The Industry

Why Can’t a Broke Literary Magazine Pivot to Sex-Toy Clickbait?

The Believer botched one important thing in its surreal second act as a racy SEO website: the SEO.

A fake Believer cover featuring some sex toys!
An odd match! Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Vershinin/iStock/Getty Images Plus, AlexMax/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ADragan/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and The Believer.

The Believer’s going home. The beloved literary magazine is returning to McSweeney’s, the publisher that started it in 2003. It’s a satisfying coda to a bizarre journey that saw it change hands from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to an obscure content marketing shop—one that had its fingers in, among other things, the sex-toy business.

This latest owner punted it back to McSweeney’s after an ill-fated attempt to turn it into a sexy clickbait repository. They might have sold at a loss, but when it comes to the Believer, it’s the first good move they’ve made so far.

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I happen to be a person who a) writes meandering essays on the internet; and b) spends my day-job hours helping a fintech startup triple year-over-year leads from organic search. So the surreal attempted SEO-ification of the Believer felt lab-engineered specifically to raise my blood pressure. I am glad that, presumably, the Believer will return to its focus on the first of my interests. Because its recent owners were notably terrible at the second.

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When the Believer died of financial insolvency last October, fans of slow journalism and literary nonfiction mourned, myself included. EIC misconduct aside, the magazine was laid to rest with fanfare: obits in the literary press, a white-petal flurry of elegiac tweets. This April, though, it slinked out of its digital grave. Its first piece post-resurrection: “25 Best Hookup Sites for Casual Dating.” To add to the sense of farce, the listicle’s body promised only 23 “best hookup sites for you.”

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As Gawker’s Tarpley Hitt reported, this was the work of Paradise Media, a digital publishing group that threatens on its homepage to show “What a Truly Optimized Digital Presence Can Do for You.” But when the hookup listicle first started spreading on Twitter, Paradise’s involvement was far from clear. Instead, an account called the Sex Toy Collective came forward as the Believer’s buyer, promising to “get it making money using SEO.”

According to this new owner, the Tinderization of the Believer had a noble aim: earning enough to rehire its old staff. Lit Twit, though, was outraged at the thought of the magazine’s corpse being stage-managed into sexy poses for lucre. Faced with their wrath, @ST_Collective_ tweeted a promise to keep its money posts “very siloed away from editorial content.”

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The Sex Toy Collective turned out, as Vice’s Anna Merlan reported, to be one of several sites operating under the Paradise Media umbrella. The real owners of the Believer lay claim to a mission more expansive—and, arguably, less ethical—than shilling toys in the name of sex positivity: they want to help brands level up their SEO.

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Say you’d told me all this when I first read those Sex Toy Collective tweets. I would have found it unbelievable. The person running the @ST_Collective_ handle didn’t sound like the spokesperson of an SEO agency. They sounded like someone I, as an SEO manager, would’ve tossed into the reject pile after an interview. Their tweeted strategy was Google as philosopher’s stone, turning carelessly written sentences into dot-com gold. A medieval friar, drop-kicked in front of an iPhone, could have thumbed out a more lucid business plan.

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Paradise Media got one thing right: The magazine was a valuable buy. Thanks to its lovingly crafted essays and features, there are links pointing to it from all over the web, from the New York Times to Harvard to Goodreads. On a high level, Google interprets these backlinks as proxies for a website’s authority.

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Third-party SEO tools have cooked up various metrics to pin down site authority based on links. My favorite, Ahrefs, uses Domain Rating, which goes up to 99. For comparison, household names like Microsoft, Yelp, and the Wall Street Journal rank in the 90s. (My company, a series A startup, currently sits at 54. My personal site, where I chuck my bylines, is hovering under 1.)

The Believer, with a DR of 75, is very authoritative. When I wrote this, Paradise Media’s site was a 2.5.

The Believer's DR score on Ahrefs.
Impressive! Ahrefs
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In the broadest strokes, DR is predictive of a site’s ability to rank on Google. So when it dusted off that long-dormant Believer CMS, Paradise Media clearly assumed DR 75 was a magic number that would let it auto-rank whatever—even “no-strings-attached sex.” The realities of search, though, are a little more nuanced.

“Google often ‘silos’ domains by subject-matter expertise,” says Tory Gray, principal SEO consultant at the Gray Dot Company, a digital consultancy. “If you have a car website, and then you suddenly start making content about mountains, your new mountain content is not magically going to start performing as well.” Google mostly “thinks you’re a car site.”

Gray acknowledges that an acquisition like the Believer still carries “so much value,” even if a context switch like books to hookups would “devalue a good portion of [its] link benefit.” To harness this benefit, SEO practitioners can use internal links. These spread link equity, or “juice,” as it’s often called, to new pages in need of a boost.

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Think of this as a form of SEO trickledown (that actually works). As an example, one of the Believer’s most-linked pages is “Ghosts” by Vauhini Vara: a sequence of flash essays about her sister’s death, co-written with GPT-3. Poignant and formally innovative, it earned links from 279 domains. Say Paradise Media had made the ghastly decision to add an internal link from “Ghosts” to “25 Best Hookup Sites.” Some of its link juice would flow down to the new listicle.

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Of course, there are less barbaric ways to handle internal linking. The point is, Paradise Media forestalled most of them when they pledged to keep commercial content separate from the Believer’s editorial archive.

When I told Gray about this promise to keep review content hermetically sealed, she was skeptical it could be “completely siloed.” Even without links inside articles, she notes, there are tactics “less overt to readers,” like using the image links in a site logo. Still, writing off in-content links altogether takes a powerful weapon out of your SEO toolkit. Why choose a monetization strategy that forces them off the table?

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Eventually, Paradise Media got there too. By March 12, the page containing their “Best Hookup Sites” listicle had become a makeshift content plan, made public to Believer fans in the interest of transparency. Its substance: a baffling grab bag of keywords, drawn from fields like chemistry (“first 20 elements,” “gram staining procedure,” “example of chemical change”) and Spanish (“estar conjugation,” “hacer preterite,” “apellidos estadounidenses”). Their new plan was churning out articles on topics like these—ripping off the strategy behind ThoughtCo, an education website from which apparently they’d extracted the keywords.

The updated best-hookup-apps page on the Believer website: a list of keywords.
The updated best-hookup-apps page on the Believer website. Believermag.com
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These new keywords were as chaste as an honors student’s library searches. But there are few ways to build internal links between, say, “periodic table pdf” and “querer conjugation”—let alone between them and the Believer’s high-value pages. Sent the list over Zoom, Gray pronounced it “word soup, and therefore highly odd as an SEO strategy.”

Partway through our call, the page changed again. Word soup congealed into a list of lit-adjacent SEO topics, like “banned books” and “ekphrastic poetry.”

The same page as above, updated with different keywords.
The same page, updated again. believermag.com
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The best-hookup-sites page was a palimpsest in the hands of a bumbling monk. Every few hours, it seemed, the content on it was scraped off, and a new, marginally better strategy appeared in its place. We were watching Paradise Media learn SEO in real time, even though they were self-avowed “experts” at it.

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I had to wonder wonder if this tortured journey—from casual sex to gram staining to banned books—was staged for us, the magazine’s fans. Next to 25 (or 23) best hookup sites, even this schoolbook pablum was a relief.

Over Twitter DM, I shared my conspiracy theory with a fellow essayist/SEO pro, Kleopatra Olympiou. (We previously worked together at a publishing startup.) “I wish you were right,” she typed back. “But I feel like this level of chaotic scrambling is not the work of a next-level mastermind … just somebody who screwed up.”

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At the end of the day, Paradise itself seems to agree with Olympiou. After our conversation, the palimpsest that was a list of hookup sites—which became a plan for reviving the Believer with homework help, which became another plan for reviving the Believer with different homework help—was scraped off again, this time in a commendable effort to make amends. Parchment-plain, it simply read, “We removed the donate button and paywall. All other plans cancelled.”

After news of the McSweeney’s sale went public on Monday, even this laconic apology was scuffed off the page, replaced with a 404. Under the gray-pink illustration of a crumpled umbrella, it asks, “Lost something?”

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