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Brand Autonomy in the Digital Age: Thriving Beyond Third-Party Platforms
By Tsani Gramatikova access_time 12 min read

Navigating the challenges of third-party platforms, businesses increasingly recognise the value of brand autonomy in building and maintaining their digital presence.

Major platforms like Google, along with social networks such as X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, and Instagram, often implement influential decisions that blur the lines between corporate strategies and brand autonomy. This can affect businesses’ online presence, potentially leading to lost profits and customers, while also raising questions about ethical practices and user rights.

Choosing third-party platforms exposes businesses to inherent risks and vulnerabilities. Establishing one’s own brand and website allows for maintaining independence and control. A dedicated website provides the flexibility to oversee loyalty initiatives, discounts, and promotions independently, negating the necessity of adhering to external platform fees and regulations. This approach allows for the creation of a brand that resonates with the target audience, leading to enduring referrals and customer loyalty. Even in the face of potential algorithm alterations or platform closures, customers acquired through the domain name remain under the business’s ownership. Unlike third-party platforms, where traffic diminishes upon discontinuation of payments, investing in the brand offers a cost-effective avenue for promoting products and services.

We’ve already covered brand autonomy and third-party platforms, and in this post, we’ll further explore some cases that have sparked significant debates on this topic.


Google Algorithm Updates

With Google commanding a staggering 70% market share on PCs and a whopping 87.59% on smartphones and tablets, businesses find themselves at the mercy of the search giant’s algorithms. 

Over the years, Google has continually fine-tuned its ranking algorithm, with each update having far-reaching implications, especially for businesses that depend heavily on online visibility. The journey through these algorithm updates reads like a rollercoaster ride for many enterprises. It began with the Panda update in 2011, followed by the Penguin update in 2012, Hummingbird in 2013, Pigeon in 2014, and culminated in the seismic shock of Mobilegeddon in 2015.

These updates were not mere tweaks; they were seismic shifts that fundamentally altered the online landscape for countless businesses. Some witnessed their search engine rankings plummet, causing a sharp decline in website traffic. Others faced an even more dire fate, as they were unceremoniously deindexed from Google’s search results. These developments had profound implications for their online visibility and, ultimately, their bottom line.

Big Media Publishers vs Independent Sites

An article from HouseFresh titled “How Google is killing independent sites like ours” provides a critical perspective on how Google updates impact independent sites versus big media publishers. Despite not writing solely for Google’s algorithms, HouseFresh observes a concerning trend: major publishers like BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone, Forbes, and others consistently dominate top search results, often without thorough product testing or genuine reviews.

This issue was exacerbated when Google introduced its Product Review Update in 2021. Meant to address superficial reviews, it ironically seemed to benefit big media publishers who could easily simulate rigorous testing processes and methodologies, thereby manipulating the system. HouseFresh details their experiences and observations, noting that despite their efforts to provide genuine, tested recommendations, they struggle to compete against these media giants in search rankings. This has led to a decline in traffic and poses a threat to the future of their independent site.

Their investigation into specific product searches, like “Best Air Purifier for Pets,” revealed that top-ranking articles from big media often lack in-depth reviews or actual test data. Contradictorily, these publications frequently recommend high-priced, underperforming products, seemingly influenced by affiliate commissions rather than genuine product quality.

This practice undermines the trustworthiness of online product recommendations and illustrates a significant flaw in Google’s algorithm, where appearance supersedes substance.

The article highlights the challenges faced by independent websites in an environment where big media publishers, equipped with sophisticated SEO strategies and the appearance of credibility, dominate search results. This domination, often lacking in genuine product testing and trustworthy recommendations, contrasts starkly with the efforts of smaller, independent sites committed to providing authentic and thoroughly researched content.

The sobering lesson to be gleaned from this history of Google’s algorithm updates is that businesses should exercise caution when staking their entire online presence on third-party platforms. Depending solely on platforms like Google for customer outreach and engagement can be a double-edged sword. While it offers unparalleled exposure and access to a massive user base, it also exposes businesses to the capricious nature of platform policies and algorithmic changes.

X (formerly known as Twitter)

Ad Transparency 

X’s decision to disclose details about political and issue-based ads on the platform has affected businesses’ advertising practices. While the move aimed to increase transparency, it has also made it more challenging for businesses to run certain types of ads without facing scrutiny.

Reclaiming user accounts

In the summer of 2023, X found itself caught up in controversy over its decision to reclaim user accounts, leading to widespread frustration, particularly among long-term users. A striking example of this was the case of Jeremy Vaught, the original creator and 16-year owner of the @music account, which had over half a million followers and was known for its diverse music content. The sudden reclaim of Vaught’s account deeply affected him and disappointed many followers.

In response to the backlash, X offered Vaught the handle @musicfan, but this did little to alleviate the damage caused by losing an account nurtured for many years. Vaught’s experience was not unique; X faced similar criticism from Gene X Hwang for seizing his @X account. As part of Elon Musk’s Twitter rebrand, Hwang lost his long-time ownership of the @X without financial compensation, despite his openness to negotiation. Instead, he was offered X merchandise and a meeting with the company’s management, with his account being relocated to the handle ‘@x12345678998765.

Similarly, businesses can also face the risk of having their accounts reclaimed, potentially resulting in profit losses, customer dissatisfaction, and reputational damage.


Monetisation Policy Updates  

YouTube has made significant changes to its monetisation policies, particularly affecting businesses and content creators. The platform introduced stricter requirements for channels to qualify for monetisation, such as achieving 4,000 hours of watch time and 1,000 subscribers within the past 12 months. These changes have been met with frustration from businesses that rely on ad revenue as an income stream.

Verification Changes

In 2019, YouTube made significant changes to its verification policy. Previously, the platform offered a checkmark badge to verify the accounts of notable individuals and brands. YouTube then decided to revamp the verification process, removing verification badges from some accounts. This sparked backlash, and the company eventually revised its policy.

In response to the controversy, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki extended an apology to the affected creators, acknowledging the distress and frustration the policy changes had caused. In a blog post, the company admitted that their initial approach to the verification process had ‘completely missed the mark,’ indicating a recognition of the policy’s shortcomings and a commitment to rectifying the situation.


Algorithm Changes 

Facebook’s algorithm updates have had a significant impact on the organic reach of business pages. In an effort to prioritise content from friends and family, Facebook reduced the visibility of posts from business pages in users’ news feeds. Businesses have had to adapt by investing more in paid advertising to maintain their reach, leading to increased marketing costs.

Verified subscription

On January 19th 2023, Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta’s testing of a subscription service for Facebook and Instagram users to obtain verification, sparking debate among creators. TikTok influencer Ethan Trace criticised the decision, comparing it to everyone being able to buy a varsity jacket, thus diminishing its value. He argued that verification is crucial for public figures to protect their identity and stand out. 

[We] put in years of work building our followings and creating communities to the point where we ourselves have risen to the point of being notable figures too.. And for someone to just come in and say, ‘Hey, anyone can be verified now if you just pay for it,’ is absolutely ridiculous.

Ethan Trace in a TikTok video

Journalist Judy Shapiro and technology writer Paris Marx also voiced concerns, with Marx highlighting the broader issue of Facebook’s struggle to attract younger users and Instagram’s deviating from its photo-sharing roots. The move has drawn scepticism from users, especially regarding the idea of paying for previously free services like customer support. 


Instagram’s Removal of Likes

Instagram’s decision to hide like counts on posts has been a controversial move for businesses. Likes were often seen as a measure of engagement and popularity, and businesses used them to gauge the success of their content. With likes hidden, businesses have had to shift their focus to other metrics and strategies to measure their social media performance.

Username Policy Changes

In 2012, Instagram’s privacy policy update triggered a strong backlash. Users became worried about how their photos might be used in ads on Instagram and its parent company, Facebook. This issue once again raised concerns about the balance between privacy and the benefits of a free service that connects people globally. Many users quickly expressed their discontent on Tumblr, criticising the platform for using photos in ads without consent or compensation and pointing out the disconnect between the policy’s stated goals and its actual implications, particularly regarding user safety and spam prevention.


WhatsApp Business API Pricing Changes

WhatsApp introduced changes to its pricing model for the WhatsApp Business API, which had a significant impact on businesses that used WhatsApp as a communication channel with their customers.

WhatsApp Business API, which enables businesses to send messages to their customers on the platform, transitioned from a free pricing model to a tiered pricing structure. While WhatsApp offered a limited free trial period, businesses were required to pay for using the API beyond a certain volume of messages.

For businesses that heavily relied on WhatsApp as a cost-effective communication tool, these pricing changes added operational costs to their customer support and engagement efforts. This transition prompted many businesses to reassess their messaging strategies and consider alternative communication channels.

Update in its Terms and Privacy Policy, causing mass confusion

In 2021, WhatsApp announced a controversial update to its privacy policy. The new policy required users to share their personal data, including phone numbers and location, with Facebook. This change was intended to improve targeted advertising on Facebook and integrate more closely with the broader ecosystem.

However, the announcement sparked widespread concern among WhatsApp users over privacy and data sharing. Many users feared that their personal information would be misused or that their WhatsApp conversations would no longer be private. This led to a significant public outcry, with many users migrating to alternative messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram.

The backlash forced WhatsApp to delay the implementation of the new policy and clarify that the update would not affect the privacy of personal conversations, which would continue to be protected by end-to-end encryption. Despite these clarifications, the controversy highlighted ongoing tensions between user privacy and the data-driven business models of large tech companies.


Algorithm Changes

LinkedIn’s algorithm updates have altered the visibility of business content on the platform. Some businesses have reported a decline in the reach and engagement of their posts, making it more challenging to connect with their target audience. As a result, businesses have had to refine their content and engagement strategies on the platform.

The Resurgence of the Homepage in News Distribution

In response to the declining reliability of social networks for news distribution, there’s a renewed emphasis on the autonomy of traditional web home pages among digital publishers. For instance, The Verge has innovatively redesigned its homepage to function more like a social media feed, featuring real-time updates and interactive content, significantly increasing its loyal base. Businesses are reclaiming control over content distribution, highlighting a broader trend of decreasing reliance on third-party platforms. Focusing on direct connection with customers via their business websites helps companies maintain brand autonomy, ensuring stable and predictable engagement with their audiences regardless of changes in third-party policies.

These cases illustrate the challenges businesses face when they rely on third-party platforms to connect with their customers. They highlight the importance of having diverse marketing channels for more control and flexibility when unexpected changes arise. 

To cultivate an independent digital presence and safeguard brand autonomy, businesses are best served by investing in their own platforms and ecosystems, with a solid domain strategy being the foundation of brand independence. In addition to improving communication and data management, this approach fosters a unified brand experience and potential long-term financial benefits. As the digital landscape evolves, such autonomy becomes crucial for businesses to adapt swiftly and effectively to market changes and customer expectations.

Premium domain names are an important consideration when it comes to building and protecting your brand. If you’re ready to take the next step and invest in a premium domain name for your business, contact us to learn more about our available options and how we can help you get started.

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