Google Rethinking Payday Loans & Doorway Pages?

May 11th

Nov 12, 2013 WSJ: Google Ventures Backs LendUp to Rethink Payday Loans

Google Ventures Partner Blake Byers joined LendUp’s board of directors with his firm’s investment. The investor said he expects LendUp to make short-term lending reasonable and favorable for the “80 million people banks won’t give credit cards to,” and help reshape what had been “a pretty terrible industry.”

What sort of strategy is helping to drive that industry transformation?

How about doorway pages.

That in spite of last year Google going out of their way to say they were going to kill those sorts of strategies.

March 16, 2015 Google To Launch New Doorway Page Penalty Algorithm

Google does not want to rank doorway pages in their search results. The purpose behind many of these doorway pages is to maximize their search footprint by creating pages both externally on the web or internally on their existing web site, with the goal of ranking multiple pages in the search results, all leading to the same destination.

These sorts of doorway pages are still live to this day.

Simply look at the footer area of lendup.com/payday-loans

But the pages existing doesn't mean they rank.

For that let's head over to SEMrush and search for LendUp.com


(Click for enlarged image)

Hot damn, they rank for about 10,000 "payday" keywords.

And you know their search traffic is only going to increase now that competitors are getting scrubbed from the marketplace.

Today we get journalists conduits for Google's public relations efforts writing headlines like: Google: Payday Loans Are Too Harmful to Advertise.

Today those sorts of stories are literally everywhere.

Tomorrow the story will be over.

And when it is.

Precisely zero journalists will have covered the above contrasting behaviors.

As they weren't in the press release.

Best yet, not only does Google maintain their investment in payday loans via LendUp, but there is also a bubble in the personal loans space, so Google will be able to show effectively the same ads for effectively the same service & by the time the P2P loan bubble pops some of the payday lenders will have followed LendUp's lead in re-branding their offers as being something else in name.

A user comment on Google's announcement blog post gets right to the point...

Are you disgusted by Google's backing of LendUp, which lends money at rates of ~ 395% for short periods of time? Check it out. GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) has an investment in LendUp. They currently hold that position.

Oh, the former CIO and VP of Engineering of Google is the CEO of Zest Finance and Zest Cash. Zest Cash lends at an APR of 390%.

Meanwhile, off to revolutionize the next industry by claiming everyone else is greedy and scummy and there is a wholesome way to do the same thing leveraging new technology, when in reality the primary difference between the business models is simply a thin veneer of tech utopian PR misinformation.

Don't expect to see a link to this blog post on TechCrunch.

There you'll read some hard-hitting cutting edge tech news like:

Banks are so greedy that LendUp can undercut them, help people avoid debt, and still make a profit on its payday loans and credit card.

#MomentOfZeroTruth #ZMOT

Update: Kudos to the Google Public Relations team, as it turns out the CFPB is clamping down on payday lenders, so all the positive PR Google got on this front was simply them front running a known regulatory issue in the near future & turning it into a public relations bonanza. Further, absolutely NOBODY (other than the above post) mentioned the doorway page issue, which remains in place to this day & is driving fantastic rankings for their LendUp investment.

Google's Big Brand Shakedown

Mar 11th

Inorganic SERPs

A few weeks back Google introduced literally organic-free search results on mobile devices in the travel vertical. Google is now deepening that organic-free offering, announcing their new mobile travel guides would launch in 201 cities.

If you live outside of the United States it can be hard to appreciate just how ad heavy some of Google's search results have become in key ad categories.

Plenty of Room in Hotel California

When Google rolled out the 4 AdWords ads above the organic results layout they mentioned it would mostly appear on highly commercial search terms like New York Hotels. Hotels are one of the most profitable keyword themes, because:

  • the searches tend to be fairly late funnel
  • the transactions are for hundreds of dollars
  • OTAs and other intermediaries often get somewhere between 10% to 30% of the transaction

Google search results for hotels not only contain 4 AdWords ads, but they also have price ads on the "organic" local listings. That gives Google a second bite at the apple on monetizing the user.

Click on any of those prices and you get sent to a beautiful(ly ugly) ad heavy click circus page like the following.

As Google has displaced those sorts of markets, portals like Yahoo! have announced the shutdown of some of their vertical offerings:

today we will begin phasing out the following Digital Magazines: Yahoo Food, Yahoo Health, Yahoo Parenting, Yahoo Makers, Yahoo Travel, Yahoo Autos and Yahoo Real Estate.

Direct Marketing Budgets vs Brand Ad Budgets

Google recently had another vertical search program which paralleled their hotel offering which focused on finance. It allowed users to compare things like credit cards, home loans, auto insurance policies, and other financial offers. They acquired BeatThatQuote, hard coded aggressive placements for themselves near the top of the search results, increased the size of these custom ad units - and then killed them off.

Why would Google invest hundreds of millions of Dollars in vertical search only to kill the offering?

It turns out the offering was too efficient from an advertiser perspective, so it didn't drive enough yield for Google.

If it is a lead-based product the ad rates are set by rational lead values. There is no brand manager insisting on paying $120 a click because "we HAVE TO be #1 in Google for auto insurance."

If Google does lead generation and sells the lead off exclusively they get paid precisely once for the consumer. Whereas if Google scrubs many aggregators from the market & allows searchers to click on one brand at a time they get to monetize the user many times over and take advantage of any irrational bidders in the ecosystem.

As long as Google is monetizing brand advertising budgets they can insert many layers of fat into the ad stack.

(Really broad broad match, enhanced campaigns, fat-thumb mobile clicks, mobile app clicks, re-targeted ads for products which were already purchased, endless auto-play YouTube video streams with ads in them, etc.)

Riding the Google Waves

Google's vertical ad offerings may come and go, the biases behind the relevancy algorithms may shift, and the ecosystem constantly has some number false positives. As search engines test out various features & shift their editorial policies some companies get disrupted and are forced to change their business models, while other companies get disrupted and outright disappear.

Google's move into auto insurance might have been part of the reason Bankrate decided to exit the business. But Google exiting the Google Compare business and adding a 4th text AdWords ad slot above the organic search results a few days before Bankrate reported results caused BankRate's stock to slide by as much as 47%.

Brand Building to Lower Risk

Part of the SEO value of building a brand is the strength of the brand awareness helps you rank better across whatever portion of the search ecosystem Google has not yet eaten, while lowering your risk of becoming a false positive statistic. Branded-related searches should (in theory) also provide some baseline level of demand which insulates against ranking shifts on other keywords. And having a brand name rather than a generic business name allows one to go from one market to the next.

Just be Apple...

Computers.com won't magically morph into MP3player.com then CellPhone.com then Tablet.com then Watch.com, but Apple was able to move from one market to the next with ease due to consumer familiarity and loyalty toward their brand.

Investing in building brand awareness is often quite expensive & typically requires many years of losses to eventually see positive returns. Trends come and go, and with them so do associated brands.

Heavily invest in the wrong trend & die.

Wait too long to invest in an important trend & die.

Few companies are able to succeed in field after field after field.

For every Apple-like example, there are dozens of losers. Look at how many computer companies shifted to an emphasis on higher margin laptops, then sold off their laptop divisions for almost nothing and chased cell phones for growth. While they outsourced everything and relied on a faux open source software provider they guaranteed their own death. Look at how some of the mobile companies are valued at almost nothing, or those that have been bought & gutted like Motorola or Nokia. There are only 3 somewhat strong mobile manufacturers:

Adding Apple management to another company does not guarantee success.

The Financial Crisis & Brand

When the financial crisis happened about 8 years ago Google saw both their revenue growth rate and their stock price crash. Direct marketers receded with the consumer, but many pre-approved brand ad campaigns continued to run. Google's preferred custom shifted away from direct marketers toward large global brands.

When the economy started to recover, Google was quick to ban 30,000 affiliates from the AdWords auction.

When Trends Take Off

As trends become obvious & companies succeed wildly, competitors chase them.

The tricky part is the perception of success & lasting success are not one and the same.

Remember when Demand Media was allegedly profitable as hell? That was sales material for the pump-n-dump IPO & their stock has only corrected about 99% since then.

Since dumping that profitable as hell company on the public they've only had to invest in removing about 2.4 million articles from eHow.

The site is still torched by the Panda algorithm.

And they are still losing money. ;)

Companies like Mahalo which chased eHow also washed up on the rocks. They've since pivoted to YouTube, to mobile apps, to email & perhaps should re-brand to Pivot, Inc.

Groupon was another surefire trend. They're off about 84% from their peak & most the Groupon clones have went under, while Groupon has divested of most of their acquisition-driven international expansion. Numerous other coupon & flash sale sites which haven't yet went under laid off many people and are off significantly from their peaks or were sold for a song.

Trends come and go. Baseball cards are largely a thing of the past. So are Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Beanie Babies.

Perhaps soon independent single author blogs and SEO-driven publishing business models will be added to the list. ;)

Copycats & Trademark Infringement

Some brands have a strong staying power. But even if those brands are highly valued, they still face competition from knock offs.

If you shop at big box stores in the United States you may have no awareness of the following product.

Look a bit closer at that image & you'll see it wasn't LEGO, but rather LEBQ.

Sales for Le Bao Quan are not sales for the core LEGO brand, the consumer gets acclimated to an artificially low price point, and imagine what sort of a traumatic impact it might have for a child if their first LEGO-like toy looks like a pig fresh from the butcher's shop.

The key difference between that sort of stuff and gray areas monetized by the big online platforms is you may have to go to third world to find the sketchy physical products in the real world; whereas the big online platforms all have some number of sketchy globally accessible offers at any point in time. Here are just a few examples:

Monetizing Brand (Retailer)

At the core, all these platform plays are both brands unto themselves & places where third party brands get monetized.

The start up costs to have leverage to work with brands in an official partnership can be quite significant. Just look at how much Jet.com has raised and how much hustle they've used to get in the game, even with their massive burn rate.

Part of why Apple has such strong margins is their brand is so strong they can dictate terms and control the supply chain. Others are willing to give them the majority of the profits because carrying them completes the catalog and helps the retailers sell other, weaker goods where the retailers have higher profit margins.

And even then, when you get outside their core products, there are listings for fake OEM Apple stuff all over the web.

Luckily when fake products use spammy titles on Amazon the reviewers will quickly highlight if they are of inferior quality. But if they look authentic & work, it can be hard for the brands to know unless they proactively track everything. And as that demand gets filled, if there is a negative experience it may lead to customer complaints about the brand, whereas if there are no complaints & the product works it still leaves less money for the brand which is being arbitraged.

"The Internet doesn't change everything. It doesn't change supply and demand." - Andy Grove

Other players with weaker brands and a roll reversal on who needs who can quickly find themselves in a pickle.

Monetizing Brand (Financeer)

Some companies die slowly, as accountants drive strategy & they outsource their key points of differentiation and become unremarkable. When Yahoo! turned their verticals into thin "me too" outsourced plays they made it easy for Google to offer something of a similar quality, which in turn left the Yahoo! vertical properties without much distribution.

As Yahoo! struggles, some investors want to buy the core Yahoo! business so Yahoo! can exit the web business while being a holding company for Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan stock.

In an age of declining interest rates, zero interest rates (or even negative rate) policies some investors look to buy brands, streamline operations (mass firings & outsourcing), lever them up on debt & then sell them back off. Some companies like Burger King have cycled through public and private ownership multiple times.

Brands can be purchased just like links. Everything has a price and a value which shifts with the market.

Good to great to gone.

Monetizing Brand (Affiliate)

Some retailers have symbiotic relations with brands they sell, while other platforms may compete more aggressively with those whose products they sell. The same is true with affiliates. Affiliates can genuinely add value & drive new distribution for brands, or they can engage in lower value arbitrage, where they push the brand to pay for what was already owned by it through shady techniques like cookie stuffing.

One of the most one-sided and biased hate-filled perspectives I've ever seen about affiliates is Lori Weiman's guest columns at Search Engine Land.

Just the same, some merchants treat affiliates honestly and fairly, while other merchants have a pattern of scamming their affiliates through lead shaving, adjusting revenue share without telling the affiliates, and a host of other sketchy behaviors.

Monetizing Brand (Search Engine)

Search engines allow competitors or resellers to bid on branded keywords, which creates an auction bidding environment for many branded terms. Typically Google offers the official site / brand clicks at a significant discount for these terms in order to encourage them to compete in the ad marketplace & to help shift some of the organic click mix over to paid clicks.

Google has also tried a number of other initiatives to boost their monetization of branded keywords. A partial list of such efforts includes:

Sophisticated vs Unsophisticated SEM

Many poorly managed AdWords accounts managed by large ad agency ultimately end up far more damaging to brands than the efforts from "shady" affiliates. The set up (which is far more common than most would care to believe) revolves around the ad agency arbitraging the client's existing brand, falsely claiming the revenue generated by that spend to be completely incremental & then get a percent of spend management fee on that spend. The phantom profits which are generated from those efforts are further applied to bidding irrationally high on other terms, to once again pick up more percent of spend management fees.

Savvy search marketers separate the value of traffic from branded and unbranded terms to take a more accurate view of the interaction between investments in paid search and organic search.

Both eBay and Google have done studies on the incrementality of paid search clicks.

eBay being a large brand found they didn't see much incrementality [PDF]. Search Google for eBay and they won't run AdWords ads. eBay still participates in product listing ads / shopping search for other products they carry.

Google (of course) found much more incrementality with paid search ads. While they conducted their internal study and suggested it would be too hard or expensive for most advertisers to conduct such a study, they also failed to mention that the reason it would be expensive for an advertiser to perform such a test is because Google intentionally & explicitly decided against offering those features inside the AdWords platform. It is the same reason Google shut down Google Advisor / Google Compare - offering it doesn't provide Google a guaranteed positive yield when compared against not offering it.

One thing Google did note about seeing higher rates of incremental clicks in their study was when there was increased space between the listings there tended to be a higher rate of incremental ad clicks. This is part of why we see AdWords ads getting larger with more extensions & there being so many features in mobile which push the organic results below the fold.

The same Lori Weiman who hates affiliates is currently running (literally) an 8-part series on why you should bid on your brand keywords.

If anyone other than a search engine monetizes brand that might be bad, but if the search engines do it then going along with the game is always the right call.

Owning the Supply Chain

"The true victory (the true 'negation of the negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language." - Slavoj Zizek

The opposite is also true. If you are a brand who is being dictionary attacked by an ad network, the brand quickly shifts from an asset to a liability.

"The only thing that I'd rather own than Windows is English, because then I could charge you two hundred and forty-nine dollars for the right to speak it." - Scott McNealy

Google owns English and Spanish and German and ...

Is your control over the supply chain strong enough that you can afford to be below the fold for your own brand?

While you think about that, other pieces of the supply chain are merging in key verticals to better combat the strength of search ad networks.

  • Expedia, Travelocity & Orbitz
  • Zillow & Trulia
  • Staples, OfficeMax & OfficeDepot

How much are you willing to pay Google for each click for a brand you already own?

When does that stop being worth it?

During the next recession many advertisers will find out.

Added: Within days of writing the above post Google was once again found running ads promoting phishing campaigns, even though the ads arbitrage Google's branded keyword terms.

Apparently that issue isn't something new either.

Publisher Blocking: How the Web Was Lost

Streaming Apps


Google recently announced app streaming, where they can showcase & deep link into apps in the search results even if users do not have those apps installed. How it works is rather than users installing the app, Google has the app installed on a computer in their cloud & then shows users a video of the app. Click targets, ads, etc. remain the same.

In writing about the new feature, Danny Sullivan wrote a section on "How The Web Could Have Been Lost"

Imagine if, in order to use the web, you had to download an app for each website you wanted to visit. To find news from the New York Times, you had to install an app that let you access the site through your web browser. To purchase from Amazon, you first needed to install an Amazon app for your browser. To share on Facebook, installation of the Facebook app for your browser would be required. That would be a nightmare.
...
The web put an end to this. More specifically, the web browser did. The web browser became a universal app that let anyone open anything on the web.

To meaningfully participate on those sorts of sites you still need an account. You are not going to be able to buy on Amazon without registration. Any popular social network which allows third party IDs to take the place of first party IDs will quickly become a den of spam until they close that loophole.

In short, you still have to register with sites to get real value out of them if you are doing much beyond reading an article. Without registration it is hard for them to personalize your experience & recommend relevant content.

Desktop Friendly Design

App indexing & deep linking of apps is a step in the opposite direction of the open web. It is supporting proprietary non-web channels which don't link out. Further, if you thought keyword (not provided) heavily obfuscated user data, how much will data be obfuscated if the user isn't even using your site or app, but rather is interacting via a Google cloud computer?

  • Who visited your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Where were they located? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Did they have problems using your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • What did they look at? Can you retarget them? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.

Is an app maker too lazy to create a web equivalent version of their content? If so, let them be at a strategic disadvantage to everyone who put in the extra effort to publish their content online.

If Google has their remote quality raters consider a site as not meeting users needs because they don't publish a "mobile friendly" version of their site, how can one consider a publisher who creates "app only" content as an entity which is trying hard to meet end user needs?

We know Google hates app install interstitials (unless they are sold by Google), thus the only reason Google would have for wanting to promote these sorts of services would be to justify owning, controlling & monetizing the user experience.

App-solutely Not The Answer


Apps are sold as a way to lower channel risk & gain direct access to users, but the companies owning the app stores are firmly in control.

Everyone wants to "own" the user, but none of the platforms bother to ask if the user wants to be owned:

We’re rapidly moving from an internet where computers are ‘peers’ (equals) to one where there are consumers and ‘data owners’, silos of end user data that work as hard as they can to stop you from communicating with other, similar silos.
...
If the current trend persists we’re heading straight for AOL 2.0, only now with a slick user interface, a couple more features and more users.

You've Got AOL

The AOL analogy is widely used:

Katz of Gogobot says that “SEO is a dying field” as Google uses its “monopoly” power to turn the field of search into Google’s own walled garden like AOL did in the age of dial-up modems.

Almost 4 years ago a Google engineer described SEO as a bug. He suggested one shouldn't be able to rank highly without paying.

It looks like he was right. Google's aggressive ad placement on mobile SERPs "has broken the will of users who would have clicked on an organic link if they could find one at the top of the page but are instead just clicking ads because they don’t want to scroll down."

In the years since then we've learned Google's "algorithm" has concurrent ranking signals & other forms of home cooking which guarantees success for Google's vertical search offerings. The "reasonable" barrier to entry which applies to third parties does not apply to any new Google offerings.

And "bugs" keep appearing in those "algorithms," which deliver a steady stream of harm to competing businesses.

From Indy to Brand

The waves of algorithm updates have in effect increased the barrier to entry, along with the cost needed to maintain rankings. The stresses and financial impacts that puts on small businesses makes many of them not worth running. Look no further than MetaFilter's founder seeing a psychologist, then quitting because he couldn't handle the process.

When Google engineers are not focused on "breaking spirits" they emphasize the importance of happiness.

The ecosystem instability has made smaller sites effectively disappear while delivering a bland and soulless result set which is heavy on brand:

there’s no reason why the internet couldn’t keep on its present course for years to come. Under those circumstances, it would shed most of the features that make it popular with today’s avant-garde, and become one more centralized, regulated, vacuous mass medium, packed to the bursting point with corporate advertising and lowest-common-denominator content, with dissenting voices and alternative culture shut out or shoved into corners where nobody ever looks. That’s the normal trajectory of an information technology in today’s industrial civilization, after all; it’s what happened with radio and television in their day, as the gaudy and grandiose claims of the early years gave way to the crass commercial realities of the mature forms of each medium.

If you participate on the web daily, the change washes over you slowly, and the cumulative effects can be imperceptible. But if you were locked in an Iranian jail for years the change is hard to miss.

These sorts of problems not only impact search, but have an impact on all the major tech channels.

If you live in Goole, these issues strike close to home.

And there are almost no counter-forces to the well established trend:

Eventually they might even symbolically close their websites, finishing the job they started when they all stopped paying attention to what their front pages looked like. Then, they will do a whole lot of what they already do, according to the demands of their new venues. They will report news and tell stories and post garbage and make mistakes. They will be given new metrics that are both more shallow and more urgent than ever before; they will adapt to them, all the while avoiding, as is tradition, honest discussions about the relationship between success and quality and self-respect.
...
If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and “publications” are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

A Deal With the Devil

As ad blocking has grown more pervasive, some publishers believe the solution to the problem is through gaining distribution through the channels which are exempt from the impacts of ad blocking. However those channels have no incentive to offer exceptional payouts. They make more by showing fewer ads within featured content from partners (where they must share ad revenues) and showing more ads elsewhere (where they keep all the ad revenues).

So far publishers have been underwhelmed with both Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. The former for stringent ad restrictions, and the latter for providing limited user data. Google Now is also increasing the number of news stories they show. And next year Google will roll out their accelerated mobile pages offering.

The problem is if you don't control the publishing you don't control the monetization and you don't control the data flow.

Your website helps make the knowledge graph (and other forms of vertical search) possible. But you are paid nothing when your content appears in the knowledge graph. And the knowledge graph now has a number of ad units embedded in it.

A decade ago, when Google pushed autolink to automatically insert links in publisher's content, webmasters had enough leverage to "just say no." But now? Not so much. Google considers in-text ad networks spam & embeds their own search in third party apps. As the terms of deals change, and what is considered "best for users" changes, content creators quietly accept, or quit.

Many video sites lost their rich snippets, while YouTube got larger snippets in the search results. Google pays YouTube content creators a far lower revenue share than even the default AdSense agreement offers. And those creators have restrictions which prevent them from using some forms of monetization while forces them to accept other types of bundling.

The most recent leaked Google rater documents suggested the justification for featured answers was to make mobile search quick, but if that were the extent of it then it still doesn't explain why they also appear on desktop search results. It also doesn't explain why the publisher credit links were originally a light gray.

With Google everything comes down to speed, speed, speed. But then they offer interstitial ad units, lock content behind surveys, and transform the user intent behind queries in a way that leads them astray.

As Google obfuscates more data & increasingly redirects and monetizes user intent, they promise to offer advertisers better integration of online to offline conversion data.

At the same time, as Google "speeds up" your site for you, they may break it with GoogleWebLight.

If you don't host & control the user experience you are at the whim of (at best, morally agnostic) self-serving platforms which could care less if any individual publication dies.

It's White Hat or Bust...


What was that old white hat SEO adage? I forget the precise wording, but I think it went something like...

Don't buy links, it is too risky & too uncertain. Guarantee strong returns like Google does, by investing directly into undermining the political process by hiring lobbyists, heavy political donations, skirting political donation rules, regularly setting policy, inserting your agents in government, and sponsoring bogus "academic research" without disclosing the payments.

Focus on the user. Put them first. Right behind money.

Virtual Real Estate Virtually Disappears

Aug 21st

Back in 2009 Google executives were scared of not being able to retain talent with stock options after Google's stock price cratered with the rest of the market & Google's ad revenue growth rate slid to zero. That led them to reprice employee stock options. That is as close as Google has come to a "near death" experience since their IPO. They've consistently grown & become more dominant.

In November of 2009 I cringed when I saw the future of SEO in Google SERPs where the organic results were outright displaced & even some of the featured map listings had their phone numbers removed.

Investing in Search

In 2012 a Googler named Jon Rockway was more candid than Googlers are typically known for being: "SEO isn't good for users or the Internet at large. ... It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug."

It isn't surprising Google greatly devalued keyword domain names & hit sites like eHow hard. And it isn't surprising Demand Media is laying off staff and is rumored to be exploring selling their sites. If deleting millions of articles from eHow doesn't drive a recovery, how much money can they lose on the rehab project before they should just let it go?

Breaking spirits works!

"If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits." - Matt Cutts

Through a constant ex-post-facto redefinition of "what is spam" to include most anything which is profitable, predictable & accessible, Google engineers work hard to "deny people money."

Over time SEO became harder & less predictable. The exception being Google investments like Thumbtack, in which case other's headwind became your tailwind & a list of techniques declared off limits became a strategy guidebook.

Communications got worse, Google stopped even pretending to help the ecosystem, and they went so far as claiming that even asking for a link was spam. All the while, as they were curbing third party investment into the ecosystem ("deny them money"), they work on PR for their various investments & renamed the company from Google to Alphabet so they can expand their scope of investments.

"We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!" - Larry Page

From Do/Know/Go to Scrape/Displace/Monetize

It takes a lot of effort & most people are probably too lazy to do it, but if you look at the arch of Google's patents related to search quality, many of the early ones revolved around links. Then many focused on engagement related signals. Chrome & Android changed the pool of signals Google had access to. Things like Project Fi, Gogle Fiber, Nest, and Google's new OnHub router give them more of that juicy user data. Many of their recently approved patents revolve around expanding the knowledge graph so that they may outright displace the idea of having a neutral third party result set for an increasing share of the overall search pie.

Searchers can instead get bits of "knowledge" dressed in various flavors of ads.

This sort of displacement is having a significant impact on a variety of sites. But for most it is a slow bleed rather than an overnight sudden shift. In that sort of environment, even volunteer run sites will eventually atrophy. They will have fewer new users, and as some of the senior people leave, eventually fewer will rise through the ranks. Or perhaps a greater share of the overall ranks will be driven by money.

Jimmy Wales stated: “It is also false that ‘Wikipedia thrives on clicks,’ at least as compared to ad-revenue driven sites… The relationship between ‘clicks’ and the things we care about: community health and encyclopedia quality is not nothing, but it’s not as direct as some think.”

Most likely the relationship *is* quite direct, but there is a lagging impact. Today's major editors didn't join the site yesterday & take time to rise through the ranks.

As the big sites become more closed off the independent voices are pushed aside or outright disappear.

If Google works hard enough at prioritizing "deny people money" as a primary goal, then they will eventually get an index quality that reflects that lack of payment. Plenty of good looking & well-formatted content, but a mix of content which:

  • is monetized indirectly & in ways which are not clearly disclosed
  • has interstitial ads and slideshows where the ads look like the "next" button & the "next" button is colored the same color as the site's background
  • is done as "me too" micro-reporting with no incremental analysis
  • is algorithmically generated

Celebrating Search "Innovation"

There has been a general pattern in search innovation. Google introduces a new feature, pitches it as being the next big thing, gets people to adopt it, collects data on the impact of the feature, clamps down on selectively allowing it, perhaps removes the feature outright from organic search results, permanently adds the feature to their ad units.

This sort of pattern has happened so many times it is hard to count.

Google puts faces in search results for authorship & to promote Google+, Google realizes Google+ is a total loser & disconnects it, new ad units for local services show faces in the search results. What was distracting noise was removed, then it was re-introduced as part of an ad unit.

The same sort of deal exists elsewhere. Google acquires YouTube, launches universal search, offers video snippets, increases size of video snippets. Then video snippets get removed from most listings "because noise." YouTube gets enlarged video snippets. And, after removing the "noise" of video stills in the search results Google is exploring testing video ads in the search results.

Some sites which bundle software got penalized in organic search and are not even allowed to buy AdWords ads. At an extreme degree, sites which bundled no software, but simply didn't link to an End User Agreement (EULA) from the download page were penalized. Which leads to uncomfortable conversations like this one:

Google Support: I looked through this, and it seemed that one of the issues was a lack of an End User Agreement (EULA)

Simtec: An EULA is displayed by the setup program before installing starts. Also, the end user license agreements are linked to from here http://www.httpwatch.com/buy/orderingfaq.aspx#licensetypes

Google Support: Hmm, They do want it on the download page itself

Simtec: How come there isn’t one here? google.co.uk/chrome/browser/desktop/

Google Support: LOL

Simtec: No really?

Google Support: That’s a great question

Of course, it goes without saying that much of the Google Chrome install base came from negative option software bundling on Adobe Flash security updates.

Google claimed helpful hotel affiliate sites should be rated as spam, then they put their own affiliate ads in hotel search results & even recommended hotel searches in the knowledge graph on city name searches.

Google created a penalty for sites which have an ad heavy interface. Many of Google's search results are nothing but ads for the entire first screen.

Google search engineers have recently started complaining about interstitial ads & suggested they might create a "relevancy" signal based on users not liking those. At the same time, an increasing number of YouTube videos have unskippable pre-roll ads. And the volume of YouTube ad views is so large that it is heavily driving down Google's aggregate ad click price. On top of this, Google also offers a survey tool which publishers can lock content behind & requires users to answer a question before they can see the full article they just saw ranking in the search results.

"Everything is possible, but nothing is real." - Living Colour

Blue Ocean Opportunity

Amid the growing ecosystem instability & increasing hypocrisy, there have perhaps been only a couple "blue ocean" areas left in organic search: local search & brand.

And it appears Google might be well on their way in trying to take those away.

For years brand has been the solution to almost any SEO problem.

But Google has been increasing the cost of owning a brand. They are testing other ad formats to drive branded search clicks through more expensive ad formats like PLAs & they have been drastically increasing brand CPCs on text ads. And while that second topic has recently gained broader awareness, it has been a trend for years now: "Over the last 12 months, Brand CPCs on Google have increased 80%" - George Michie, July 30, 2013.

There are other subtle ways Google has attacked brand, including:

  • penalties on many of the affiliates of those brands
  • launching their own vertical search ad offerings in key big-money verticals
  • investing billions in "disruptive" start ups which are exempt from the algorithmic risks other players must deal with
  • allowing competitors to target competing brands not only within the search results, but also as custom affinity audiences
  • linking to competing businesses in the knowledge graph

Google has recently dialed up monetization of local search quite aggressively as well. I've long highlighted how mobile search results are ad heavy & have grown increasingly so over time. Google has recently announced call only ad formats, a buy button for mobile ads, local service provider ads, appointment scheduling in the SERPs, direct hotel booking, etc.

And, in addition to all the above new ad formats, recently it was noticed Google is now showing 3 ads on mobile devices even for terms without much commercial intent, like [craft beer].

Now that the mobile search interface is literally nothing but ads above the fold, early data shows a significant increase in mobile ad clicks. Of course it doesn't matter if there are 2 or 3 ads, if Google shows ad extensions on SERPs with only 2 ads to ensure they drive the organic results "out of sight, out of mind."

Earlier this month it was also noticed Google replaced 7-pack local results with 3-pack local results for many more search queries, even on desktop search results. On some of these results they only show a call button, on others they show links to sites. It is a stark contrast to the vast array of arbitrary (and even automated) ad extensions in AdWords.

Why would they determine users want to see links to the websites & the phone numbers, then decide overnight users don't want those?

Why would Google determine for many years that 7 is a good number of results to show, and then overnight shift to showing 3?

If Google listed 7 ads in a row people might notice the absurdity of it and complain. But if Google only shows 3 results, then they can quickly convert it into an ad unit with little blowback.

You don't have to be a country music fan to know the Austin SEO limits in a search result where the local results are now payola.

Try not to hurt your back while looking down for the organic search results!

Here are two tips to ensure any SEO success isn't ethereal: don't be nearby, and don't be a business. :D

But First, A Word From Our Sponsors...

May 6th

Yesterday Google shared they see greater mobile than desktop search volumes in 10 countries including Japan and the United States.

3 years ago RKG shared CTR data which highlighted how mobile search ads were getting over double the CTR as desktop search ads.

The basic formula: less screen real estate = higher proportion of user clicks on ads.

Google made a big deal of their "mobilepocalypse" update to scare other webmasters into making their sites mobile friendly. Part of the goal of making sites "mobile friendly" is to ensure it isn't too ad dense (which in turn lowers accidental ad clicks & lowers monetization). Not only does Google have an "ad heavy" relevancy algorithm which demotes ad heavy sites, but they also explicitly claim even using a moderate sized ad unit on mobile devices above the fold is against their policy guidelines:

Is placing a 300x250 ad unit on top of a high-end mobile optimized page considered a policy violation?

Yes, this would be considered a policy violation as it falls under our ad placement policies for site layout that pushes content below the fold. This implementation would take up too much space on a mobile optimized site's first view screen with ads and provides a poor experience to users. Always try to think of the users experience on your site - this will help ensure that users continue to visit.

So if you make your site mobile friendly you can't run Google ads above the fold unless you are a large enough publisher that the guidelines don't actually matter.

If you spend the extra money to make your site mobile friendly, you then must also go out of your way to lower your income.

What is the goal of the above sort of scenario? Defunding content publishers to ensure most the ad revenues flow to Google.

If you think otherwise, consider the layout of the auto ads & hotel ads Google announced yesterday. Top of the search results, larger than 300x250.

If you do X, you are a spammer. If Google does X, they are improving the user experience.

The above sort of contrast is something noticed by non-SEOs. The WSJ article about Google's new ad units had a user response stating:

With this strategy, Google has made the mistake of an egregious use of precious mobile screen space in search results. This entails much extra fingering/scrolling to acquire useful results and bypass often not-needed coincident advertising. Perhaps a moneymaker by brute force; not a good idea for utility’s sake.

That content displacement with ads is both against Google's guidelines and algorithmically targeted for demotion - unless you are Google.

How is that working for Google partners?

According to eMarketer, by 2019 mobile will account for 72% of US digital ad spend. Almost all that growth in ad spend flows into the big ad networks while other online publishers struggle to monetize their audiences:

Facebook and Google accounted for a majority of mobile ad market growth worldwide last year. Combined, the two companies saw net mobile ad revenues increase by $6.92 billion, claiming 75.2% of the additional $9.2 billion that went toward mobile in 2013.

Back to the data RKG shared. Mobile is where the growth is...

...and the smaller the screen size the more partners are squeezed out of the ecosystem...

The high-intent, high-value search traffic is siphoned off by ads.

What does that leave for the rest of the ecosystem?

It is hard to build a sustainable business when you have to rely almost exclusively on traffic with no commercial intent.

One of the few areas that works well is perhaps with evergreen content which has little cost of maintenance, but even many of those pockets of opportunity are disappearing due to the combination of the Panda algorithm and Google's scrape-n-displace knowledge graph.

Even companies with direct ad sales teams struggle to monetize mobile:

At The New York Times, for instance, more than half its digital audience comes from mobile, yet just 10% of its digital-ad revenue is attributed to these devices.

Other news websites also get the majority of their search traffic from mobile.

Why do news sites get so much mobile search traffic? A lot of it is navigational & beyond that most of it is on informational search queries which are hard to monetize (and thus have few search ads) and hard to structure into the knowledge graph (because they are about news items which only just recently happened).

If you look at the organic search traffic breakdown in your analytics account & you run a site which isn't a news site you will likely see a far lower share of search traffic from mobile. Websites outside of the news vertical typically see far less mobile traffic. This goes back to Google dominating the mobile search interface with ads.

Mobile search ecosystem breakdown

  • traffic with commercial intent = heavy ads
  • limited commercial intent but easy answer = knowledge graph
  • limited commercial intent & hard to answer = traffic flows to news sites

Not only is Google monetizing a far higher share of mobile search traffic, but they are also aggressively increasing minimum bids.

As Google continues to gut the broader web publishing ecosystem, they can afford to throw a few hundred million in "innovation" bribery kickback slush funds. That will earn them some praise in the short term with some of the bigger publishers, but it will make those publishers more beholden to Google. And it is even worse for smaller publishers. It means the smaller publishers are not only competing against algorithmic brand bias, confirmation bias expressed in the remote rater documents, & wholesale result set displacement, but some of their bigger publishing competitors are also subsidized directly by Google.

Ignore the broader ecosystem shifts.

Ignore the hypocrisy.

Focus on the user.

Until you are eating cat food.

Google Mobilepocalypse Update

Apr 22nd

A day after the alleged major update, I thought it would make sense to highlight where we are at in the cycle.

Yesterday Google suggested their fear messaging caused 4.7% of webmasters to move over to mobile friendly design since the update was originally announced a few months ago.

The 4.7% of the websites Google pushed to go mobile friendly likely include some sites which would have been mobile friendly anyhow by virtue of being new sites on hosted platforms with responsive designs. But for the rest of the sites, was the shift worth it?

That is a tough question.

It is too early to tell.

  • Google still hasn't put much weight on it in the rankings yet.
  • Mobile traffic is typically worth far less than desktop traffic for most websites.
  • Time which was spent on mobile friendly conversion could have been spent on other forms of marketing.
  • Some sites which became mobile friendly took a significant revenue hit in doing so by switching out long running effective ad placements with mobile responsive units which may not have performed as well.

The problem with going early is you eat the expense upfront, while the rewards are still unknown.

  • Many people who jumped on the "secured everywhere" bandwagon last year saw broken security certificate issues and broken plugins which were hard to fix. And the upfront cost wasn't the only expense, as many AdSense publishers saw less relevant ads, lower ad CTR, and a sharp drop in AdSense earnings after going secured.
  • Those who spent the money to integrate Google Checkout to get AdWords discounts had to spend again to remove it when Google stopped supporting it.
  • TV makers who were early to integrate Google's YouTube API (which allowed ad free streaming) will now have to deal with a rash of customer complaints as Google sunsets the old API to make way to be able to sell an ad free subscription service.

If you are spending your own time & money and you believe in what you are doing and the longevity of a project then it doesn't matter too much if the rewards come slowly or never come. A sense of purpose & a sense of pride in your work is a form of payment.

However, if you are spending a client's money & you ring a 5 alarm fire to rush to make some technical change & then see no upside after the much hyped announcement, that erodes client trust. If there is no upside and a huge drop in revenue, then the consultant looks like a clueless idiot burning money for the sake of it doing various make work projects.

A few years ago a Google rep stated Panda would be folded into the regular algorithms. Then recently we were told it was a near realtime. Then we were told it was something where updates needed to be manually pushed out & it is something Google hasn't done in 4 months. If we trusted Google & conveyed any of these messages to clients, once again we looked like idiots. If we choose to invest client money based on the cycles and advice we are given, quite often that is a money incinerator.

Imagine dropping $30,000 on a link cleanup project where you remove links which were helping your Bing rankings but the Google update "coming soon" takes over a year to show up.

Invest money to lower your current income while you're waiting for Godat.

Good times!

So after Google made a big show of this pending mobile update by pre-announcing it, speaking about it at multiple conferences, comparing it to Panda and Penguin & stating it would have a bigger impact, sending out millions of warning messages via Webmaster Tools, etc etc etc .. when the big day came, did Google make the people who trusted them & invested in their advice look good?

Not so much.

Ayima recently launched a SERP flux pulse tracker tool which shows desktop and mobile flux side-by-side.

As you can see, nothing happened.

So far, no rewards. Maybe they will come. Though here is a hypothetical example where it could be very much NOT worth it for some publishers to go mobile friendly...

  • a webmaster managing an affiliate site converts it to a mobile responsive design
  • but user conversions on mobile devices in some verticals are unlikely, due to it being a pain in the ass to enter credit card info and so on ...
  • well ... person makes their site mobile friendly
  • that leads their mobile version of their site to rank better in Google
  • that leads to a greater share of their overall organic Google search traffic coming from mobile devices
  • their engagement metrics on mobile are somewhat weak, particularly when compared against desktop users, as is the case for many websites
  • their lower aggregate engagement metrics could create a signal which lead an edge case site into a false positive panda penalty
  • that then lowers their desktop search rankings
  • which lowers their desktop search traffic
  • which lowers their desktop search revenues
  • ...worse yet, ...
  • those affiliate cookies they dropped on mobile devices don't count for them when the user later converts on a desktop device

Any form of penalty (even a false positive) can become self-reinforcing. And many of the things which seem like they might help could cause harm.

Did you jump the gun or wait and see?

Consensus Bias

Apr 15th

The Truth About Subjective Truths

A few months ago there was an article in New Scientist about Google's research paper on potentially ranking sites based on how factual their content is. The idea is generally and genuinely absurd.

For a search engine to be driven primarily by group think (see unity100's posts here) is the death of diversity.

Less Diversity, More Consolidation

The problem is rarely attributed to Google, but as ecosystem diversity has declined (and entire segments of the ecosystem are unprofitable to service), more people are writing things like: "The market for helping small businesses maintain a home online isn’t one with growing profits – or, for the most part, any profits. It’s one that’s heading for a bloody period of consolidation."

As companies grow in power the power gets monetized. If you can manipulate people without appearing to do so you can make a lot of money.

We Just Listen to the Data (Ish)

As Google sucks up more data, aggregates intent, and scrapes-n-displaces the ecosystem they get air cover for some of their gray area behaviors by claiming things are driven by the data & putting the user first.

Those "data" and altruism claims from Google recently fell flat on their face when the Wall Street Journal published a number of articles about a leaked FTC document.

That PDF has all sorts of goodies in it about things like blocking competition, signing a low margin deal with AOL to keep monopoly marketshare (while also noting the general philosophy outside of a few key deals was to squeeze down on partners), scraping content and ratings from competing sites, Google force inserting itself in certain verticals anytime select competitors ranked in the organic result set, etc.

As damning as the above evidence is, more will soon be brought to light as the EU ramps up their formal statement of objection, as Google is less politically connected in Europe than they are in the United States:

"On Nov. 6, 2012, the night of Mr. Obama’s re-election, Mr. Schmidt was personally overseeing a voter-turnout software system for Mr. Obama. A few weeks later, Ms. Shelton and a senior antitrust lawyer at Google went to the White House to meet with one of Mr. Obama’s technology advisers. ... By the end of the month, the FTC had decided not to file an antitrust lawsuit against the company, according to the agency’s internal emails."

What is wild about the above leaked FTC document is it goes to great lengths to show an anti-competitive pattern of conduct toward the larger players in the ecosystem. Even if you ignore the distasteful political aspects of the FTC non-decision, the other potential out was:

"The distinction between harm to competitors and harm to competition is an important one: according to the modern interpretation of antitrust law, even if a business hurts individual competitors, it isn’t seen as breaking antitrust law unless it has also hurt the competitive process—that is, that it has taken actions that, for instance, raised prices or reduced choices, over all, for consumers." - Vauhini Vara

Part of the reason the data set was incomplete on that front was for the most part only larger ecosystem players were consulted. Google engineers have went on record stating they aim to break people's spirits in a game of psychological warfare. If that doesn't hinder consumer choice, what does?

When the EU published their statement of objections Google's response showed charts with the growth of Amazon and eBay as proof of a healthy ecosystem.

The market has been consolidated down into a few big winners which are still growing, but that in and of itself does not indicate a healthy nor neutral overall ecosystem.

The long tail of smaller e-commerce sites which have been scrubbed from the search results is nowhere to be seen in such charts / graphs / metrics.

The other obvious "untruth" hidden in the above Google chart is there is no way product searches on Google.com are included in Google's aggregate metrics. They are only counting some subset of them which click through a second vertical ad type while ignoring Google's broader impact via the combination of PLAs along with text-based AdWords ads and the knowledge graph, or even the recently rolled out rich product answer results.

Who could look at the following search result (during anti-trust competitive review no less) and say "yeah, that looks totally reasonable?"

Google has allegedly spent the last couple years removing "visual clutter" from the search results & yet they manage to product SERPs looking like that - so long as the eye candy leads to clicks monetized directly by Google or other Google hosted pages.

The Search Results Become a Closed App Store

Search was an integral piece of the web which (in the past) put small companies on a level playing field with larger players.

That it no longer is.

"What kind of a system do you have when existing, large players are given a head start and other advantages over insurgents? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not the Internet." - Dave Pell

The above quote was about app stores, but it certainly parallels a rater system which enforces the broken window fallacy against smaller players while looking the other way on larger players, unless they are in a specific vertical Google itself decides to enter.

"That actually proves my point that they use Raters to rate search results. aka: it *is* operated manually in many (how high?) cases. There is a growing body of consensus that a major portion of Googles current "algo" consists of thousands of raters that score results for ranking purposes. The "algorithm" by machine, on the majority of results seen by a high percentage of people, is almost non-existent." ... "what is being implied by the FTC is that Googles criteria was: GoogleBot +10 all Yelp content (strip mine all Yelp reviews to build their database). GoogleSerps -10 all yelp content (downgrade them in the rankings and claim they aren't showing serps in serps). That is anticompetitive criteria that was manually set." - Brett Tabke

The remote rater guides were even more explicitly anti-competitive than what was detailed in the FTC report. For instance, requiring hotel affiliate sites rated as spam even if they are helpful, for no reason other than being affiliate sites.

Is Brand the Answer?

About 3 years ago I wrote a blog post about how branding plays into SEO & why it might peak. As much as I have been accused of having a cynical view, the biggest problem with my post was it was naively optimistic. I presumed Google's consolidation of markets would end up leading Google to alter their ranking approach when they were unable to overcome the established consensus bias which was subsidizing their competitors. The problem with my presumption is Google's reliance on "data" was a chimera. When convenient (and profitable) data is discarded on an as need basis.

Or, put another way, the visual layout of the search result page trumps the underlying ranking algorithms.

Google has still highly disintermediated brand value, but they did it via vertical search, larger AdWords ad units & allowing competitive bidding on trademark terms.

If Not Illegal, then Scraping is Certainly Morally Deplorable...

As Google scraped Yelp & TripAdvisor reviews & gave them an ultimatum, Google was also scraping Amazon sales rank data and using it to power Google Shopping product rankings.

Around this same time Google pushed through a black PR smear job of Bing for doing a similar, lesser offense to Google on rare, made-up longtail searches which were not used by the general public.

While Google was outright stealing third party content and putting it front & center on core keyword searches, they had to use "about 100 “synthetic queries”—queries that you would never expect a user to type" to smear Bing & even numerous of these queries did not show the alleged signal.

Here are some representative views of that incident:

  • "We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we'd like for this practice to stop." - Google's Amit Singhal
  • “It’s cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work. I don’t know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it’s like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.” Amit Singhal, more explicitly.
  • "One comment that I’ve heard is that “it’s whiny for Google to complain about this.” I agree that’s a risk, but at the same time I think it’s important to go on the record about this." - Matt Cutts
  • "I’ve got some sympathy for Google’s view that Bing is doing something it shouldn’t." - Danny Sullivan

What is so crazy about the above quotes is Google engineers knew at the time what Google was doing with Google's scraping. I mentioned that contrast shortly after the above PR fiasco happened:

when popular vertical websites (that have invested a decade and millions of Dollars into building a community) complain about Google disintermediating them by scraping their reviews, Google responds by telling those webmasters to go pound sand & that if they don't want Google scraping them then they should just block Googlebot & kill their search rankings

Learning the Rules of the Road

If you get a sense "the rules" are arbitrary, hypocritical & selectively enforced - you may be on to something:

  • "The bizrate/nextag/epinions pages are decently good results. They are usually well-format[t]ed, rarely broken, load quickly and usually on-topic. Raters tend to like them" ... which is why ... "Google repeatedly changed the instructions for raters until raters assessed Google's services favorably"
  • and while claimping down on those services ("business models to avoid") ... "Google elected to show its product search OneBox “regardless of the quality” of that result and despite “pretty terribly embarrassing failures” "
  • and since Google knew their offerings were vastly inferior, “most of us on geo [Google Local] think we won't win unless we can inject a lot more of local directly into google results” ... thus they added "a 'concurring sites' signal to bias ourselves toward triggering [display of a Google local service] when a local-oriented aggregator site (i.e. Citysearch) shows up in the web results”"

Google's justification for not being transparent is "spammer" would take advantage of transparency to put inferior results front and center - the exact same thing Google does when it benefits the bottom line!

Around the same time Google hard-codes the self-promotion of their own vertical offerings, they may choose to ban competing business models through "quality" score updates and other similar changes:

The following types of websites are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably. In addition, it's important for advertisers of these types of websites to adhere to our landing page quality guidelines regarding unique content.

  • eBook sites that show frequent ads
  • 'Get rich quick' sites
  • Comparison shopping sites
  • Travel aggregators
  • Affiliates that don't comply with our affiliate guidelines

The anti-competitive conspiracy theory is no longer conspiracy, nor theory.

Key points highlighted by the European Commission:

  • Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits. This conduct started in 2008.
  • Google does not apply to its own comparison shopping service the system of penalties, which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters, and which can lead to the lowering of the rank in which they appear in Google's general search results pages.
  • Froogle, Google's first comparison shopping service, did not benefit from any favourable treatment, and performed poorly.
  • As a result of Google's systematic favouring of its subsequent comparison shopping services "Google Product Search" and "Google Shopping", both experienced higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services.
  • Google's conduct has a negative impact on consumers and innovation. It means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google's product.

Overcoming Consensus Bias

Consensus bias is set to an absurdly high level to block out competition, slow innovation, and make the search ecosystem easier to police. This acts as a tax on newer and lesser-known players and a subsidy toward larger players.

Eventually that subsidy would be a problem to Google if the algorithm was the only thing that matters, however if the entire result set itself can be displaced then that subsidy doesn't really matter, as it can be retracted overnight.

Whenever Google has a competing offering ready, they put it up top even if they are embarrassed by it and 100% certain it is a vastly inferior option to other options in the marketplace.

That is how Google reinforces, then manages to overcome consensus bias.

How do you overcome consensus bias?

Google Mobile Search Result Highlights

Mar 18th

Google recently added highlights at the bottom of various sections of their mobile search results. The highlights appear on ads, organic results, and other various vertical search insertion types. The colors vary arbitrarily by section and are patterned off the colors in the Google logo. Historically such borders have conveyed a meaning, like separating advertisements from organic search results, but now the colors have no meaning other than acting as a visual separator.

We recently surveyed users to see if they understood what the borders represented & if they felt the borders had any meaning. We did 4 surveys total. The first 2 allows a user to select a choice from a drop down menu. The last two were open ended, where a user typed text into the box. For each of the 2 survey types, we did a survey of a SERP which had an ad in it & a survey of a SERP without an ad in it.

Below are the associated survey images & user results.


Google recently added colored bars at the bottom of some mobile search results. What do they mean?

answer no ads with ad
none of the other options are correct 27.7% (+2.7 / -2.5) 29.9% (+2.8 / -2.7)
the listing is an advertisement 25.8% (+2.8 / -2.6) 30.1% (+2.8 / -2.7)
each color has a different meaning 24% (+2.7 / -2.5) 19.6% (+2.5 / -2.3)
colors separate sections but have no meaning 15.5% (+2.4 / -2.1) 12.5% (+2.1 / -1.9)
the listing is a free search result 6.9% (+1.8 / -1.5) 7.9% (+2.0 / -1.6)

Given there are 5 answers, if the distributions were random there would have been a 20% distribution on each option. The only options which skewed well below that were the perceptions that the colored highlights either had no meaning or represented free/organic search results.

Link to survey results: without ads vs with ads.

And here are images of what users saw for the above surveys:


For the second set of surveys we used an open ended format

The open ended questions allow a user to type in whatever they want. This means the results do not end up biased by the predefined answer options in a quiz, but it also means the results will include plenty of noise like...

  • people entering a, c, d, k, 1, 2, 3, ggg, hello, jj, blah, and who cares as answer choices
  • some of the responses referencing the listing topics
  • some of the responses referencing parts of a search result listing like the headlines or hyperlinks
  • some of the responses highlighting the colors of the bars
  • etc.

Like the above surveys, on each of these I ordered 1,500 responses. As of writing this, each had over 1,400 responses completed & here are the word clouds for the SERPs without an ad vs the SERPs with an ad.

SERP without an ad

SERP with an ad

On each of the above word clouds, we used the default automated grouping. Here is an example of what the word cloud would look like if the results were grouped manually.

Summary

For a couple years Google has removed various forms of eye candy from many organic results (cutting back on video snippets, limiting rich rating snipets, removing authorship, etc.). The justification for such removals was to make the results feel "less cluttered." At the same time, Google has added a variety of the same types of "noisy" listing enhancements to their various ad programs.

What is the difference between reviews ad extensions, consumer ratings ad extensions, and seller ratings ad extensions? What is the difference between callout extensions and dynamic structured snippets?

Long ago AdWords advertisements had a border near them to separate them from the organic results. Those borders disappeared many years ago & only recently reappeared on mobile devices when they also appeared near organic listings. That in turn has left searchers confused as to what the border highlighting means.

According to the above Google survey results, the majority of users don't know what the colors signify, don't care what they signify, or think they indicate advertisements.

Responsive Design for Mobile SEO

Why Is Mobile So Important?

If you look just at your revenue numbers as a publisher, it is easy to believe mobile is of limited importance. In our last post I mentioned an AdAge article highlighting how the New York Times was generating over half their traffic from mobile with it accounting for about 10% of their online ad revenues.

Large ad networks (Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!, etc.) can monetize mobile *much* better than other publishers can because they aggressively blend the ads right into the social stream or search results, causing them to have a much higher CTR than ads on the desktop. Bing recently confirmed the same trend RKG has highlighted about Google's mobile ad clicks:

While mobile continues to be an area of rapid and steady growth, we are pleased to report that the Yahoo Bing Network’s search and click volumes from smart phone users have more than doubled year-over-year. Click volumes have generally outpaced growth in search volume

Those ad networks want other publishers to make their sites mobile friendly for a couple reasons...

  • If the downstream sites are mobile friendly, then users are more likely to go back to the central ad / search / social networks more often & be more willing to click out on the ads from them.
  • If mobile is emphasized in importance, then those who are critical of the value of the channel may eat some of the blame for relative poor performance, particularly if they haven't spent resources optimizing user experience on the channel.

Further Elevating the Importance of Mobile

Google has hinted at the importance of having a mobile friendly design, labeling friendly sites, testing labeling slow sites & offering tools to test how mobile friendly a site design is.

Today Google put out an APB warning they are going to increase the importance of mobile friendly website design:

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results.

In the past Google would hint that they were working to clean up link spam or content farms or website hacking and so on. In some cases announcing such efforts was done to try to discourage investment in the associated strategies, but it is quite rare that Google pre-announces an algorithmic shift which they state will be significant & they put an exact date on it.

I wouldn't recommend waiting until the last day to implement the design changes, as it will take Google time to re-crawl your site & recognize if the design is mobile friendly.

Those who ignore the warning might be in for significant pain.

Some sites which were hit by Panda saw a devastating 50% to 70% decline in search traffic, but given how small mobile phone screen sizes are, even ranking just a couple spots lower could cause an 80% or 90% decline in mobile search traffic.

Another related issue referenced in the above post was tying in-app content to mobile search personalization:

Starting today, we will begin to use information from indexed apps as a factor in ranking for signed-in users who have the app installed. As a result, we may now surface content from indexed apps more prominently in search. To find out how to implement App Indexing, which allows us to surface this information in search results, have a look at our step-by-step guide on the developer site.

Google also announced today they are extending AdWords-styled ads to their Google Play search results, so they now have a direct economic incentive to allow app activity to bleed into their organic ranking factors.

m. Versus Responsive Design

Some sites have a separate m. version for mobile visitors, while other sites keep consistent URLs & employ responsive design. How the m. version works is on the regular version of their site (say like www.seobook.com) a webmaster could add an alternative reference to the mobile version in the head section of the document

<link rel="alternate" media="only screen and (max-width: 640px)" href="http://m.seobook.com/" >

...and then on the mobile version, they would rel=canonical it back to the desktop version, likeso...

<link rel="canonical" href="http://www.seobook.com/" >

With the above sort of code in place, Google would rank the full version of the site on desktop searches & the m. version in mobile search results.

3 or 4 years ago it was a toss up as to which of these 2 options would win, but over time it appears the responsive design option is more likely to win out.

Here are a couple reasons responsive is likely to win out as a better solution:

  • If people share a mobile-friendly URL on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks & the URL changes, then when someone on a desktop computer clicks on the shared m. version of the page with fewer ad units & less content on the page, then the publisher is providing a worse user experience & is losing out on incremental monetization they would have achieved with the additional ad units.
  • While some search engines and social networks might be good at consolidating the performance of the same piece of content across multiple URL versions, some of them will periodically mess it up. That in turn will lead in some cases to lower rankings in search results or lower virality of content on social networks.
  • Over time there is an increasing blur between phones and tablets with phablets. Some high pixel density screens on cross over devices may appear large in terms of pixel count, but still not have particularly large screens, making it easy for users to misclick on the interface.
  • When Bing gave their best practices for mobile, they stated: "Ideally, there shouldn’t be a difference between the “mobile-friendly” URL and the “desktop” URL: the site would automatically adjust to the device — content, layout, and all." In that post Bing shows some examples of m. versions of sites ranking in their mobile search results, however for smaller & lesser known sites they may not rank the m. version the way they do for Yelp or Wikipedia, which means that even if you optimize the m. version of the site to a great degree, that isn't the version all mobile searchers will see. Back in 2012 Bing also stated their preference for a single version of a URL, in part based on lowering crawl traffic & consolidation of ranking signals.

In addition to responsive web design & separate mobile friendly URLs, a third configuration option is dynamic serving, which uses the Vary HTTP header to detect the user-agent & use that to drive the layout. For large, complex & high-traffic sites (and sites with numerous staff programmers & designers) dynamic serving is perhaps the best optimization solution because you can optimize the images and code to lower bandwidth costs and response times. Most smaller sites will likely rely on responsive design rather than dynamic serving, in large part because it is quicker & cheaper to implement, and most are not running sites large enough to where the incremental bandwidth provides a significant incremental expense to their business.

Solutions for Quickly Implementing Responsive Design

New Theme / Design

If your site hasn't been updated in years you might be suprised at what you find available on sites like ThemeForest for quite reasonable prices. Many of the options are responsive out of the gate & look good with a day or two of customization. Theme subscription services like WooThemes and Elegant Themes also have responsive options.

Child Themes

Some of the default Wordpress themes are responsive. Creating a child theme is quite easy. The popular Thesis and Studiopress frameworks also offer responsive skins.

PSD to HTML HTML to Responsive HTML

Some of the PSD to HTML conversion services like PSD 2 HTML, HTML Slicemate & XHTML Chop offer responsive design conversion of existing HTML sites in as little as a day or two, though you will likely need to do at least a few minor changes when you put the designs live to compensate for issues like third party ad units and other minor issues.

If you have an existing Wordpress theme, you might want to see if you can zip it up and send it to them, or else they may make your new theme as a child theme of 2015 or such. If you are struggling to get them to convert your Wordpress theme over (like they are first converting it to a child theme of 2015 or such) then another option would be to have them do a static HTML file conversion (instead of a Wordpress conversion) and then feed that through a theme creation tool like Themespress.

For simple hand rolled designs there are a variety of grid generator tools, which can make it reasonably easy to replace some old school table-based designs with divs. Many of the themes for sale in marketplaces like Theme Forest also use a multi-column div grid based system.

Other Things to Look Out For

Third Party Plug-ins & Ad Code Gotchas

Google allows webmasters to alter the ad calls on their mobile responsive AdSense ad units to show different sized ad units to different screen sizes & skip showing some ad units on smaller screens. An AdSense code example is included in an expandable section at the bottom of this page.

<style type="text/css">
.adslot_1 { display:inline-block; width: 320px; height: 50px; }
@media (max-width: 400px) { .adslot_1 { display: none; } }
@media (min-width:500px) { .adslot_1 { width: 468px; height: 60px; } }
@media (min-width:800px) { .adslot_1 { width: 728px; height: 90px; } }
</style>
<ins class="adsbygoogle adslot_1"
data-ad-client="ca-pub-1234"
data-ad-slot="5678"></ins>
<script async src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js"></script>
<script>(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});</script>

For other ads which perhaps don't have a "mobile friendly" option you could use CSS to either set the ad unit to display none or to set the ad unit to overflow using code like either of the following

hide it:

@media only screen and (max-width: ___px) {
     .bannerad {
          display: none;
     }
}

overflow it:

@media only screen and (max-width: ___px) {
     .ad-unit {
          max-width: ___px;
          overflow: scroll;
     }
}

Images are another tricky point.

img {
height:auto;
max-width:100%;
}

Here are a few other general responsive CSS tricks.

Before Putting Your New Responsive Site Live...

Back up your old site before putting the new site live.

For static HTML sites or sites with PHP or SHTML includes & such...

  • Download a copy of your existing site to local.
  • Rename that folder to something like sitename.com-OLDVERSION
  • Upload the sitename.com-OLDVERSION folder to your server. If anything goes drastically wrong during your conversion process you can rename the new site design to something like sitename.com-HOSED then set the sitename.com-OLDVERSION folder to sitename.com to quickly restore the site.
  • Download your site to local again.
  • Ensure your new site design is using a different CSS folder or CSS filename such that they old and new versions of the design can be live at the same time while you are editing the site.
  • Create a test file with the responsive design on your site & test that page until things work well enough.
  • Once that page works well enough, test changing your homepage over to the new design & then save and upload it to verify it works properly. In addition to using your cell phone you could see how it looks on a variety of devices via the mobile browser testing emulation tool in Chrome, or a wide array of third party tools like: MobileTest.me, MobileMoxy Device Emulator, iPadPeek, Mobile Phone Emulator, Browshot, Matt Kersley's responsive web design testing tool, BrowserStack, Cross Browser Testing, & the W3C mobileOK Checker. Paid services like Keynote offer manual testing rather than emulation on a wide variety of devices. There is also paid downloadable desktop emulation software like Multi-browser view.
  • Once you have the general "what needs changed in each file" down, then use find & replace to bulk edit the remaining files to make the changes to make them responsive.
  • Use a tool like FileZilla to quickly bulk upload the files.
  • Look through key pages and if there are only a few minor errors then fix them and re-upload them. If things are majorly screwed up then revert to the old design being live and schedule a do over on the upgrade.
  • If you have a decently high traffic site, it might make sense to schedule the above process for late Friday night or an off hour on the weekend, such that if anything goes astray you have fewer people seeing the errors while you frantically rush to fix them. :)
  • If you want to view your top pages you could export that data from your web analytics to verify all those pages look good. If you wanted to view every page of your site 1 at a time after the change, you could use a tool like Xenu Link Sleuth or Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl your site & export a list of URLs into a spreadsheet. Then you could take the URLs from that spreadsheet and put them a chunk at a time into a tool like URL Opener.

If you have little faith in the above test-it-live "methodology" & would prefer a slower & lower stress approach, you could create a test site on another domain name for testing purposes. Just be sure to include a noindex directive in the robots.txt file or password protect access to the site while testing. When you get things worked out on it, make sure your internal links are referencing the correct domain name, and that you have removed any block via robots.txt or password protection.

For a site with a CMS the above process is basically the same, except for how you might need to create a different backup. If you are uploading a Wordpress or Drupal theme, then change the name at least slightly so you can keep the old and new designs live at the same time so you can quickly switch back to the old design if you need to.

If you have a mixed site with Wordpress & static files or such then it might make sense to test changing the static files first, get those to work well & then create a Wordpress theme after that.

Update: at a conference a Googler named Zineb Ait Bahajji recently stated they expect this update to impact more sites than Panda and Penguin have. And Google recently started sending out mobile usability warning messages in bulk:

Google systems have tested 2,790 pages from your site and found that 100% of them have critical mobile usability errors. The errors on these 2,790 pages severely affect how mobile users are able to experience your website. These pages will not be seen as mobile-friendly by Google Search, and will therefore be displayed and ranked appropriately for smartphone users.

You Can't Copyright Facts

The Facts of Life

When Google introduced the knowledge graph one of their underlying messages behind it was "you can't copyright facts."

Facts are like domain names or links or pictures or anything else in terms of being a layer of information which can be highly valued or devalued through commoditization.

When you search for love quotes, Google pulls one into their site & then provides another "try again" link.

Since quotes mostly come from third parties they are not owned by BrainyQuotes and other similar sites. But here is the thing, if those other sites which pay to organize and verify such collections have their economics sufficiently undermined then they go away & then Google isn't able to pull them into the search results either.

The same is true with song lyrics. If you are one of the few sites paying to license the lyrics & then Google puts lyrics above the search results, then the economics which justified the investment in licensing might not back out & you will likely go bankrupt. That bankruptcy wouldn't be the result of being a spammer trying to work an angle, but rather because you had a higher cost structure from trying to do things the right way.

Never trust a corporation to do a librarian's job.

What's Behind Door Number One?

Google has also done the above quote-like "action item" types of onebox listings in other areas like software downloads

Where there are multiple versions of the software available, Google is arbitrarily selecting the download page, even though a software publisher might have a parallel SAAS option or other complex funnels based on a person's location or status as a student or such.

Mix in Google allowing advertisers to advertise bundled adware, and it becomes quite easy for Google to gum up the sales process and undermine existing brand equity by sending users to the wrong location. Here's a blog post from Malwarebytes referencing

  • their software being advertised on their brand term in Google via AdWords ads, engaging in trademark infringement and bundled with adware.
  • numerous user complaints they received about the bundleware
  • required legal actions they took to take the bundler offline

Brands are forced to buy their own brand equity before, during & after the purchase, or Google partners with parasites to monetize the brand equity:

The company used this cash to build more business, spending more than $1 million through at least seven separate advertising accounts with Google.
...
The ads themselves said things like “McAfee Support - Call +1-855-[redacted US phone number]” and pointed to domains like mcafee-support.pccare247.com.
...
One PCCare247 ad account with Google produced 71.7 million impressions; another generated 12.4 million more. According to records obtained by the FTC, these combined campaigns generated 1.5 million clicks

Since Google requires Chrome extensions be installed from their own website it makes it hard (for anyone other than Google) to monetize them, which in turn makes it appealing for people to sell the ad-ons to malware bundlers. Android apps in the Google Play store are yet another "open" malware ecosystem.

FACT: This Isn't About Facts

Google started the knowledge graph & onebox listings on some utterly banal topics which were easy for a computer to get right, though their ambitions vastly exceed the starting point. The starting point was done where it was because it was low-risk and easy.

When Google's evolving search technology was recently covered on Medium by Steven Levy he shared that today the Knowledge Graph appears on roughly 25% of search queries and that...

Google is also trying to figure out how to deliver more complex results — to go beyond quick facts and deliver more subjective, fuzzier associations. “People aren’t interested in just facts,” she says. “They are interested in subjective things like whether or not the television shows are well-written. Things that could really help take the Knowledge Graph to the next level.”

Even as the people who routinely shill for Google parrot the "you can't copyright facts" mantra, Google is telling you they have every intent of expanding far beyond it. “I see search as the interface to all computing,” says Singhal.

Even if You Have Copyright...

What makes the "you can't copyright facts" line so particularly disingenuous was Google's support of piracy when they purchased YouTube:

cofounder Jawed Karim favored “lax” copyright policy to make YouTube “huge” and hence “an excellent acquisition target.” YouTube at one point added a “report copyrighted content” button to let users report infringements, but removed the button when it realized how many users were reporting unauthorized videos. Meanwhile, YouTube managers intentionally retained infringing videos they knew were on the site, remarking “we should KEEP …. comedy clips (Conan, Leno, etc.) [and] music videos” despite having licenses for none of these. (In an email rebuke, cofounder Steve Chen admonished: “Jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.”)

To some, the separation of branding makes YouTube distinct and separate from Google search, but that wasn't so much the case when many sites lost their video thumbnails and YouTube saw larger thumbnails on many of their listings in Google. In the above Steven Levy article he wrote: "one of the highest ranked general categories was a desire to know “how to” perform certain tasks. So Google made it easier to surface how-to videos from YouTube and other sources, featuring them more prominently in search."

Altruism vs Disruption for the Sake of it

Whenever Google implements a new feature they can choose to not monetize it so as to claim they are benevolent and doing it for users without commercial interest. But that same unmonetized & for users claim was also used with their shopping search vertical until one day it went paid. Google claimed paid inclusion was evil right up until the day it claimed paid inclusion was a necessity to improve user experience.

There was literally no transition period.

Many of the "informational" knowledge block listings contain affiliate links pointing into Google Play or other sites. Those affiliate ads were only labeled as advertisements after the FTC complained about inconsistent ad labeling in search results.

Health is Wealth

Google recently went big on the knowledge graph by jumping head first into the health vertical:

starting in the next few days, when you ask Google about common health conditions, you’ll start getting relevant medical facts right up front from the Knowledge Graph. We’ll show you typical symptoms and treatments, as well as details on how common the condition is—whether it’s critical, if it’s contagious, what ages it affects, and more. For some conditions you’ll also see high-quality illustrations from licensed medical illustrators. Once you get this basic info from Google, you should find it easier to do more research on other sites around the web, or know what questions to ask your doctor.


Google's links to the Mayo Clinic in their knowledge graph are, once again, a light gray font.

In case you didn't find enough background in Google's announcement article, Greg Sterling shared more of Google's views here. A couple notable quotes from Greg...

Cynics might say that Google is moving into yet another vertical content area and usurping third-party publishers. I don’t believe this is the case. Google isn’t going to be monetizing these queries; it appears to be genuinely motivated by a desire to show higher-quality health information and educate users accordingly.

  • Google doesn't need to directly monetize it to impact the economics of the industry. If they shift a greater share of clicks through AdWords then that will increase competition and ad prices in that category while lowering investment in SEO.
  • If this is done out of benevolence, it will appear *above* the AdWords ads on the search results — unlike almost every type of onebox or knowledge graph result Google offers.
  • If it is fair for him to label everyone who disagrees with his thesis as a cynic then it is of course fair for those "cynics" to label Greg Sterling as a shill.

Google told me that it hopes this initiative will help motivate the improvement of health content across the internet.

By defunding and displacing something they don't improve its quality. Rather they force the associated entities to cut their costs to try to make the numbers work.

If their traffic drops and they don't do more with less, then...

  • their margins will fall
  • growth slows (or they may even shrink)
  • their stock price will tank
  • management will get fired & replaced and/or they will get took private by private equity investors and/or they will need to do some "bet the company" moves to find growth elsewhere (and hope Google doesn't enter that parallel area anytime soon)

When the numbers don't work, publishers need to cut back or cut corners.

Things get monetized directly, monetized indirectly, or they disappear.

Some of the more hated aspects of online publishing (headline bait, idiotic correlations out of context, pagination, slideshows, popups, fly in ad units, auto play videos, full page ad wraps, huge ads eating most the above the fold real estate, integration of terrible native ad units promoting junk offers with shocking headline bait, content scraping answer farms, blending unvetted user generated content with house editorial, partnering with content farms to create subdomains on trusted blue chip sites, using Narrative Science or Automated Insights to auto-generate content, etc.) are not done because online publishers want to be jackasses, but because it is hard to make the numbers work in a competitive environment.

Publishers who were facing an "oh crap" moment when seeing print Dollars turn into digital dimes are having round number 2 when they see those digital dimes turn into mobile pennies:

At The New York Times, for instance, more than half its digital audience comes from mobile, yet just 10% of its digital-ad revenue is attributed to these devices.

If we lose some diversity in news it isn't great, though it isn't the end of the world. But what makes health such an important area is it is literally a matter of life & death.

Its importance & the amount of money flowing through the market ensures there is heavy investment in misinforming the general population. The corruption is so bad some people (who should know better) instead fault science.

... and, only those who hate free speech, capitalism, democracy & the country could possibly have anything negative to say about it. :D

Not to worry though. Any user trust built through the health knowledge graph can be monetized through a variety of other fantastic benevolent offers.

Once again, Google puts the user first.

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