When you consider the latest highly annoying changes to Tumblr, never forget that they aren’t meant for you. Yahoo, Tumblr’s owner, is under a lot of pressure to make some money. That means that Tumblr has to either pull its weight or be shut down. In the Web-ancient adage, “If you aren’t the customer, you’re the product.” That is, if you aren’t directly paying for any Website, then the Website is selling you, in the form of advertising. Tumblr desperately needs to monetize you. To monetize you, they need to know your personal demographics, so that they can sell groups of similar users to advertisers.
In that light, think about the recent changes to tag search. If you have a tracked tag for your best friend’s name, that isn’t monetizable; there aren’t enough people following that tag to be useful to an advertiser. Suppose instead you have a tracked tag that does more-or-less map to a demographic, or to a customer base. Let’s say you’re following “loligoth”. When you click through that tag, you immediately get a set of posts customized to your interest and – this is important – your eye can easily slide over ads to the good bits. Injecting ads into that tracked tag gets you a lot of “impressions” (views) but not many click-throughs or conversions, where the advertising money is. Suppose advertisers attempt to monetize that demographic, guessing, for instance, that most lolitas will be late teenagers and twenty-something girls with disposable income and injecting ads accordingly. Click-throughs don’t go up, because loligoths will immediately reject ads for anything other than Lolita brands. You, the product, have a finely-developed anti-ad immune system. Advertisers can’t inject – stereotyping here – an ad for lipstick into a Lolita tag, because it’s obviously a foreign body and is easy for products to reject.
You can’t monetize tracked tags. Consider what Tumblr is giving us instead. It is, as you’ve no doubt noticed, not a coincidence that Tumblr’s example is a merchandisable product. Who wants the latest news on pizza? Customers don’t. Pizza sellers sure do want those customers, though. Tracked search has some important advantages over tracked tags. It appears randomly, so that you are likely to read a few lines before you realize what has happened. It camouflages into your normal feed, because your interests are likely to be broader than your individual tags, and clever ads (fat chance) are less obviously out of place. And it is monetizable not by inference from a single tag, but based on your entire set of interests. "Likes Lolita, Crimson Peak, and college", plus any explicit age, sex, location data you’ve put in your profile, tells the advertiser a lot more than “Likes Lolita”, and is thus more monetizable.
Finally, Tumblr is under pressure not only to monetize the audience it has, but to grow that audience. Tumblr already has you. Tumblr knows how to get you and your friends. Tumblr wants your uncle who uses Pinterest, your friend’s mom who uses Facebook, and your boss who uses LinkedIn. You can expect any new features to be designed to hook those people.
Doubt me? Look at Twitter. Twitter just cut 8% of their jobs. The business analysis I’ve read points to two factors: Twitter’s audience isn’t increasing enough, and Twitter’s attempts at monetization aren’t successful enough. If you think Marissa Meyer, head of Yahoo, isn’t evaluating Tumblr against those two metrics, I have a slice of pizza to sell you.