Search as a Wedge to Influence & Corrupt Other Markets

Search can be used as a wedge in a variety of ways. Most are perhaps poorly understood by the media and market regulators.

Woot! Check Out Our Bundling Discounts

When Google Checkout rolled out, it was free. Not only was it free, but it came with a badge that appears near AdWords ads to make the ads stand out. That boosts ad clickthrough rates, which feeds into ad quality score & acts as a discount for advertisers who used Google Checkout. If you did not use Google's bundled services you were stuck paying above market rates to compete with those who accepted Google's bundling discounts.

And there is no conspiracy theory to the above bundling. Here is a video on how quality score works & this Google Checkout page states it plain as day

And all the while Google was doing the above bundling (as they still are to this day) they were also lobbying in Australia about Paypal's dominant market position. eBay (which owns Paypal) is one of Google's 5 largest advertisers.

This Brand is Your Brand, This Brand is My Brand

Companies spend billions of Dollars every year building their trademarked brands. But if they don't pay Google for existing brand equity then Google sells access to that stream of branded traffic to competitors, even though internal Google studies have shown it causes confusion in the marketplace.

The Right to Copy

Copyright protects the value of content. To increase the cost of maintaining that value, DoubleClick and AdSense fund a lot of copy and paste publishing, even of the automated variety. Sure you can hide your content behind a paywall, but if Google is paying people to steal it and wrap it in ads how do you have legal recourse if those people live in a country which doesn't respect copyright?

You can see how LOOSE Google's AdSense standards are when it comes to things like copyright and trademarks by searching for something like "bulk PageRank checker" and seeing how many sites that violate Google's TOS multiple ways are built on cybersquatted domain names that contain the word "PageRank" in them. There are also sites dedicated to turning Youtube videos into MP3's which are monetized via AdSense.

Universal Youtube Search

Google bought Youtube and then swiftly rolled out universal search, which dramatically increased the exposure of Youtube. Only recent heat & regulatory review has caused Google to add more prominent links to competing services, nearly a half-decade later.

A Unit of Obscurity

Knol was pushed as a way to revolutionize how people share information online. But it went nowhere. Why? Google got caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so they couldn't force the market to eat it.

Scrape You Very Much

Philosophically Google believes in (and delivers regular sermons about) an open web where companies should compete on the merit of their products. And yet when Google enters a new vertical they *require* you to let them use your content against you. If you want to opt out of competing against yourself Google say that is fine, but the only way they will allow you to opt out is if you block them from indexing your content & kill your search traffic.

“Google has also advised that if we want to stop content from appearing on Google Places we would have to reduce/stop Google’s ability to scan the TripAdvisor site,” said Kaufer “Needless to say, this would have a significant impact on TripAdvisor’s ranking on natural search queries through Google and, as such, we are not blocking Google from scanning our site.”

From a public relations standpoint & a legal perspective I don't think it is a good idea for Google to deliver all-or-nothing ultimatums. Ultimately that could cause people in positions of power to view their acts as a collection which have to be justified on the whole, rather than on an individual basis.

Lucky for publishers, technology does allow them to skirt Google's suggestions. If I ran an industry-leading review site and wanted to opt out of Google's all-or-nothing scrape job scam, my approach would be to selectively post certain types of content. Some of it would be behind a registration wall, some of it would be publicly accessible in iframes, and maybe just a sliver of it is fully accessible to Google. That way Google indexes your site (and you still rank for the core industry keywords), but they can't scrape the parts you don't want them to. Of course that means losing out on some longtail search traffic (as the hidden content is invisible to search engines), but it is better than the alternatives of killing all search traffic or giving away the farm.

Google Gearing Up for Relevancy Changes

Jan 22nd

Over the past year or 2 there have been lots of changes with Google pushing vertical integration, but outside of localization and verticalization, core relevancy algorithms (especially in terms of spam fighting) haven't changed too much recently. There have been a few tricky bits, but when you consider how much more powerful Google has grown, their approach to core search hasn't been as adversarial as it was a few years back (outside of pushing more self promotion).

There has been some speculation as to why Google has toned down their manual intervention, including:

  • anti-trust concerns as Google steps up vertically driven self-promotion (and an endless well of funding for anyone with complaints, courtesy Microsoft)
  • a desire to create more automated solutions as the web scales up
  • spending significant resources fighting site hacking (the "bigger fish to fry" theory)

Matt Cutts recently made a blog post on the official Google blog, which highlighted that indeed #3 was a big issue:

As we’ve increased both our size and freshness in recent months, we’ve naturally indexed a lot of good content and some spam as well. To respond to that challenge, we recently launched a redesigned document-level classifier that makes it harder for spammy on-page content to rank highly. The new classifier is better at detecting spam on individual web pages, e.g., repeated spammy words—the sort of phrases you tend to see in junky, automated, self-promoting blog comments. We’ve also radically improved our ability to detect hacked sites, which were a major source of spam in 2010. And we’re evaluating multiple changes that should help drive spam levels even lower, including one change that primarily affects sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content.

It sounds like Google was mainly focused on fighting hacked sites and auto-generated & copied content. And now that hacked *GOVERNMENT* websites are available for purchase for a few hundred Dollars (and perhaps millions in personal risk when a government comes after you) it seems like Google's pushing toward fighting off site hacking was a smart move! Further, there are a wide array of start ups built around leveraging the "domain authority" bias in Google's algorithm, which certainly means that looking more at page by page metrics was a needed strategy to evolve relevancy. And with page-by-page metrics it will allow Google to filter out the cruddy parts of good sites without killing off the whole site.

As Google has tackled many of the hard core auto-generated spam issues it allows them to ramp up their focus on more vanilla spam. Due to a rash of complaints (typically from web publishers & SEO folks) content mills are now a front and center issue:

As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content. We take pride in Google search and strive to make each and every search perfect. The fact is that we’re not perfect, and combined with users’ skyrocketing expectations of Google, these imperfections get magnified in perception.

Demand Media (DMD) is set to go public next week, and Richard Rosenblatt has a long history of timing market tops (see iMall or MySpace).

But what sort of sites are the content mills that Google is going to ramp up action on?

The tricky part with vanilla spam is the subjective nature of it. End users (particularly those who are not web publishers & online advertisers) might not complain much about sites like eHow because they are aesthetically pleasing & well formatted for easy consumption. The content might be at a low level, but maybe Google is willing to let a few of the bigger players slide. And there is a lot of poorly formatted expert content which end users would view worse than eHow, simply because it is not formatted for online consumption.

If you recall the Mayday update, Richard Rosenblatt said that increased their web traffic. And Google's October 22nd algorithm change last year saw many smaller websites careen into oblivion, only to re-appear on November 9th. That update did not particularly harm sites like eHow.

However, in a Hacker News thread about Matt's recent blog post he did state that they have taken action against Mahalo: "Google has taken action on Mahalo before and has removed plenty of pages from Mahalo that violated our guidelines in the past. Just because we tend not to discuss specific companies doesn't mean that we've given them any sort of free pass."

My guess is that sites that took a swan dive in the October 23rd timeframe might expect to fall off the cliff once more. Where subject search relevancy gets hard is that issues rise and fall like ocean waves crashing ashore. Issues that get fixed eventually create opportunities for other problems to fester. And after an issue has been fixed long enough it becomes a non-issue to the point of being a promoted best practice, at least for a while.

Anyone who sees opportunity as permanently disappearing from search is looking at a half-empty glass rather than one which sees opportunities that died reborn again and again.

That said, I view Matt's blog post as a bit of a warning shot. What types of sites do you think he is coming after? What types of sites do you see benefiting from such changes? Discuss. :)

Google's Missing Disclosure

Dec 15th

Netflix's Risky Position

One of the fundamental keys to monetizing third party content is finding a way to do it while keeping your earnings data abstract. A huge problem that hits pure plays like Netflix is that as soon as companies see the profits the cost structures change.

  • Comcast is looking to get some funds from Level 3 (for distribution of Neflix content), and
  • Partners who license video content to Netflix want a bigger piece of the action as well: "Now many of the companies that make the shows and movies that Netflix delivers to mailboxes, computer screens and televisions — companies whose stocks have not enjoyed the same frothy rise, and whose chief executives have not won the same accolades — are pushing back, arguing that the company is overhyped, and vowing to charge much more to license their content."

Making big money on someone else's content makes the content owner look stupid. As soon as you let big media know you are making money on their content they get pissed and feel they rightfully earned that money. As they sense a shift in power any edge cases become the standard against which all other deals are compared.

How Youtube Differs From Netflix

If you study Google & listen to their quarterly conference calls you will always come away with the following: YouTube is operating at an amazing scale, Youtube's growth is accelerating, and YouTube might not be profitable. In the most recent quarterly call Google highlighted that their display network was a $2.5 billion business, but we never hear specific revenue or cost stats from YouTube. Hiding that business within the larger Google enterprise allows Google to print money and gain leverage without evoking the wrath of big media.

Sure there is the Viacom lawsuit, but Youtube streams over 2 billion videos a day with roughly 1 in 7 of those views being monetized. The growth trends keep accelerating, with revenues more than doubling each year, but Google doesn't have to deal with the Netflix issue of margin collapse from partners - because they don't break out profits.

Legislating Profits

Many large scammy/criminal corporations (like the too big to fail bankers & the huge pharma companies) have their 'profits' legislated, even as they destroy the economy. Their political kickbacks to politicians are so strong that in spite of committing multiple repeated felonies, they have enough political sway that third parties create scammy non-profits promoting these brigands to win political favor.

Google claims they are not dominant, but they do not sit in an area where they can legislate their own profits. So they must operate in the gray area elsewhere to sustain and grow their profits.

Alternate Paths to Endless Cash

Cashing Out Brand Equity

Have a trademark? Are you not buying your own brand? Don't worry, a competitor will. Prior Google research (and Google sales material) have shown consumer confusion from some of these activities

But Google has a great legal team & have managed to grow profits by forcing brands to buy their own existing brand equity, even if it adds 0 revenues & significant costs for the advertiser.

Cloaking + DRM = Win

Remember how Google doesn't like cloaking? But they will DRM manage your media for you & if someone views it outside of the appropriate area they will get a "screw you" page, likeso:

(If you are from the US you can see how content is cloaked in various countries by using web proxies or VPN services.)

Copyright is for Suckers

Is Google a more authoritative book seller than Barnes & Nobles? Other than lying & taking a few legal shortcuts, what puts Google in a superior position as a book seller?

At least their (lack of) respect for copyright is consistent.

You Need to Disclose, but Google Does NOT

Remember back when Google claimed that anyone buying or selling links needed to do it in a way that is both machine readable & human readable? Well, Google invested in Viglinks, which is certainly 100% counter to that spirit. Further, consider Google's recent hard coding of ebook promotions in their search results. There is no ad label in a machine readable or human readable format, but they mix it right in their 'organic' search results.

Remember how paid links were bad?

"Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word 'Advertisement')" - Google.

If you do the same thing Google does, then you are violating their guidelines. Sorta hard to compete with them while staying inside their guidelines then, eh?

If Google expects you to label your paid ads in machine and human readable ways, then why are they fine with blending their ads directly into the organic search results with no disclaimer? Do they actually believe that manipulating end users (to promote their own business deals) is less evil than potentially manipulating a search tool?

The absurdity reminds me of a quote from You Are Not a Gadget:

If you want to know what's really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If the content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.

The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.

Google Launches MILLIONS of Doorway Pages

Dec 13th

I mentioned this in our last post but it probably deserves a post of its own. ;)

Google has long claimed that search results inside search results are a poor user experience. They also claim their use of your content is fair use because it is only for ranking and distribution purposes.

Take a look at Google's deskbar subdomain. Google has created MILLIONS of pages on this subdomain:

These pages ARE ranking in the search results:

Google's quest to become the web is leading them to produce a lot of half done products (is eHow's content written at a higher level than Matt Cutts writes) & an increasing variety of bugs. These of course create opportunity for some folks, but a whole lot of pain for many folks who have done nothing wrong other than trusting Google to be competent & fair.

I understand ready, fire, aim on on beta tests or things for start ups, but should Google be doing this sort of silliness with a search service millions depend on?

So much of their originality algorithms determine what is the true source on the internet; the moment bugs like this appear, that trustworthiness is tarnished, and the people who poured sweat blood and tears into a product can be wiped out with a flip of a deskbar.google.com launch.

What Does a Spammer Do?

Dec 13th

Relevancy

Search engines are powerful because they are an editorial filter which encourages relevancy.

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better

Frequently we are marketed to that any errors or omissions on the part of search engines are not due to bad algorithms, but rather do to unscrupulous spammers.

Webmaster guidelines are arbitrary & ever-shifting, and preached like gospel. The 'or else' fear mindset is a primary component of the algorithm.

And yet when some of the largest & most outrageous guideline violations are brought to light, they are quickly dismissed & swept under the rug.

In some cases search engineers conflate SEOs with hackers who are doing illegal activities, but if all marketers & advertisers were criminals then Google.com would top that list, given that ~ 99% of their revenues come from ads & fewer than 100 countries have a GDP greater than Google's revenues. :D

Are 'Spammers' Relevant?

Further claims against spammers include irrelevancy. That was true before I got into the search game (and in some edge cases might be true today), but most spammers try to be relevant. Back in the late 90's when "any page view will do" banner advertising ruled the web all one needed to profit was page views by any means. But as marketing has become more precise and more closely measured, it has become more relevant. With current online marketing being more driven by true conversion performance, relevancy is key. If you show up where you are not relevant you are simply wasting your time & money.

Search engines have a CPM higher than virtually any other type of media format precisely because their ads are so relevant.

Who Promotes Inferior Product?

Let's skip the fact that Google's ad system is set up to maximize yield, while ignoring that Google AdSense has a get rich quick ad category. Looking beyond those, the core argument against spammers is that they pollute the organic search results & leverage Google's distribution to bring inferior product to market.

You know who else does that?

Google.

Yelp Inc. CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has complained about Google's use of Yelp content for Google Place pages and is negotiating with Google over the issue. He said Google "is trying to leverage its distribution power"—the search engine—"to take an inferior product and put it in front of the user."

According to the above WSJ article, TripAdvisor's search traffic from Google is off over 10% since Google Place pages gained prominent placement in the search results. Not only does Google borrow 3rd party content & then use that to displace the source, but they also pay 3rd parties to do the same.

What is the real reason Google hates spammers?

Competition.

In Google's ideal world they would build a media empire by scraping whoever's content they want, monetizing it however they like, and paying partners a prescribed share of the revenues, right up until Google finds another partner which is willing to accept less.

It is true with text, with communities, with news, with pictures, with video, with trademarks, and soon ebooks.

Richard Nixon's Take on Google

Here are MILLIONS of doorway pages Google created (and many of these are ranking in Google, even though users do not like 'search results in search results')

It reminds me a lot of Richard Nixon: "well when Google does it, that means it is not spam." Indeed!

Careful out there, the world is a spammy place. ;)

TripAdvisor Tells Google Places to Go Take a Hike

Dec 9th

As Google creates a thin review layer to displace some of the directories they are driving into bankruptcy, some of the wiser middle men are telling Google to go get stuffed. TripAdvisor reviews disappeared from Google Place pages due to a technical issue, but then they stayed disappeared due to TripAdvisor passing on Google's generous offer to borrow their content & use it to replace them in the search ecosystem:

Google is no longer able to stream in reviews from TripAdvisor to Places pages after the user review giant blocked it.

TripAdvisor confirmed the move today in an email, stating that while it continues to evaluate recent changes to Google Places it believes the user does not benefit with the “experience of selecting the right hotel”.

“As a result, we have currently limited TripAdvisor content available on those pages,” an official says.

As Google spreads into a B2C player & tries to offer up suggestions for everything the top market leaders in many big markets (like Yelp & TripAdvisor) will tell them to screw off. However, players 2 through x will be desperate enough for exposure that they are driven by short term thinking. Google's ebook news mentioned that software is in place to do bundled deals to sell hard copies with the electronic versions. And just look at the direct to consumer marketing Google is doing in Japan.

Eventually market leaders will be offered concessions for deals, or Google will partner with lower placed businesses to slowly wear down the advantage of market leaders with a slow water torture treatment. But for now TripAdvisor stands on its own.

The positive news for Google in this is that the search results offer a wide range of excellent hiking boots for Googlers to choose from :D

Bleeding Edge Reverse PR SEO Strategy

Dec 7th
posted in

Here's a sure-fire way to get ranked high in Google.

Piss people off.

Reportedly, DecorMyEyes founder Vitaly Borker was arrested and charged with defrauding customers, and making repeated and violent threats to customers who attempted to return defective goods.

Not a fan of "How To Win Friends And Influence People", then :)

This bit will interest SEO fans:

Hello, My name is Stanley with DecorMyEyes.com,” the post began. “I just wanted to let you guys know that the more replies you people post, the more business and the more hits and sales I get. My goal is NEGATIVE advertisement.”It’s all part of a sales strategy, he said. Online chatter about DecorMyEyes, even furious online chatter, pushed the site higher in Google search results, which led to greater sales. He closed with a sardonic expression of gratitude: “I never had the amount of traffic I have now since my 1st complaint. I am in heaven

If you look at the backlinks for DecorMyEyes.com, you'll find a significant volume of inbound linking, some of which is junk, but also includes links from the likes of the New York Times. The high-profile links are a direct result of bad publicity.

Of course, this has always been the fly in Google's ointment. Google's link-oriented approach to ranking reflects the attention a site receives. This doesn't necessarily mean the site is endorsed, and in this case, the opposite is true.

Facing a PR disaster, in all senses of the word, Google were quick to act:

We were horrified to read about Ms. Rodriguez’s dreadful experience. Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live

Hmmm....was the algorithmic solution "if domain = DecorMyEyes.com, then PR=0" :)

Jokes aside, Google outlined the options they could have taken to prevent such a problem, but chose not to, then cryptically hint at the step they did eventually take:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result

Reading between the lines, it is clear that.......erm.......hmmmm.........I don't know about you, but I'm none the wiser! That could mean anything! Assembling a team of hand editors to baby sit the results of an algo, or the beginnings of some frightfully clever semantic analysis.

Hard to tell.

Google make out the case is an outlier, although that would only be true on the surface. The fundamental problem, for Google, is link context, and that is a far more difficult problem to solve.

Link As A Vote

When Google started, they used a clever backlink check as a form of voting. The more backlinks a site had, from sites deemed to be authoritative, the higher the rank.

But the web has changed.

These days, we have Facebook and social media. Most people on the web aren't web publishers in the traditional sense. Most people participate on the web, but don't have their own websites. They post on other people's sites, over which they have little control. Google has to make sense of all this, because Google still wants to know what information people pay the most attention to.

The beating heart of a link is a mark of attention.

Google collects markers of attention.

As the PR - as in public relations - problem with DecorMyEyes reveals, popularity and authority calculations are not enough. Google's black box also has to figure out context. Most SEOs would guess Google is putting a lot of work into semantic analysis.

This is why it is becoming increasingly important to treat SEO as a public relations exercise. Links can come from anywhere, and whether they are no-followed, scripted or otherwise, they are all markers of attention. Google's job will always be to collect them, and make sense of them. To the webmaster, all markers of attention are valuable.

Well, almost all.

DecorMyEyes turned it into a marketing strategy, but in terms of SEO, it was never going to last. First rule of SEOClub is that you don't publicly embarrass Google.

The Lesson

Be interesting.

In a useful way.

Oscar Wilde said "the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about". Malcolm Mclaren said something similar: "bad publicity isn't as good as good publicity, it is ten times better". Brendan Behan "All publicity is good, except an obituary notice".

Get positive ratings. "Encourage" reviews. Go to where your customers are, and get the conversation started. Do you have a story? Be controversial, if it suits. Find an angle and work it. Link out.

When you think PR, think Public Relations.

Google's Media Empire

Dec 6th

Open = Good

For years Google has championed the concept of an open web. Some took it as an altruistic sign, while others thought it was a convenient angle to commoditize complimentary business models.

Google pushed for net neutrality but made wireless connections an exception. Why would they do that? Could it be they are invested in disrupting that market elsewhere?

The Rise of Brand as a Signal of Trust

As Google started to reach the bulk of potential returns based on direct response they started to lean on brands as a signal of quality & recommend brands more in their search results. When you search for Amazon you might get 8 or 9 links from the official site & even on some generic keywords Google recommends associated brands.

Why Brand Creates a Sustainable Advantage

When you think about what brand is, it is a mental shorthand for a concept. It leads to increased recall, fatter sustained profit margins, and thus the ability to spend more on marketing. If Google is to put more weight on reviews and look at sentiment analysis then of course that will benefit the larger players who invested into establishing positive associations, even at a young age. The results of such branding efforts are quite powerful.

And even moreso if you don't use them for evil, Pepsi! :D

Affiliates Are Evil, Except When They Are Named Google

In the past Google has positioned that affiliates are evil (the body language says it all IMHO), though there are Google's remote quality rater documents which provide further proof to anyone with lingering doubts.

As Google is becoming the affiliate they are getting direct signals into what consumers like most & are able to serve them a personalized recommendation engine. New extended ad formats & using location data will allow Google to further drive down the organic results.

Free Traffic For Free Data, for a While

Not only does Google sell CPA priced product ads on their search results, but they also allow your Google Base account to drive additional product links, which gives them over 150 million products to advertise. The name of the game is to give Google a bit more data to get a higher clickthrough rate & thus have a higher quality score & be enabled for additional profitable opportunities sold at below fair market rates. That seems like a free lunch and works great, up until the day Google decides to use the aggregate data to compete directly against you. ;)

Google now runs a thin affiliate site in Boutiques.com. Google's ability to recommend consumption behaviors not only impacts ecommerce, but every type of media in the world. They control the ad rates of various advertisers & can create custom ad integration opportunities.

Google's Role in Media Consumption

Youtube offers related videos, a never-ending personalized streaming service in LeanBack and ads which users can select from.

When Google started scanning books it was supposed to be for search, rather than to have ebooks for sale. A couple lawsuits later and today Google finally opened up their ebook marketplace.

One of the leading features of Google's 'open' marketplace is DRM: "Publishers can choose whether or not to lock down their books with DRM. Google also says it will have a strict privacy policy that forbids it from using your book buying habits to advertise to, or profile readers." If you are outside of the United States the store is simply unavailable. That same article states that "Google hopes to layer on social features into the service in the near-future and says the infrastructure is in place to let people buy both a digital and paper copy of a book in a bundle."

Would that be Google moving from pushing bits & people to pushing physical products?

Clean Up on Aisle 3

Google announced their copyright "improvements" in front of the Viacom vs Youtube copyright lawsuit appeal.

Meanwhile Google is the same company which published this & recommends keygens and serials when you search for a brand. Google promises to fix that later issue - something that has only took them a few YEARS to do, even though they were blocking porn words (& other words that could have earned them negative press) much sooner.

In much the same way that Google has captured most of the revenue streams they will be able to with direct response ads, I think they realize that they will need to work better at managing property rights of big media & other publishers if they really want to drive brand advertising revenues. This will likely lead to a decline of the "anything goes" web.

From 'Anything Goes' to Respecting Property Rights

The whole reason Google was so liberal in their approach to supporting (and even funding) copyright violation it was so that they could weaken the positions of the companies that hold those rights, such that Google can eventually negotiate a deal with them. But the main thing holding back Google music is that based on Google's past performance the labels do not trust the idea of a digital music locker hosted by Google. After all, Google AdSense ads are what allow sites dedicated to downloading MP3s from Youtube to be monetized today.

Google offers promotional links on Youtube & knows how much money they are missing out on. Google's boondoggle of using public relations to paint a clean show publicly while using legal loopholes to circumvent the intent of the law was good for getting them into a strong market position, but if they want to have a leadership position in more big media markets they will need to get buy in from established players.

Google wants to get big into television ads. And that is going to mean having better respect for copyright. To some degree as we see the Google business model change we will see their approach of "paying anyone to steal anything & wrap it in Google ads" (to soften up copyright) change to a model where the put themselves as a gatekeeper on DRM content & push the "official" sources of the media (and try to make a cut of the profits). Already on Youtube if you view certain content from outside the United States they will tell you that it is unavailable in your area.

Google's first video store was a complete failure. Once again they are pushing hard on video with Google TV & by buying the DRM company widevine. Big media companies have opted out of Google TV awaiting more favorable deals.

Part of such deals will ultimately rely on backroom payouts coupled with hard coded promotions. There will be a lot of collateral damage as entire categories become unprofitable for those who do not have direct access. I think we are seeing the organic search results take a page from the ad book: pay to play.

Google's old model of paying people to scrape content & wrap it in ads was leading to a market for lemons, where the top ranked piece of text might often be seen as relevant, but certainly wasn't useful.

This transition was driven by a watering down of online content through Gresham's theorem. Much like how the most fraudulent banks could afford to buy out less fraudulent ones, and how Chinese milk with melamine was cheaper than real milk sent real companies into bankruptcy, the search results were suffering from the age of scrape/mash/publish. Given the surrounding economic forces crushing newspapers, Google was making things worse than they needed to be.

Those who are creating original high-quality content have real business costs. Google paying scraper sites like Mahalo and Ask to borrow your content & wrap it in ads means that you are sometimes getting outranked for scraped duplications of your own content. That drives down publisher margins and pushes marginally profitable publishers into losing money, and eventually, bankruptcy.

Google news has been described as a sewage factory plagued with nefarious players & is now undergoing clean up as well.

What Are You the Official Source For?

Slowly but surely the search results will fill up with official hotel sites, official music sources, official video sources, official ebook sources, etc etc etc ... with Google putting a big foot on the gas & accepting whatever cut they can get. If they want to avoid regulatory scrutiny they need to work with the official sources (which are every bit as politically connected as Google is).

As that shift happens the longtail spam model will lose out on its profitability because it will be forced to compete with higher quality content that is automatically mixed into the search results. (The whole point of universal search was to allow Google to short cut certain types of information right into the core search results...as they start making money from micro-payments and such look for that trend to accelerate).

Ultimately what has doomed most portals was that they were willing to produce second rate holder stuff that filled out a vertical and was 'good enough.' What makes Google so powerful with the stealth backdoor portal approach is that it allows them to mix 3rd party content without forcing them to either absorb the cost or create low quality backfill stuff on their own. As they have success with 1 partner that creates the narrative which brings other folks to the negotiation table.

One area that is ripe for ad innovations is books:

I’m genuinely glad to have Google enter this market because it will be reaching potential customers at a unique point in their book-buying journey: at the point of web search, not at the point of searching the bookstore. This means many things you didn’t realize a book can help you with—overcoming depression, remodeling a bathroom, making friends and influencing people—will now be surfaced alongside all the YouTube and other results Google will offer. This is a net plus for books.

But the ultimate effect of Google e-books, if Google knows what’s good for it, will be the creation of an ad-supported publishing model.

Now that books are digital & Google has rights to sell them, I would expect in the next year or 2 that Google starts to display them in the organic search results more aggressively. The free samples can be monetized via ads & upsells of the whole book. That endless stream of editorially vetted content could put a dent in the content farm business model.

Google: Complexity is Good!

Dec 2nd

Google is growing *far* more complex.

Page x can rank based primarily on the criteria for page y from that same site. So if you analyze the data behind the page which is showing up in the search results, in some cases you will be looking at the wrong data sets!

Google has typically displayed page titles in the search results. However there are now numerous exceptions to that.

Google has aggressively pushed into regionalization and localization, but sometimes they miscategorize a website's target market or a user's location ... delivering irrelevant search results.

Sometimes Google pulls data from 3rd party data sources and lists that next to your listing. I mean, sure they have used DMOZ historically, but why exactly are they showing my site as having Russian text on it?

As Google grows in complexity, the number of bugs in their system multiply. Sometimes you don't rank because you screwed up. But sometimes you don't rank because Google screwed up. Typically Google sees minimal difference either way, as there will always be another website to fill up the search results. But as a business owner, when Google gets it wrong you can be screwed pretty bad, particularly if you stock physical inventory and have to tightly manage your supply chain & cash flow.

Recently Google created a news source attribution tag. If it works, it might be a good idea. But (even outside of spam) there are ways it can backfire.

Consider Google's webmaster verification tags. One of our customers had an outing with an old webmaster who in turn did a sneaky change of location inside of Google Webmaster Tools over the weekend. After seeing traffic fall off a cliff, we figured out what happened & registered the site in Google webmaster tools. There are instructions on how to remove the former registered user, however the option does not appear in my client's account.

The redirect will allegedly be in place for 180 days! The only way to get around it is to ask for a review by the Google engineering team.

In the past SEO was primarily about encouraging (and, perhaps, in some nefarious angles, coercing) Google into giving you a little more love. But now a big part of SEO is identifying & fixing Google bugs. And this is before you consider things like universal search, custom vertical result sets, search personalization, social layers, traffic shaping, changing crawling priorities, sites getting hacked, filters hit by aggressive SEO or competitive sabotage, more random filters, changing related words in search vocabularies, using search query chains, Google Instant shifting keyword demand profiles, search engines competing against SEOs by monetizing the organic search results, basic/straightforward SEO concerns, technical crawling & indexing related issues, improper server configurations, new additional signals being added to search - like sentiment analysis. etc.

A big part of brand building in terms of SEO is not only to help you build up passive organic links (and to be able to charge a premium for your product), but it is also something which helps establish a bit of a competitive moat from algorithmic errors & makes it harder for Google to accidentally dump you. Further, if you have brand & catch a Google bug there is little risk to asking for a review. But if you do not have brand then even asking for a review could be risky.

Anyone who tells you that 'SEO is easy' across the board is either ignorant or exceptionally ignorant.

What Google Buying Groupon Means For Search Marketing

Nov 30th
posted in

Is Google buying Groupon? For billions?

The rumor mill is going crazy. And it might be for 5 or 6 billion!

As a comparison, Yahoo! is worth about $21 billion, but that includes over $3 billion in cash AND equity investments in Yahoo! Japan + Alibaba that are likely worth close to $10 billion. In other words, Google might be offering to buy Groupon for 75% of the value of Yahoo! (excluding their cash on hands & foreign investments). $6 billion would be more than Google paid for DoubleClick and Youtube combined.

Groupon is a discount site that offers one major deal per day. Some are saying Groupon would be an unusual purchase for Google, as Groupon has no leading edge technology that Google is desperate to get their hands on. On the contrary, a Google employee could probably knock together a similar site in day or two.

Groupon offers something much more, however. Groupon offers something that has evaded Google, and every other search engine, for quite some time now.

Local.

Groupon has tentacles deep into local businesses advertising budgets, and on a massive scale. Groupon have a large sales force that hand-holds local businesses into online advertising, and reduces risk by offering win-win deals.

Contrast this with Google, who have found it difficult to get small businesses to spend up large on Adwords. The reality is that search marketing is just too cryptic and time consuming for a lot of small business operations.

Google has never really been able to do direct sales well at all," Ambrose said, citing Google's failed attempt to sell and market the Nexus One smartphone on its own site. And, he added, Google's revolutionary AdWords product is not intuitive for many of the small-town businesses that have caught the Groupon fever. "AdWords for a local business is really, really hard," Ambrose said and pointed out the number of AdWords "experts" and consultants offering their services to brick-and-mortar businesses

At the time of writing, nothing official has been announced, however.

Regardless if Google buys Groupon or not, Google's on-going march into non-traditional content arenas is unmistakable. There used to be a separation between search and state - heh - but there isn't anymore.

Google's recent moves should be a wake-up call to anyone involved in the following areas:

1. Coupons

If a company like Google combines coupon offers with local search data, they make local search a lot more enticing. Given Google Place-driven search results are already pushing other local results down the fold, expect to see the same thing happen in coupon searches, too, especially if the Groupon sale goes ahead.

Google also has a voucher program in beta.

2. Local Search

"A new kind of local search result that organizes the world’s information around places", says Google.

One could argue local directories already do this, although Google goes one better and orients around maps. Again, this pushes a lot of locality aimed SEO below the fold.

The hook into mobile applications is obvious, especially with Google owning Android.

3. Thin Affiliate

Google launches Boutiques.com and there's no Google logo to be seen anywhere! There's nothing "Google-y" about it.

There is a tiny link at the bottom of the About Us pages which states:

"Boutiques.com charges merchants to include products on this website in most cases"

Retailers sign up directly, and Google gets rid of various middlemen in the process. Fashion is a fairly innocuous place to start. It looks like a test run, but expect Google to roll out a lot more vertical "affiliate/paid inclusion" sites, especially if Boutiques.com does well. It is not hard to do well when your public relations blitz means you rank in a day. And you can sell yourself free ads!

Common Themes

There are a few common themes in evidence here.

Google is making it easier for the small LOCAL retailer to get into search marketing by providing more options. There is a much greater degree of hand holding evident, especially if you compare this approach with the alternative up until now, which is building a site and then promoting it with SEO or PPC.

(By comparison, small ONLINE retailers which are not local are being thrown under the bus by things like Google Product Ads which promote the largest retailers and are priced on a CPA basis to maximize yield. Most small businesses can't match Wal-Mart when it comes to leverage over the supply chain!)

I suspect Google have learned a thing or two from Facebook i.e. you've got to make it click-and-point easy. The network effects take care of everything else, and Google will largely control those. For the rest, there may be a great deal more hand-holding. Increasingly, vendors will want to be part of the Google platform.

Is it all doom and gloom for SEO?

No.

Google can't own everything. It may be able to provide scalable tools and platforms, but it can't become a publishing house that covers every topic and every industry. The long tail of search is, well.....long.

SEOs need to stay away from competing directly with Google. Instead, they need to provide value that Google can't provide easily, but will still need to display in order to be considered useful i.e. deep content, relationships, customer service, community, and unique-ness.

And let's not even get started on this or that.....

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