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 that keyword 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 one brand bidding on a competing brand.

Google is willing to make their results worse (to the point they would consider a similar page as an ad-heavy doorway 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

But First, A Word From Our Sponsors...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is that working for Google partners?

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

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

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

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

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

What does that leave for the rest of the ecosystem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile search ecosystem breakdown

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

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

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

Ignore the broader ecosystem shifts.

Ignore the hypocrisy.

Focus on the user.

Until you are eating cat food.

Google Mobilepocalypse Update

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

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

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

That is a tough question.

It is too early to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good times!

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

Not so much.

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

As you can see, nothing happened.

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

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

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

Did you jump the gun or wait and see?

Consensus Bias

The Truth About Subjective Truths

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

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

Less Diversity, More Consolidation

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

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

We Just Listen to the Data (Ish)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search Results Become a Closed App Store

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

That it no longer is.

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

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

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

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

Is Brand the Answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some representative views of that incident:

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

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

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

Learning the Rules of the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points highlighted by the European Commission:

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

Overcoming Consensus Bias

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

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

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

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

How do you overcome consensus bias?

Google Mobile Search Result Highlights

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

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

Below are the associated survey images & user results.


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

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

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

Link to survey results: without ads vs with ads.

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


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

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

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

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

SERP without an ad

SERP with an ad

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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