Did the Wirecutter migrate because of affiliate commissions?

Updated on November 16, 2020
Topics: ,
5 min well spent

Migrating the Wirecutter to nytimies.com doesn’t make sense and I think there’s a reason for that.

Amazon’s cut of affiliate fees by 50% left a big mark on many sites, even the big ones. The Wirecutter was purchased by the New York Times for $30 million in 2016, just five years after its inception.

(Before we jump in, I actually got this idea from Teddy Godier, who discussed it with someone else.)

I don’t think the relaunch was worth it from an SEO perspective. Around May 26th, thewirecutter.com started redirecting to nytimes.com/wirecutter. For May 26th, SEMrush reports 286,000 top 10 keywords for thewirecutter.com. For June 20th, the report shows 120,000 on the old domain and 166,000 on nytimes.com/wirecutter. So, the site is pretty much back to pre-domain migration performance on both, mobile and desktop. AHREFS shows very similar stats.

SEMrush showing thewirecutter.com’s ranking decrease after the migration.
Due to proper redirects, nytimes.com/wirecutter gains its rankings back.

So, the site came back to baseline roughly a month after the migration but it doesn’t seem to increase in organic rankings beyond that. Now, let me present two caveats to this: first, it’s very early to judge the before and after. Second, this is just what 3rd party crawlers detect and doesn’t have to reflect reality 100%. That aside, I see the increase plateauing in AHREFs.

nytimes.com/wirecutter in AHREFS

Migrations are TONS of effort and can be quite painful – even with a top notch team. But that’s not the only reason not to do it.

I don’t think the relaunch was worth it from a strategic perspective. I recently wrote about Platform Confluence, the concept of building an ecosystem across many sites and apps that allows you to better understand your users and monetize them more efficiently. Strategically, it would have made more sense to keep thewirecutter.com separate from the NYT domain to have another platform that you can eventually connect (well, not literally). On top of that, The Wirecutter has a different business model than nytimes.com. This leads me to the conclusion that it must have been because of Amazon’s recent slack of affiliate fees.

Amazon slashing affiliate commissions

From Comparison snippets are bad news for affiliates and Amazon:

Then, Amazon decided to slash its affiliate commissions in the middle of the COVID crisis. Some categories dropped from 10% down to 3%, for example, Beauty. Across the board, the change leaves a span of up to 5% commission fees for affiliates (the webcam I wanted brings 4%).

This got lost a bit during the global shutdown but is a big deal. Some categories dropped by over 50% in Amazon affiliate commissions – a devastating hit on businesses that don’t have diversified revenue streams. For The Wirecutter, half the revenue probably means half the profit and for a public company like the New York Times, this can impact the value of the company. What could turn this around? Putting The Wirecutter behind a paywall.

A Paywall would make sense for The Wirecutter. First, it could keep affiliate links because they don’t hurt the user experience. Second, The Wirecutter would lead to more traffic (~4M visitors) and subscriptions, obviously (see AHREFs data below). Third, other parts of nytimes.com like NY Cooking are structurally separated from the main site (cooking.nytimes.com) and ask for a separate subscription.

Traffic estimation of thewirecutter.com before the migration (AHREFS)

Mind you that the New York Times itself is an interesting business because they were the first major publisher to change from an ad-supported to a subscription-based model.

Was this really the right step? Maybe from a short-term financial perspective because shareholders need to be kept happy and don’t like losses. On the other side of the fence, separate sites could lead to long-term synergies and compounding benefits that a single site can’t provide.

This is a strategy that Buzzfeed has understood much better, after my opinion. As you can see in a recent analysis by Naytev, Buzzfeed’s reach extends way beyond its website.

One thing that’s immediately evident is that BuzzFeed’s reach is far more diversified than most traditional media companies. Far from relying exclusively on their website, they’ve built a network with strong distribution on many different platforms and channel types.

It’s also clear that from a sheer numbers perspective, video is a huge priority for BuzzFeed. Of the 45 distribution channels, nearly half are Video Syndication Partners.