Last Friday, TechCrunch reported that online document sharing service Scribd saw its traffic fall nearly 50% since June of this year. That’s pretty much the SEO equivalent of a stock market crash.

According to Trip Adler, Scribd’s CEO, the company knowingly made some changes that it expected to decrease traffic. One of them: “reducing the aggressiveness of our SEO“.

Adler stated that “we’re not concerned about the dip” because Scribd is focused on building a better service for the long-term but as TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid noted, “it isn’t often that you hear about a site voluntarily killing nearly 50% of its traffic“.

So what gives? What exactly did Adler mean when he talked about “reducing the aggressiveness of our SEO”. In some circles, Scribd’s SEO prowess was no secret. You may have noticed it yourself; many Scribd pages/documents have excellent SERPs.

There are two types of factors at work here — internal and external.

Internal. Scribd’s own SEO optimization techniques were both a blessing and a curse, for while they drove organic search traffic, they did so in a fashion that many complained were abusive if not down-right black hat. The “aggressiveness” Adler spoke of included, for instance, the questionable tactic of dynamically utilizing popular terms that generated organic search referrals within the page to create a sort of self-serving SEO cycle. This appears to have produced a good amount of organic search traffic but at a cost, namely a significant number of traffic-generating terms being associated with documents they were irrelevant to.

External. Scribd’s SEO prowess made the service a target for SEO spammers. It didn’t take long for Scribd to be promoted as a source of easy traffic and a target for abuse by black hats. You can see an example of the type of abuse here.

It’s unclear whether Scribd voluntarily made changes that have caused traffic to halve or whether it was smacked by Google (or knew a smackdown was in the offing). Personally, I think the latter is more likely. After all, Scribd’s tactics and popularity with SEO spammers produced a result that was not beneficial to Google’s users: highly-ranked pages that lack relevancy.

There are a few important lessons here:

  • Aggressive SEO tactics are often not sustainable. This is, of course, true when they really push the limits. Scribd may have benefited from its SEO aggression for a while but it probably wasn’t going to last.
  • Aggression leads to abuse. Scribd’s aggressive SEO tactics worked so well that they turned the service into a prominent target for black hats. This, of course, wasn’t to Scribd’s benefit, both from an SEO standpoint or a user experience standpoint.
  • Diversification is important. It’s always good to have diversification amongst your traffic sources. That’s easier with some types of websites than it is with others but if one source of traffic is driving a significant chunk of all your traffic, you had better have a fall-back plan in case things change for the worse.

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore another factor that is related to Scribd’s decline in traffic: the removal of pirated content. As it attempts to build a legitimate business, it’s no surprise that Scribd has chosen to crack down on the large volume of pirated content that has been uploaded to its service. This pirated content no doubt brought in a lot of traffic, including organic search traffic. Content is king but when that content isn’t yours, don’t expect the fun to last forever.

Bottom line: when you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Scribd appears to have relied heavily on less-than-wise SEO tactics and pirated content in building itself into the ‘YouTube for documents‘ but now SEO aggression and pirated content are directly linked to its current woes.

It will be interesting to see if Scribd is capable of rebuilding its traffic using less questionable means. I’m sure the investors who have pumped nearly $13m into the company are holding their breath.

Photo credit: Dave-F via Flickr.