here by an article that outranks us by GameRant.

These large websites can also get away with taking original content from small publishers, rewording it in their own way, and then outranking the website that wrote it originally in the first place. This leads to there being no financial incentive for small publishers to create unique content because it costs them a fortune to do so, and competition is on their tail copying what they are doing for a fraction of the cost/time.

We shouldn’t live in a world where only a few major companies dominate the entire search online ecosystem; Google needs to become a fairer search engine without bias.

And to rub salt into the wound, it was discovered that Google is paying some media companies “five figures” to use their AI to automatically scrape content from other publishers’ work (who have paid expert humans to produce) and publish it as news twice a day on their websites. Even though excessive use of AI is against their guidelines for the rest of their creators.

There are many other factors that are destroying the livelihoods of content creators that I could go into, but I don’t want to bore you. There’s the fact that Google Search Generative Experience is coming to fruition giving users 100% AI-generated answers with very little credit to the creators that Google has scraped the answers from. We can also take into account the fact that Google is stopping third-party cookies soon, likely lowering ad revenue because display advertisers will lack data from users and won’t know what to show them. And then there’s the fact that AI websites are outranking us on a continuous basis and media companies are starting websites almost identical to ours, even going as far as replicating our content and physical product strategy.

My real issue is that Google isn’t telling us and other creators what we are doing wrong; they are replying with vague answers or sharing advice that goes completely against what’s showing up in the search results. There is no way for us to know how to recover from this because Google is lying to the faces of the people that make their search results great without giving them any help at all.

It’s likely that our website structure isn’t perfect or that our content may likely be “over-optimised” for Google, but at least tell me. I am no SEO expert;l I have a million plates to spin as a content website operator, and I cannot get everything right. If Google were to inform me what I was doing incorrectly then I could change that, but they don’t. They just keep hiding our work, month after month after month.

Instead of helping us, they are pushing small independent publishers lower and lower down their search results so that our work cannot be seen, while at the same time supporting the use of AI, using our content for their own gain without permission, and increasing the visibility of content that goes completely against their guidelines.

There has never been a worse time for independent publishers who rely on Google. Mass intellectual theft is happening; it’s pay to win, and Google is so openly crushing the livelihoods of many of their creators that have supported them over the last 5+ years.

I honestly hope that Google can eventually create a search engine that’s fair, one that supports small independent publishers who actually follow their guidelines instead of punishing them for “writing for search engines and not readers” and treating them differently to websites that have a higher “domain authority” than them.

What’s Next For Retro Dodo?

Unfortunately, it’s not looking good for us, and in all honesty we’re all out of cash. I have tried my hardest for it not to affect the team, but we’re now losing money, which is devastating because I have worked endlessly for the past 5 years to create a brand that supports its staff as best as it possibly can. I find myself drained mentally and financially at a time when I am trying to support my family and my 12-week-old son.

This means I will have to reduce our staff, postpone our upcoming RDX Expo, postpone series 2 of our podcast, likely stop our A Handheld History book series after Book 2, and reduce our content output drastically this year.

All of this will hurt us even more in the short term, but it’s the only route we can take if we want to survive in the long run.

As a founder, I now need to create a plan for Retro Dodo to find traffic away from Google and new revenue streams away from direct advertising. That is how I stop us from going under.

It is no longer smart for me to rely upon or trust Google as a creator after they have rug pulled not only my family’s income, but the families of my team within the space of a few months.

In no other industry would you not know why this has happened nor be able to find a plan for how to recover, but as a Google Creator, they’re giving us incorrect information, vague responses, and doing business deals that go against everything they are telling the creators that no longer have any income.

It’s anxiety-inducing for us all, especially without help. All we can do is adapt and move away from Google as a reliable source of traffic.

How Can You Help?

retro dodo patreon

I am not writing this to ask for help, but rather to simply be transparent regarding the state of Retro Dodo. But, if you do want to support us as an independent publication, the most helpful thing you can do is become a Patreon Member.

This gives us the ability to create content without having to please algorithms; it allows us to create content freely. Our Patreon comes with a bunch of benefits, including a physical welcome kit, early access to content, and an invite to a yearly meet-up in the UK.

We also have our book A Handheld History for sale on Amazon, and our second book which is available to pre-order at Lost In Cult which launches in a few months. Admittedly we don’t earn a lot from it, but it still helps.

I will continue to put all my efforts into building Retro Dodo back into what it once was and hopefully evolve it into something even better. It’s going to be a rough year for us as a publication, but we’re not going down without a fight.

brandon saltalamacchia a handheld history
me with a handheld history

I want to personally thank every single one of you that has read, watched, or shared our work. You have given me and my team an incredibly enjoyable few years creating content about retro games, and I hope we can recover from this so that we can continue giving you a place that you deserve, a place that truly champions retro gaming and the people that make this community so special.

Google is making the future of independent publishing incredibly difficult, and small publishers’ work is becoming harder to find thanks to their algorithms and their use of AI-generated answers. But we will adapt, even if it takes us some time.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Brandon Saltalamacchia – Founder of Retro Dodo

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retro dodo team 2024

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