Brands vs Ads

Brand, Brand, Brand

About 7 years ago I wrote about how the search relevancy algorithms were placing heavy weighting on brand-related signals after Vince & Panda on the (half correct!) presumption that this would lead to excessive industry consolidation which in turn would force Google to turn the dials in the other direction.

My thesis was Google would need to increasingly promote some smaller niche sites to make general web search differentiated from other web channels & minimize the market power of vertical leading providers.

The reason my thesis was only half correct (and ultimately led to the absolutely wrong conclusion) is Google has the ability to provide the illusion of diversity while using sort of eye candy displacement efforts to shift an increasing share of searches from organic to paid results.

Shallow Verticals With a Shill Bid

As long as any market has at least 2 competitors in it Google can create a "me too" offering that they hard code front & center and force the other 2 players (along with other players along the value chain) to bid for marketshare. If competitors are likely to complain about the thinness of the me too offering & it being built upon scraping other websites, Google can buy out a brand like Zagat or a data supplier like ITA Software to undermine criticism until the artificially promoted vertical service has enough usage that it is nearly on par with other players in the ecosystem.

Google need not win every market. They only need to ensure there are at least 2 competing bids left in the marketplace while dialing back SEO exposure. They can then run other services to redirect user flow and force the ad buy. They can insert their own bid as a sort of shill floor bid in their auction. If you bid below that amount they'll collect the profit through serving the customer directly, if you bid above that they'll let you buy the customer vs doing a direct booking.

Adding Volatility to Economies of Scale

Where this gets more than a bit tricky is if you are a supplier of third party goods & services where you buy in bulk to get preferential pricing for resale. If you buy 100 rooms a night from a particular hotel based on the presumption of prior market performance & certain channels effectively disappear you have to bid above market to sell some portion of the rooms because getting anything for them is better than leaving them unsold.

"Well I am not in hotels, so thankfully this won't impact me" is an incomplete thought. Google Ads now offer a lead generation extension.

Dipping a bit back into history here, but after Groupon said no to Google's acquisition offer Google promptly partnered with players 2 through n to ensure Groupon did not have a lasting competitive advantage. In the fullness of time most those companies died, LivingSocial was acquired by Groupon for nothing & Groupon is today worth less than the amount they raised in VC & IPO funding.

Markets Naturally Evolve Toward Promoting Brands

When a vertical is new a player can compete just by showing up. Then over time as the verticals become established consumers develop habits, brands beat out generics & the markets get consolidated down to being heavily influenced & controlled by a couple strong players.

In the offline world of atoms there are real world costs tied to local regulations, shipping, sourcing, supply chains, inventory management, etc. The structure of the web & the lack of marginal distribution cost causes online markets to be even more consolidated than their offline analogs.

When Travelocity outsourced their backend infrastructure to Expedia most people visiting their website were unaware of the change. After Expedia acquired the site, longtime Travelocity customers likely remained unaware. In some businesses the only significant difference in the user experience is the logo at the top of the page.

Most large markets will ultimately consolidate down to a couple players (e.g. Booking vs Expedia) while smaller players lack the scale needed to have the economic leverage to pay Google's increasing rents.

This sort of consolidation was happening even when the search results were mostly organic & relevancy was driven primarily by links. As Google has folded in usage data & increased ad load on the search results it becomes harder for a generically descriptive domain name to build brand-related signals.

Re-sorting the Markets Once More

It is not only generically descriptive sorts of sites that have faded though. Many brand investments turned out to be money losers after the search result set was displaced by more ads (& many brand-related search result pages also carry ads above the organic results).

The ill informed might write something like this:

Since the Motorola debacle, it was Google's largest acquisition after the $676 million purchase of ITA Software, which became Google Flights. (Uh, remember that? Does anyone use that instead of Travelocity or one of the many others? Neither do I.)

The reality is brands lose value as the organic result set is displaced. To make the margins work they might desperately outsource just about everything but marketing to a competitor / partner, which will then latter acquire them for a song.

Travelocity had roughly 3,000 people on the payroll globally as recently as a couple of years ago, but the Travelocity workforce has been whittled to around 50 employees in North America with many based in the Dallas area.

The best relevancy algorithm in the world is trumped by preferential placement of inferior results which bypasses the algorithm. If inferior results are hard coded in placements which violate net neutrality for an extended period of time, they can starve other players in the market from the vital user data & revenues needed to reinvest into growth and differentiation.

Value plays see their stocks crash as growth slows or goes in reverse. With the exception of startups funded by Softbank, growth plays are locked out of receiving further investment rounds as their growth rate slides.

Startups like Hipmunk disappear. Even an Orbitz or Travelocity become bolt on acquisitions.

The viability of TripAdvisor as a stand alone business becomes questioned, leading them to partner with Ctrip.

TripAdvisor has one of the best link profiles of any commercially oriented website outside of perhaps Amazon.com. But ranking #1 doesn't count for much if that #1 ranking is below the fold. Or, even worse, if Google literally hides the organic search results.

TripAdvisor shifted their business model to allow direct booking to better monetize mobile web users, but as Google has ate screen real estate and grew Google Travel into a $100 billion business other players have seen their stocks sag.

Top of The Funnel

Google sits at the top of the funnel & all other parts of the value chain are compliments to be commoditized.

  • Buy premium domain names? Google's SERPs test replacing domain names with words & make the words associated with the domain name gray.
  • Improve conversion rates? Your competitor almost certainly did as well, now you both can bid more & hand over an increasing economic rent to Google.
  • Invest in brand awareness? Google shows ads for competitors on your brand terms, forcing you to buy to protect the brand equity you paid to build.

Search Metrics mentioned Hotels.com was one of the biggest losers during the recent algorithm updates: "I’m going to keep on this same theme there, and I’m not going to say overall numbers, the biggest loser, but for my loser I’m going to pick Hotels.com, because they were literally like neck and neck, like one and two with Booking, as far as how close together they were, and the last four weeks, they’ve really increased that separation."

As Google ate the travel category the value of hotel-related domain names has fallen through the floor.

Most of the top selling hotel-related domain names were sold about a decade ago:

On August 8th HongKongHotels.com sold for $4,038. A decade ago that name likely would have sold for around $100,000.

And the new buyer may have overpaid for it!

Growing Faster Than the Market

Google consistently grows their ad revenues 20% a year in a global economy growing at under 4%.

There are only about 6 ways they can do that

  • growth of web usage (though many of those who are getting online today have a far lower disposable income than those who got on a decade or two ago did)
  • gain marketshare (very hard in search, given that they effectively are the market in most markets outside of a few countries like China & Russia)
  • create new inventory (new ad types on image search results, Google Maps & YouTube)
  • charge more for clicks
  • improve at targeting through better surveillance of web users (getting harder after GDPR & similar efforts from some states in the next year or two)
  • shift click streams away from organic toward paid channels (through larger ads, more interactive ad units, less appealing organic result formatting, pushing organic results below the fold, hiding organic results, etc.)

Six of One, Half-dozen of the Other

Wednesday both Expedia and TripAdvisor reported earnings after hours & both fell off a cliff: "Both Okerstrom and Kaufer complained that their organic, or free, links are ending up further down the page in Google search results as Google prioritizes its own travel businesses."

Losing 20% to 25% of your market cap in a single day is an extreme move for a company worth billions of dollars.

Thursday Google hit fresh all time highs.

"Google’s old motto was ‘Don’t Be Evil’, but you can’t be this big and profitable and not be evil. Evil and all-time highs pretty much go hand in hand." - Howard Lindzon

Booking held up much better than TripAdvisor & Expedia as they have a bigger footprint in Europe (where antitrust is a thing) and they have a higher reliance on paid search versus organic.

Frozen in Fear vs Fearless

The broader SEO industry is to some degree frozen by fear. Roughly half of SEOs claim to have not bought *ANY* links in a half-decade.

Long after most of the industry has stopped buying links some people still run the "paid links are a potential FTC violation guideline" line as though it is insightful and/or useful.

Ask the people carrying Google's water what they think of the official FTC guidance on poor ad labeling in search results and you will hear the beautiful sound of crickets chirping.

Where is the ad labeling in this unit?

Does small gray text in the upper right corner stating "about these results" count as legitimate ad labeling?

And then when you scroll over that gray text and click on it you get "Some of these hotel search results may be personalized based on your browsing activity and recent searches on Google, as well as travel confirmations sent to your Gmail. Hotel prices come from Google's partners."

Ads, Scroll, Ads, Scroll, Ads...

Zooming out a bit further on the above ad unit to look at the entire search result page, we can now see the following:

  • 4 text ad units above the map
  • huge map which segments demand by price tier, current sales, luxury, average review, geographic location
  • organic results below the above wall of ads, and the number of organic search results has been reduced from 10 to 7

How many scrolls does one need to do to get past the above wall of ads?

If one clicks on one of the hotel prices the follow up page is ... more ads.

Check out how the ad label is visually overwhelmed by a bright blue pop over.

Defund

It is worth noting Google Chrome has a built-in ad blocking feature which allows them to strip all ads from displaying on third party websites if they follow Google's best practices layout used in the search results.

You won't see ads on websites that have poor ad experiences, like:

  • Too many ads
  • Annoying ads with flashing graphics or autoplaying audio
  • Ad walls before you can see content

When these ads are blocked, you'll see an "Intrusive ads blocked" message. Intrusive ads will be removed from the page.

The following 4 are all true:

And, as a bonus, to some paid links are a crime but Google can sponsor academic conferences for market regulators while requesting the payments not be disclosed.

Excessive Profits = Spam

Hotels have been at the forefront of SEO for many years. They drive massive revenues & were perhaps the only vertical ever referenced in the Google rater guidelines which explicitly stated all affiliate sites should be labeled as spam even if they are helpful to users.

Google has won most of the profits in the travel market & so they'll need to eat other markets to continue their 20% annual growth.

As they grow, other markets disappear.

"It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug." - Googler John Rockway, January 31, 2012

Some people who market themselves as SEO experts not only recognize this trend but even encourage this sort of behavior:

Zoopla, Rightmove and On The Market are all dominant players in the industry, and many of their house and apartment listings are duplicated across the different property portals. This represents a very real reason for Google to step in and create a more streamlined service that will help users make a more informed decision. ... The launch of Google Jobs should not have come as a surprise to anyone, and neither should its potential foray into real estate. Google will want to diversify its revenue channels as much as possible, and any market that allows it to do so will be in its sights. It is no longer a matter of if they succeed, but when.

If nobody is serving a market that is justification for entering it. If a market has many diverse players that is justification for entering it. If a market is dominated by a few strong players that is justification for entering it. All roads lead to the pile of money. :)

Extracting information from the ecosystem & diverting attention from other players while charging rising rents does not make the ecosystem stronger. Doing so does not help users make a more informed decision.

Information as a Vertical

The dominance Google has in core profitable vertical markets also exists in the news & general publishing categories. Some publishers get more traffic from Google Discover than from Google search. Publishers which try to turn off Google's programmatic ads find their display ad revenues fall off a cliff:

"Nexstar Media Group Inc., the largest local news company in the U.S., recently tested what would happen if it stopped using Google’s technology to place ads on its websites. Over several days, the company’s video ad sales plummeted. “That’s a huge revenue hit,” said Tony Katsur, senior vice president at Nexstar. After its brief test, Nexstar switched back to Google." ... "Regulators who approved that $3.1 billion deal warned they would step in if the company tied together its offerings in anticompetitive ways. In interviews, dozens of publishing and advertising executives said Google is doing just that with an array of interwoven products."

News is operating like many other (broken) markets. The Salt Lake Tribune converted to a nonprofit organization.

Many local markets have been consolidated down to ownership by a couple private equity shop roll ups looking to further consolidate the market. Gatehouse Media acquired Gannett & has a $1.8 billion mountain of debt to pay off.

McClatchy - the second largest domestic newspaper chain - may soon file for bankruptcy:

there’s some nuance in this new drama — one of many to come from the past decade’s conversion of news companies into financial instruments stripped of civic responsibility by waves of outside money men. After all, when we talk about newspaper companies, we typically use their corporate names — Gannett, GateHouse, McClatchy, MNG, Lee. But it’s at least as appropriate to use the names of the hedge funds, private equity companies, and other investment vehicles that own and control them.

The Washington Post - owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos - is creating an ad tech stack which serves other publishers & brands, though they also believe a reliance on advertiser & subscription revenue is unsustainable: “We are too beholden to just advertiser and subscriber revenue, and we’re completely out of our minds if we think that’s what’s going to be what carries us through the next generation of publishing. That’s very clear.”

Future Prospects

We are nearing inflection points in many markets where markets that seemed somewhat disconnected from search will still end up being dominated by Google. Gmail, Android, Web Analytics, Play Store, YouTube, Maps, Waze ... are all additional points of leverage beyond the core search & ads products.

If all roads lead to money one can't skip healthcare - now roughly 20% of the United States GDP.

Google scrubbed many alternative health sites from the search results. Some of them may have deserved it. Others were perhaps false positives.

Google wants to get into the healthcare market in a meaningful way. Google bought Fitbit and partnered with Ascension on a secret project gathering health information on over 50 million Americans.

Google is investing heavily in quantum computing. Google Fiber was a nothingburger to force competing ISPs into accelerating expensive network upgrades, but beaming in internet services from satellites will allow Google to bypass local politics, local regulations & heavy network infrastructure construction costs. A startup named Kepler recently provided high-bandwidth connectivity to the Arctic. When Google launches a free ISP there will be many knock on effects causing partners to long for the day where Google was only as predatory as they are today.

"Capitalism is an efficient system for surfacing and addressing the needs of consumers. But once it veers toward control over markets by a single entity, those benefits disappear." - Seth Godin

Dofollow, Nofollow, Sponsored, UGC

A Change to Nofollow

Last month Google announced they were going to change how they treated nofollow, moving it from a directive toward a hint. As part of that they also announced the release of parallel attributes rel="sponsored" for sponsored links & rel="ugc" for user generated content in areas like forums & blog comments.

Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.

In many emerging markets the mobile web is effectively the entire web. Few people create HTML links on the mobile web outside of on social networks where links are typically nofollow by default. This reduces the potential signal available to either tracking what people do directly and/or shifting how the nofollow attribute is treated.

Google shifting how nofollow is treated is a blanket admission that Penguin & other elements of "the war on links" were perhaps a bit too effective and have started to take valuable signals away from Google.

Google has suggested the shift in how nofollow is treated will not lead to any additional blog comment spam. When they announced nofollow they suggested it would lower blog comment spam. Blog comment spam remains a growth market long after the gravity of the web has shifted away from blogs onto social networks.

Changing how nofollow is treated only makes any sort of external link analysis that much harder. Those who specialize in link audits (yuck!) have historically ignored nofollow links, but now that is one more set of things to look through. And the good news for professional link auditors is that increases the effective cost they can charge clients for the service.

Some nefarious types will notice when competitors get penalized & then fire up Xrummer to help promote the penalized site, ensuring that the link auditor bankrupts the competing business even faster than Google.

Links, Engagement, or Something Else...

When Google was launched they didn't own Chrome or Android. They were not yet pervasively spying on billions of people:

If, like most people, you thought Google stopped tracking your location once you turned off Location History in your account settings, you were wrong. According to an AP investigation published Monday, even if you disable Location History, the search giant still tracks you every time you open Google Maps, get certain automatic weather updates, or search for things in your browser.

Thus Google had to rely on external signals as their primary ranking factor:

The reason that PageRank is interesting is that there are many cases where simple citation counting does not correspond to our common sense notion of importance. For example, if a web page has a link on the Yahoo home page, it may be just one link but it is a very important one. This page should be ranked higher than many pages with more links but from obscure places. PageRank is an attempt to see how good an approximation to "importance" can be obtained just from the link structure. ... The denition of PageRank above has another intuitive basis in random walks on graphs. The simplied version corresponds to the standing probability distribution of a random walk on the graph of the Web. Intuitively, this can be thought of as modeling the behavior of a "random surfer".

Google's reliance on links turned links into a commodity, which led to all sorts of fearmongering, manual penalties, nofollow and the Penguin update.

As Google collected more usage data those who overly focused on links often ended up scoring an own goal, creating sites which would not rank.

Google no longer invests heavily in fearmongering because it is no longer needed. Search is so complex most people can't figure it out.

Many SEOs have reduced their link building efforts as Google dialed up weighting on user engagement metrics, though it appears the tide may now be heading in the other direction. Some sites which had decent engagement metrics but little in the way of link building slid on the update late last month.

As much as Google desires relevancy in the short term, they also prefer a system complex enough to external onlookers that reverse engineering feels impossible. If they discourage investment in SEO they increase AdWords growth while gaining greater control over algorithmic relevancy.

Google will soon collect even more usage data by routing Chrome users through their DNS service: "Google isn't actually forcing Chrome users to only use Google's DNS service, and so it is not centralizing the data. Google is instead configuring Chrome to use DoH connections by default if a user's DNS service supports it."

If traffic is routed through Google that is akin to them hosting the page in terms of being able to track many aspects of user behavior. It is akin to AMP or YouTube in terms of being able to track users and normalize relative engagement metrics.

Once Google is hosting the end-to-end user experience they can create a near infinite number of ranking signals given their advancement in computing power: "We developed a new 54-qubit processor, named “Sycamore”, that is comprised of fast, high-fidelity quantum logic gates, in order to perform the benchmark testing. Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output."

Relying on "one simple trick to..." sorts of approaches are frequently going to come up empty.

EMDs Kicked Once Again

I was one of the early promoters of exact match domains when the broader industry did not believe in them. I was also quick to mention when I felt the algorithms had moved in the other direction.

Google's mobile layout, which they are now testing on desktop computers as well, replaces green domain names with gray words which are easy to miss. And the favicon icons sort of make the organic results look like ads. Any boost a domain name like CreditCards.ext might have garnered in the past due to matching the keyword has certainly gone away with this new layout that further depreciates the impact of exact-match domain names.

At one point in time CreditCards.com was viewed as a consumer destination. It is now viewed ... below the fold.

If you have a memorable brand-oriented domain name the favicon can help offset the above impact somewhat, but matching keywords is becoming a much more precarious approach to sustaining rankings as the weight on brand awareness, user engagement & authority increase relative to the weight on anchor text.

AMP'd Up for Recaptcha

Beyond search Google controls the leading distributed ad network, the leading mobile OS, the leading web browser, the leading email client, the leading web analytics platform, the leading mapping platform, the leading free video hosting site.

They win a lot.

And they take winnings from one market & leverage them into manipulating adjacent markets.

Embrace. Extend. Extinguish.

AMP is an utterly unnecessary invention designed to further shift power to Google while disenfranchising publishers. From the very start it had many issues with basic things like supporting JavaScript, double counting unique users (no reason to fix broken stats if they drive adoption!), not supporting third party ad networks, not showing publisher domain names, and just generally being a useless layer of sunk cost technical overhead that provides literally no real value.

Over time they have corrected some of these catastrophic deficiencies, but if it provided real value, they wouldn't have needed to force adoption with preferential placement in their search results. They force the bundling because AMP sucks.

Absurdity knows no bounds. Googlers suggest: "AMP isn’t another “channel” or “format” that’s somehow not the web. It’s not a SEO thing. It’s not a replacement for HTML. It’s a web component framework that can power your whole site. ... We, the AMP team, want AMP to become a natural choice for modern web development of content websites, and for you to choose AMP as framework because it genuinely makes you more productive."

Meanwhile some newspapers have about a dozen employees who work on re-formatting content for AMP:

The AMP development team now keeps track of whether AMP traffic drops suddenly, which might indicate pages are invalid, and it can react quickly.

All this adds expense, though. There are setup, development and maintenance costs associated with AMP, mostly in the form of time. After implementing AMP, the Guardian realized the project needed dedicated staff, so it created an 11-person team that works on AMP and other aspects of the site, drawing mostly from existing staff.

Feeeeeel the productivity!

Some content types (particularly user generated content) can be unpredictable & circuitous. For many years forums websites would use keywords embedded in the search referral to highlight relevant parts of the page. Keyword (not provided) largely destroyed that & then it became a competitive feature for AMP: "If the Featured Snippet links to an AMP article, Google will sometimes automatically scroll users to that section and highlight the answer in orange."

That would perhaps be a single area where AMP was more efficient than the alternative. But it is only so because Google destroyed the alternative by stripping keyword referrers from search queries.

The power dynamics of AMP are ugly:

"I see them as part of the effort to normalise the use of the AMP Carousel, which is an anti-competitive land-grab for the web by an organisation that seems to have an insatiable appetite for consuming the web, probably ultimately to it’s own detriment. ... This enables Google to continue to exist after the destination site (eg the New York Times) has been navigated to. Essentially it flips the parent-child relationship to be the other way around. ... As soon as a publisher blesses a piece of content by packaging it (they have to opt in to this, but see coercion below), they totally lose control of its distribution. ... I’m not that smart, so it’s surely possible to figure out other ways of making a preload possible without cutting off the content creator from the people consuming their content. ... The web is open and decentralised. We spend a lot of time valuing the first of these concepts, but almost none trying to defend the second. Google knows, perhaps better than anyone, how being in control of the user is the most monetisable position, and having the deepest pockets and the most powerful platform to do so, they have very successfully inserted themselves into my relationship with millions of other websites. ... In AMP, the support for paywalls is based on a recommendation that the premium content be included in the source of the page regardless of the user’s authorisation state. ... These policies demonstrate contempt for others’ right to freely operate their businesses.

After enough publishers adopted AMP Google was able to turn their mobile app's homepage into an interactive news feed below the search box. And inside that news feed Google gets to distribute MOAR ads while 0% of the revenue from those ads find its way to the publishers whose content is used to make up the feed.

Appropriate appropriation. :D

Thank you for your content!!!

The mainstream media is waking up to AMP being a trap, but their neck is already in it:

European and American tech, media and publishing companies, including some that originally embraced AMP, are complaining that the Google-backed technology, which loads article pages in the blink of an eye on smartphones, is cementing the search giant's dominance on the mobile web.

Each additional layer of technical cruft is another cost center. Things that sound appealing at first blush may not be:

The way you verify your identity to Let's Encrypt is the same as with other certificate authorities: you don't really. You place a file somewhere on your website, and they access that file over plain HTTP to verify that you own the website. The one attack that signed certificates are meant to prevent is a man-in-the-middle attack. But if someone is able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack against your website, then he can intercept the certificate verification, too. In other words, Let's Encrypt certificates don't stop the one thing they're supposed to stop. And, as always with the certificate authorities, a thousand murderous theocracies, advertising companies, and international spy organizations are allowed to impersonate you by design.

Anything that is easy to implement & widely marketed often has costs added to it in the future as the entity moves to monetize the service.

This is a private equity firm buying up multiple hosting control panels & then adjusting prices.

This is Google Maps drastically changing their API terms.

This is Facebook charging you for likes to build an audience, giving your competitors access to those likes as an addressable audience to advertise against, and then charging you once more to boost the reach of your posts.

This is Grubhub creating shadow websites on your behalf and charging you for every transaction created by the gravity of your brand.

Shivane believes GrubHub purchased her restaurant’s web domain to prevent her from building her own online presence. She also believes the company may have had a special interest in owning her name because she processes a high volume of orders. ... it appears GrubHub has set up several generic, templated pages that look like real restaurant websites but in fact link only to GrubHub. These pages also display phone numbers that GrubHub controls. The calls are forwarded to the restaurant, but the platform records each one and charges the restaurant a commission fee for every order

Settling for the easiest option drives a lack of differentiation, embeds additional risk & once the dominant player has enough marketshare they'll change the terms on you.

Small gains in short term margins for massive increases in fragility.

"Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don't like standardization ... it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction" - Gabe Newell

The other big issue is platforms that run out of growth space in their core market may break integrations with adjacent service providers as each want to grow by eating the other's market.

Those who look at SaaS business models through the eyes of a seasoned investor will better understand how markets are likely to change:

"I’d argue that many of today’s anointed tech “disruptors” are doing little in the way of true disruption. ... When investors used to get excited about a SAAS company, they typically would be describing a hosted multi-tenant subscription-billed piece of software that was replacing a ‘legacy’ on-premise perpetual license solution in the same target market (i.e. ERP, HCM, CRM, etc.). Today, the terms SAAS and Cloud essentially describe the business models of every single public software company.

Most platform companies are initially required to operate at low margins in order to buy growth of their category & own their category. Then when they are valued on that, they quickly need to jump across to adjacent markets to grow into the valuation:

Twilio has no choice but to climb up the application stack. This is a company whose ‘disruption’ is essentially great API documentation and gangbuster SEO spend built on top of a highly commoditized telephony aggregation API. They have won by marketing to DevOps engineers. With all the hype around them, you’d think Twilio invented the telephony API, when in reality what they did was turn it into a product company. Nobody had thought of doing this let alone that this could turn into a $17 billion company because simply put the economics don’t work. And to be clear they still don’t. But Twilio’s genius CEO clearly gets this. If the market is going to value robocalls, emergency sms notifications, on-call pages, and carrier fee passed through related revenue growth in the same way it does ‘subscription’ revenue from Atlassian or ServiceNow, then take advantage of it while it lasts.

Large platforms offering temporary subsidies to ensure they dominate their categories & companies like SoftBank spraying capital across the markets is causing massive shifts in valuations:

I also think if you look closely at what is celebrated today as innovation you often find models built on hidden subsidies. ... I’d argue the very distributed nature of microservices architecture and API-first product companies means addressable market sizes and unit economics assumptions should be even more carefully scrutinized. ... How hard would it be to create an Alibaba today if someone like SoftBank was raining money into such a greenfield space? Excess capital would lead to destruction and likely subpar returns. If capital was the solution, the 1.5 trillion that went into telcos in late '90s wouldn’t have led to a massive bust. Would a Netflix be what it is today if a SoftBank was pouring billions into streaming content startups right as the experiment was starting? Obviously not. Scarcity of capital is another often underappreciated part of the disruption equation. Knowing resources are finite leads to more robust models. ... This convergence is starting to manifest itself in performance. Disney is up 30% over the last 12 months while Netflix is basically flat. This may not feel like a bubble sign to most investors, but from my standpoint, it’s a clear evidence of the fact that we are approaching a something has got to give moment for the way certain businesses are valued."

Circling back to Google's AMP, it has a cousin called Recaptcha.

Recaptcha is another AMP-like trojan horse:

According to tech statistics website Built With, more than 650,000 websites are already using reCaptcha v3; overall, there are at least 4.5 million websites use reCaptcha, including 25% of the top 10,000 sites. Google is also now testing an enterprise version of reCaptcha v3, where Google creates a customized reCaptcha for enterprises that are looking for more granular data about users’ risk levels to protect their site algorithms from malicious users and bots. ... According to two security researchers who’ve studied reCaptcha, one of the ways that Google determines whether you’re a malicious user or not is whether you already have a Google cookie installed on your browser. ... To make this risk-score system work accurately, website administrators are supposed to embed reCaptcha v3 code on all of the pages of their website, not just on forms or log-in pages.

About a month ago when logging into Bing Ads I saw recaptcha on the login page & couldn't believe they'd give Google control at that access point. I think they got rid of that, but lots of companies are perhaps shooting themselves in the foot through a combination of over-reliance on Google infrastructure AND sloppy implementation

Today when making a purchase on Fiverr, after converting, I got some of this action

Hmm. Maybe I will enable JavaScript and try again.

Oooops.

That is called snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

My account is many years old. My payment type on record has been used for years. I have ordered from the particular seller about a dozen times over the years. And suddenly because my web browser had JavaScript turned off I was deemed a security risk of some sort for making an utterly ordinary transaction I have already completed about a dozen times.

On AMP JavaScript was the devil. And on desktop not JavaScript was the devil.

Pro tip: Ecommerce websites that see substandard conversion rates from using Recaptcha can boost their overall ecommerce revenue by buying more Google AdWords ads.

---

As more of the infrastructure stack is driven by AI software there is going to be a very real opportunity for many people to become deplatformed across the web on an utterly arbitrary basis. That tech companies like Facebook also want to create digital currencies on top of the leverage they already have only makes the proposition that much scarier.

If the tech platforms host copies of our sites, process the transactions & even create their own currencies, how will we know what level of value they are adding versus what they are extracting?

Who measures the measurer?

And when the economics turn negative, what will we do if we are hooked into an ecosystem we can't spend additional capital to get out of when things head south?

Google Florida 2.0 Algorithm Update: Early Observations

It has been a while since Google has had a major algorithm update.

They recently announced one which began on the 12th of March.

What changed?

It appears multiple things did.

When Google rolled out the original version of Penguin on April 24, 2012 (primarily focused on link spam) they also rolled out an update to an on-page spam classifier for misdirection.

And, over time, it was quite common for Panda & Penguin updates to be sandwiched together.

If you were Google & had the ability to look under the hood to see why things changed, you would probably want to obfuscate any major update by changing multiple things at once to make reverse engineering the change much harder.

Anyone who operates a single website (& lacks the ability to look under the hood) will have almost no clue about what changed or how to adjust with the algorithms.

In the most recent algorithm update some sites which were penalized in prior "quality" updates have recovered.

Though many of those recoveries are only partial.

Many SEO blogs will publish articles about how they cracked the code on the latest update by publishing charts like the first one without publishing that second chart showing the broader context.

The first penalty any website receives might be the first of a series of penalties.

If Google smokes your site & it does not cause a PR incident & nobody really cares that you are gone, then there is a very good chance things will go from bad to worse to worser to worsterest, technically speaking.

“In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.” - Abraham Lincoln

Absent effort & investment to evolve FASTER than the broader web, sites which are hit with one penalty will often further accumulate other penalties. It is like compound interest working in reverse - a pile of algorithmic debt which must be dug out of before the bleeding stops.

Further, many recoveries may be nothing more than a fleeting invitation to false hope. To pour more resources into a site that is struggling in an apparent death loop.

The above site which had its first positive algorithmic response in a couple years achieved that in part by heavily de-monetizing. After the algorithm updates already demonetized the website over 90%, what harm was there in removing 90% of what remained to see how it would react? So now it will get more traffic (at least for a while) but then what exactly is the traffic worth to a site that has no revenue engine tied to it?

That is ultimately the hard part. Obtaining a stable stream of traffic while monetizing at a decent yield, without the monetizing efforts leading to the traffic disappearing.

A buddy who owns the above site was working on link cleanup & content improvement on & off for about a half year with no results. Each month was a little worse than the prior month. It was only after I told him to remove the aggressive ads a few months back that he likely had any chance of seeing any sort of traffic recovery. Now he at least has a pulse of traffic & can look into lighter touch means of monetization.

If a site is consistently penalized then the problem might not be an algorithmic false positive, but rather the business model of the site.

The more something looks like eHow the more fickle Google's algorithmic with receive it.

Google does not like websites that sit at the end of the value chain & extract profits without having to bear far greater risk & expense earlier into the cycle.

Thin rewrites, largely speaking, don't add value to the ecosystem. Doorway pages don't either. And something that was propped up by a bunch of keyword-rich low-quality links is (in most cases) probably genuinely lacking in some other aspect.

Generally speaking, Google would like themselves to be the entity at the end of the value chain extracting excess profits from markets.

This is the purpose of the knowledge graph & featured snippets. To allow the results to answer the most basic queries without third party publishers getting anything. The knowledge graph serve as a floating vertical that eat an increasing share of the value chain & force publishers to move higher up the funnel & publish more differentiated content.

As Google adds features to the search results (flight price trends, a hotel booking service on the day AirBNB announced they acquired HotelTonight, ecommerce product purchase on Google, shoppable image ads just ahead of the Pinterest IPO, etc.) it forces other players in the value chain to consolidate (Expedia owns Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire & a bunch of other sites) or add greater value to remain a differentiated & sought after destination (travel review site TripAdvisor was crushed by the shift to mobile & the inability to monetize mobile traffic, so they eventually had to shift away from being exclusively a reviews site to offer event & hotel booking features to remain relevant).

It is never easy changing a successful & profitable business model, but it is even harder to intentionally reduce revenues further or spend aggressively to improve quality AFTER income has fallen 50% or more.

Some people do the opposite & make up for a revenue shortfall by publishing more lower end content at an ever faster rate and/or increasing ad load. Either of which typically makes their user engagement metrics worse while making their site less differentiated & more likely to receive additional bonus penalties to drive traffic even lower.

In some ways I think the ability for a site to survive & remain though a penalty is itself a quality signal for Google.

Some sites which are overly reliant on search & have no external sources of traffic are ultimately sites which tried to behave too similarly to the monopoly that ultimately displaced them. And over time the tech monopolies are growing more powerful as the ecosystem around them burns down:

If you had to choose a date for when the internet died, it would be in the year 2014. Before then, traffic to websites came from many sources, and the web was a lively ecosystem. But beginning in 2014, more than half of all traffic began coming from just two sources: Facebook and Google. Today, over 70 percent of traffic is dominated by those two platforms.

Businesses which have sustainable profit margins & slack (in terms of management time & resources to deploy) can better cope with algorithmic changes & change with the market.

Over the past half decade or so there have been multiple changes that drastically shifted the online publishing landscape:

  • the shift to mobile, which both offers publishers lower ad yields while making the central ad networks more ad heavy in a way that reduces traffic to third party sites
  • the rise of the knowledge graph & featured snippets which often mean publishers remain uncompensated for their work
  • higher ad loads which also lower organic reach (on both search & social channels)
  • the rise of programmatic advertising, which further gutted display ad CPMs
  • the rise of ad blockers
  • increasing algorithmic uncertainty & a higher barrier to entry

Each one of the above could take a double digit percent out of a site's revenues, particularly if a site was reliant on display ads. Add them together and a website which was not even algorithmically penalized could still see a 60%+ decline in revenues. Mix in a penalty and that decline can chop a zero or two off the total revenues.

Businesses with lower margins can try to offset declines with increased ad spending, but that only works if you are not in a market with 2 & 20 VC fueled competition:

Startups spend almost 40 cents of every VC dollar on Google, Facebook, and Amazon. We don’t necessarily know which channels they will choose or the particularities of how they will spend money on user acquisition, but we do know more or less what’s going to happen. Advertising spend in tech has become an arms race: fresh tactics go stale in months, and customer acquisition costs keep rising. In a world where only one company thinks this way, or where one business is executing at a level above everyone else - like Facebook in its time - this tactic is extremely effective. However, when everyone is acting this way, the industry collectively becomes an accelerating treadmill. Ad impressions and click-throughs get bid up to outrageous prices by startups flush with venture money, and prospective users demand more and more subsidized products to gain their initial attention. The dynamics we’ve entered is, in many ways, creating a dangerous, high stakes Ponzi scheme.

And sometimes the platform claws back a second or third bite of the apple. Amazon.com charges merchants for fulfillment, warehousing, transaction based fees, etc. And they've pushed hard into launching hundreds of private label brands which pollute the interface & force brands to buy ads even on their own branded keyword terms.

They've recently jumped the shark by adding a bonus feature where even when a brand paid Amazon to send traffic to their listing, Amazon would insert a spam popover offering a cheaper private label branded product:

Amazon.com tested a pop-up feature on its app that in some instances pitched its private-label goods on rivals’ product pages, an experiment that shows the e-commerce giant’s aggressiveness in hawking lower-priced products including its own house brands. The recent experiment, conducted in Amazon’s mobile app, went a step further than the display ads that commonly appear within search results and product pages. This test pushed pop-up windows that took over much of a product page, forcing customers to either click through to the lower-cost Amazon products or dismiss them before continuing to shop. ... When a customer using Amazon’s mobile app searched for “AAA batteries,” for example, the first link was a sponsored listing from Energizer Holdings Inc. After clicking on the listing, a pop-up window appeared, offering less expensive AmazonBasics AAA batteries."

Buying those Amazon ads was quite literally subsidizing a direct competitor pushing you into irrelevance.

And while Amazon is destroying brand equity, AWS is doing investor relations matchmaking for startups. Anything to keep the current bubble going ahead of the Uber IPO that will likely mark the top in the stock market.

As the market caps of big tech companies climb they need to be more predatious to grow into the valuations & retain employees with stock options at an ever-increasing strike price.

They've created bubbles in their own backyards where each raise requires another. Teachers either drive hours to work or live in houses subsidized by loans from the tech monopolies that get a piece of the upside (provided they can keep their own bubbles inflated).

"It is an uncommon arrangement — employer as landlord — that is starting to catch on elsewhere as school employees say they cannot afford to live comfortably in regions awash in tech dollars. ... Holly Gonzalez, 34, a kindergarten teacher in East San Jose, and her husband, Daniel, a school district I.T. specialist, were able to buy a three-bedroom apartment for $610,000 this summer with help from their parents and from Landed. When they sell the home, they will owe Landed 25 percent of any gain in its value. The company is financed partly by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg’s charitable arm."

The above sort of dynamics have some claiming peak California:

The cycle further benefits from the Alchian-Allen effect: agglomerating industries have higher productivity, which raises the cost of living and prices out other industries, raising concentration over time. ... Since startups raise the variance within whatever industry they’re started in, the natural constituency for them is someone who doesn’t have capital deployed in the industry. If you’re an asset owner, you want low volatility. ... Historically, startups have created a constant supply of volatility for tech companies; the next generation is always cannibalizing the previous one. So chip companies in the 1970s created the PC companies of the 80s, but PC companies sourced cheaper and cheaper chips, commoditizing the product until Intel managed to fight back. Meanwhile, the OS turned PCs into a commodity, then search engines and social media turned the OS into a commodity, and presumably this process will continue indefinitely. ... As long as higher rents raise the cost of starting a pre-revenue company, fewer people will join them, so more people will join established companies, where they’ll earn market salaries and continue to push up rents. And one of the things they’ll do there is optimize ad loads, which places another tax on startups. More dangerously, this is an incremental tax on growth rather than a fixed tax on headcount, so it puts pressure on out-year valuations, not just upfront cash flow.

If you live hundreds of miles away the tech companies may have no impact on your rental or purchase price, but you can't really control the algorithms or the ecosystem.

All you can really control is your mindset & ensuring you have optionality baked into your business model.

  • If you are debt-levered you have little to no optionality. Savings give you optionality. Savings allow you to run at a loss for a period of time while also investing in improving your site and perhaps having a few other sites in other markets.
  • If you operate a single website that is heavily reliant on a third party for distribution then you have little to no optionality. If you have multiple projects that enables you to shift your attention toward working on whatever is going up and to the right while letting anything that is failing pass time without becoming overly reliant on something you can't change. This is why it often makes sense for a brand merchant to operate their own ecommerce website even if 90% of their sales come from Amazon. It gives you optionality should the tech monopoly become abusive or otherwise harm you (even if the intent was benign rather than outright misanthropic).

As the update ensues Google will collect more data with how users interact with the result set & determine how to weight different signals, along with re-scoring sites that recovered based on the new engagement data.

Recently a Bing engineer named Frédéric Dubut described how they score relevancy signals used in updates

As early as 2005, we used neural networks to power our search engine and you can still find rare pictures of Satya Nadella, VP of Search and Advertising at the time, showcasing our web ranking advances. ... The “training” process of a machine learning model is generally iterative (and all automated). At each step, the model is tweaking the weight of each feature in the direction where it expects to decrease the error the most. After each step, the algorithm remeasures the rating of all the SERPs (based on the known URL/query pair ratings) to evaluate how it’s doing. Rinse and repeat.

That same process is ongoing with Google now & in the coming weeks there'll be the next phase of the current update.

So far it looks like some quality-based re-scoring was done & some sites which were overly reliant on anchor text got clipped. On the back end of the update there'll be another quality-based re-scoring, but the sites that were hit for excessive manipulation of anchor text via link building efforts will likely remain penalized for a good chunk of time.

Update: It appears a major reverberation of this update occurred on April 7th. From early analysis, Google is mixing in showing results for related midtail concepts on a core industry search term & they are also in some cases pushing more aggressively on doing internal site-level searches to rank a more relevant internal page for a query where they homepage might have ranked in the past.

Disappearing Clicks

When Compete.com launched with credits-based pricing well over a decade ago I felt like a kid in a candy store using their competitive research tool. Recently Compete.com announced they were shutting down, but many of the link analysis & competitive research tools which leverage scraping have also started licensing clickstream data from sources like Clickstre.am & JumpShot.

These sorts of features add a lot of value to traditional keyword tools, as they can highlight the CTR on ads vs organic results & show if people click on anything after they search for a particular term.

When I read Ahref's recent blog post about integrating clickstream data I got that same kid in a candy store feeling I got when I first used Compete. Some highlights...

  • their keyword database contains over 3 billion keywords
  • they offer localized search volumes
  • searches with clicks vs searches without clicks
  • clicks per search
  • repeat searches metric
  • organic vs ad clicks

As an example of how the searches with clicks feature is helpful, consider Google's recently announced RGB conversion feature

In that image you can see how the feature displaces the result set.

What's cool about the Ahrefs feature is you can also see what sort of impact that feature has on click volumes.

After 1 month, 20% of the searches for [RGB to HEX] no longer had any clicks to an external website.

On the second month it looks like the "no click" rate was closer to 7%, so perhaps some of the initial additional search volume was driven by people searching for the related keywords after blogs covered the new feature.

But the nice thing about the feature is you can see how the click rate changes over time as the feature evolves.

In some areas like weather Google ends up dominating most the user behavior with their in-SERP feature.

About half of all weather keyword searches do not click on any listings. And then of those which do click, about 20% of people click on an ad.

That means the potential organic click volume for that keyword is only about 40% of the initial search volume estimates.

Search results keep getting more interactive features & some of them appear to be click black holes. Literally...

Here is a new item comparison feature table.

As more of the value chain appears in the search results, more of the value chain which formerly appeared on websites disappears. This is true from a wide range of aspects including ad sales, content hosting, ad blocking & brand value.

General Ad Sales

No click into the publisher's site means no ad revenue for the publisher. Voice search will only accelerate the declines seen from mobile, which shifted user attention away from large screens with many listings to smaller screens with fewer listings & a far higher ad ratio in the search results.

Facebook Instant Articles & Google AMP

Google has already pushed hard to make hotel searches a pay-to-play vertical & yet some publishers are adopting AMP formatting in that vertical. Google is also forcing AMP down publisher's throats in other verticals like recipes.

If central ad networks host your content then they get better user data for your content than you do as a publisher.

User Tracking, in Aggregate

Increased user tracking depresses premium ad sales & moves value from niche players to broad networks "Whether it’s a third party like Facebook or Google tracking across the web or an ISP leveraging its distribution arm, this is outside of consumer expectations. Importantly to the digital media industry, it also devalues the context and relationship of consumer trust which drives the businesses of premium publishers."

Ad Blocking

Some large sites like Google or Facebook either pay ad blockers or technically work around them within their apps. By funding ad blockers exempting the search result page from having their ads blocked, Google is ultimately defunding competing ad networks.

Brand Value

As search results get noisier & more ad heavy, Google is trying to coerce brands into re-buying their pre-existing brand equity. These efforts are effective, as on some branded & navigational searches over half the click volume goes to the ads. Here are a few examples from Ahrefs. The orange bar shows what percent of the SERP clicks are on ads.

And the above doesn't even account for...

  • Google Maps being an ad-heavy search engine.
  • the Google Trips app which prevent searches from happening on Google.
  • The mid-tail of travel search on mobile where Google does away with the concept of organic search results.
  • Direct booking features complementing traditional AdWords ads & hotel price ads.
  • Google buying ITA Software to dominate flight search. Notice the most popular term is Google's branded term & for the generic term [flights] 72% of people don't click on any external site while 37% of the remaining 28% of searches click on an AdWords ad.

    And almost everyone else in that industry is stuck licensing flight data from Google, as they own ITA Software.

So Google is eating the generic terms, the brand terms, and the search query pool more broadly.

There's a reason Google's online travel business is over twice the size of anyone else & has their biggest advertisers seeking more sustainable & more legitimate alternatives.

The biggest travel players are accustomed to Google’s moves and trying their best to adjust and work around them. Missing from this story is the fact that Google’s latest moves are making it nearly impossible for all but the smallest number of consumer travel startups to succeed. — Dennis Schaal

And some of the aggressive stuff carries over into other lines of business outside of travel. Google is also testing large image extensions on AdWords ads on cell phones that don't leave room for even a second AdWords listing on the screen. When one invests in brand they have to start thinking about how much they are willing to pay Google as an ongoing tithing for their success. Look at the following ads where a competitor bidding on a competing brand drives the brand owner's official site below the fold.

Google is willing to make their results worse (to the point they would consider something that looked like their search result page as an ad-heavy doorway redirect page of spam if hosted by anyone other than themselves) in order to monetize navigational searches.

What's more, you can't just opt out & ignore. When brands make agreements to not cross-bid Google has the FTC sue them.

On some high end fashion brands Google lists shopping ads which lead to third party sellers who sell used goods. Quite often counterfeits will also be in the mix. When the counterfeits are destroyed in the first wash, it is the brand owner who was took to the cleaners.

But there's a solution to that... they can pay Google ever-increasing protection.

Penguin 4.0 Update

On Friday Google's Gary Illyes announced Penguin 4.0 was now live.

Key points highlighted in their post are:

  • Penguin is a part of their core ranking algorithm
  • Penguin is now real-time, rather than something which periodically refreshes
  • Penguin has shifted from being a sitewide negative ranking factor to a more granular factor

Things not mentioned in the post

  • if it has been tested extensively over the past month
  • if the algorithm is just now rolling out or if it is already done rolling out
  • if the launch of a new version of Penguin rolled into the core ranking algorithm means old sites hit by the older versions of Penguin have recovered or will recover anytime soon

Since the update was announced, the search results have become more stable.

They still may be testing out fine tuning the filters a bit...

...but what exists now is likely to be what sticks for an extended period of time.

Penguin Algorithm Update History

  • Penguin 1: April 24, 2012
  • Penguin 2: May 26, 2012
  • Penguin 3: October 5, 2012
  • Penguin 4: May 22, 2013 (AKA: Penguin 2.0)
  • Penguin 5: October 4, 2013 (AKA Penguin 2.1)
  • Penguin 6: rolling update which began on October 17, 2014 (AKA Penguin 3.0)
  • Penguin 7: September 23, 2016 (AKA Penguin 4.0)

Now that Penguin is baked into Google's core ranking algorithms, no more Penguin updates will be announced. Panda updates stopped being announced last year. Instead we now get unnamed "quality" updates.

Volatility Over the Long Holiday Weekend

Earlier in the month many SEOs saw significant volatility in the search results, beginning ahead of Labor Day weekend with a local search update. The algorithm update observations were dismissed as normal fluctuations in spite of the search results being more volatile than they have been in over 4 years.

There are many reasons for search engineers to want to roll out algorithm updates (or at least test new algorithms) before a long holiday weekend:

  • no media coverage: few journalists on the job & a lack of expectation that the PR team will answer any questions. no official word beyond rumors from self-promotional marketers = no story
  • many SEOs outside of work: few are watching as the algorithms tip their cards.
  • declining search volumes: long holiday weekends generally have less search volume associated with them. Thus anyone who is aggressively investing in SEO may wonder if their site was hit, even if it wasn't.
    The communications conflicts this causes between in-house SEOs and their bosses, as well as between SEO companies and their clients both makes the job of the SEO more miserable and makes the client more likely to pull back on investment, while ensuring the SEO has family issues back home as work ruins their vacation.
  • fresh users: as people travel their search usage changes, thus they have fresh sets of eyes & are doing somewhat different types of searches. This in turn makes their search usage data more dynamic and useful as a feedback mechanism on any changes made to the underlying search relevancy algorithm or search result interface.

Algo Flux Testing Tools

Just about any of the algorithm volatility tools showed far more significant shift earlier in this month than over the past few days.

Take your pick: Mozcast, RankRanger, SERPmetrics, Algaroo, Ayima Pulse, AWR, Accuranker, SERP Watch & the results came out something like this graph from Rank Ranger:

One issue with looking at any of the indexes is the rank shifts tend to be far more dramatic as you move away from the top 3 or 4 search results, so the algorithm volatility scores are much higher than the actual shifts in search traffic (the least volatile rankings are also the ones with the most usage data & ranking signals associated with them, so the top results for those terms tend to be quite stable outside of verticals like news).

You can use AWR's flux tracker to see how volatility is higher across the top 20 or top 50 results than it is across the top 10 results.

Example Ranking Shifts

I shut down our membership site in April & spend most of my time reading books & news to figure out what's next after search, but a couple legacy clients I am winding down working with still have me tracking a few keywords & one of the terms saw a lot of smaller sites (in terms of brand awareness) repeatedly slide and recover over the past month.

Notice how a number of sites would spike down on the same day & then back up. And then the pattern would repeat.

As a comparison, here is that chart over the past 3 months.

Notice the big ranking moves which became common over the past month were not common the 2 months prior.

Negative SEO Was Real

There is a weird sect of alleged SEOs which believes Google is omniscient, algorithmic false positives are largely a myth, AND negative SEO was never a real thing.

As it turns out, negative SEO was real, which likely played a part in Google taking years to roll out this Penguin update AND changing how they process Penguin from a sitewide negative factor to something more granular.

Update != Penalty Recovery

Part of the reason many people think there was no Penguin update or responded to the update with "that's it?" is because few sites which were hit in the past recovered relative to the number of sites which ranked well until recently just got clipped by this algorithm update.

When Google updates algorithms or refreshes data it does not mean sites which were previously penalized will immediately rank again.

Some penalties (absent direct Google investment or nasty public relations blowback for Google) require a set amount of time to pass before recovery is even possible.

Google has no incentive to allow a broad-based set of penalty recoveries on the same day they announce a new "better than ever" spam fighting algorithm.

They'll let some time base before the penalized sites can recover.

Further, many of the sites which were hit years ago & remain penalized have been so defunded for so long that they've accumulated other penalties due to things like tightening anchor text filters, poor user experience metrics, ad heavy layouts, link rot & neglect.

What to do?

So here are some of the obvious algorithmic holes left by the new Penguin approach...

  • only kidding
  • not sure that would even be a valid mindset in the current market
  • hell, the whole ecosystem is built on quicksand

The trite advice is to make quality content, focus on the user, and build a strong brand.

But you can do all of those well enough that you change the political landscape yet still lose money.

Google & Facebook are in a cold war, competing to see who can kill the open web faster, using each other as justification for their own predation.

Even some of the top brands in big money verticals which were known as the canonical examples of SEO success stories are seeing revenue hits and getting squeezed out of the search ecosystem.

And that is without getting hit by a penalty.

It is getting harder to win in search period.

And it is getting almost impossible to win in search by focusing on search as an isolated channel.

Efforts and investments in chasing the algorithms in isolation are getting less viable by the day.

Anyone operating at scale chasing SEO with automation is likely to step into a trap.

When it happens, that player better have some serious savings or some non-Google revenues, because even with "instant" algorithm updates you can go months or years on reduced revenues waiting for an update.

And if the bulk of your marketing spend while penalized is spent on undoing past marketing spend (rather than building awareness in other channels outside of search) you can almost guarantee that business is dead.

"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

Google Rethinking Payday Loans & Doorway Pages?

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.

Update 2: Record keeping requirements do not improve things if a company still intentionally violates the rules, knowing they will only have to pay a token slap on the wrist fine if and when they are finally caught. All it really does is drive the local businesses under.

The massive record-keeping and data requirements that Mr. Corday is foisting on the industry will have another effect: It will drive out the small, local players who have dominated the industry in favor of big firms and consolidators who can afford the regulatory overhead. It will also favor companies that can substitute big data for local knowledge like LendUp, the Google-backed venture that issued a statement Thursday applauding the CFPB rules. Google’s self-interest has become a recurrent theme in Obama policy making

Those records (along with the Google duplicity on doorway pages) however confirm that LendUp are not the good guys! They were outright scamming & over-charing their customers:

Onine lending start-up LendUp, which has billed itself as a better and more affordable alternative to traditional payday lenders, will pay $6.3 million in refunds and penalties after regulators uncovered widespread rule-breaking at the company.

Google's Big Brand Shakedown

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

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

Pages