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.....

Ask And Thou Shalt Receive

Nov 26th

If Google is smarter than humans, we must accept that it should be able to help us answer the difficult questions about life that are vital toward making humans reach their full potential, such that we may help computers become smarter, so that we may reach the singularity.

Sure some folks who took some funding are trying hard to build real communities around niches, but they are doing it all wrong.

The folks who are doing it right seem to have the answer to everything. Millions and millions of answers. The modern day Matthew Lesko of the search world.

 Aks from ebaumsworld + Matthew Lesko image from Popefauvexxiii  on Wikipedia + Google search result showing indexed Ask 'answer' pages.

Ask has long played the search arbitrage game, but they are stepping up their game.

Every authoritative site should have an answers subdomain.

Every site is an opportunity for more answers.

Why shut a site down, when you can just throw up some scraped & autogenerated pages and wrap them in a Google ad feed that pays out over 80%?

Even if you have redirected a site as a defunct relic for a decade, once you have your auto-generated content in place you can simply throw the domain in the hopper and generate a few million pages.

Why did Ask fold their search engine & focus on Q & A? They claim the following:

"The development of search as a technology has become commoditized. To continue to invest our own resources to do web search doesn't make sense because that development is expensive and doesn't give you a differentiated product," Ask President Doug Leeds said by telephone.

My contention is that their is no value spending the engineering resources to fight auto-generated spam if Google is paying you to create it. At some point one stack of money becomes much larger than the other.

Then again, speaking of differentiation, I wonder if Doug Leeds would care to comment on if answers content "has been commoditized" at all by them skirting around the intent of fair use laws (much like Youtube did to video content). Are they offering a "differentiated" service by turning tons of their sites into giant answer farms?

Ultimately this is much like Mahalo, but on a grand scale. At least they are not pointing expired redirects into their site (like eHow did) but if this trend continues look for thin answer sites wrapped in AdSense to become the equivalent of the auto-generated affiliate feed powered website of years gone by. The model is infinitely more scalable than content mills since the companies doing it don't actually have content costs: throw a keyword list in the hopper, send your scrapers out to "add value" & watch the money come in. Wherever something is working simply throw more related keywords in the hopper.

The lack of cost to the model means you can build thousands of pages around misspellings and yet still have it be profitable...the cost of creating each page is under a cent.

Who funds the creation of all this garbage? Google, via their AdSense program. It's a bit of Southern Hospitality from Google, if you will.

Own a forum website or answers website & are sick of seeing Ask outrank you by leveraging their domain authority + "fair use" of your content? Here is how to block their bot in robots.txt:

User-agent: Teoma
Disallow: /

Google has the ability to warp markets as they see fit, be it ad exchanges, tax policy, copyright, trademark, or hard coding the search results for self-promotion. While reading Gmail a couple minutes ago I saw the following ad, which I think prettymuch sums up Google's approach to search: monetize everything!

With great power comes great responsibility, however working on the Google spam team must feel a bit like the movie Brazil when watching this stuff unfold.

Remember how all kinds of affiliates were given the boot by Google for not "adding value"? How are lander pages like this one adding any value? 10 of 10 above the fold links are monetized. And it looks like their sites are using content spinning too!

The promise of the web was that it could directly connect supply and demand to make markets more efficient, and yet leading search engines are paying to create a layer of (g)arbitrage that lowers the utility and value of the network for everyone else, while pushing even more publishers into bankruptcy as the leeches grow in size & number.

My guess is that unless this short term opportunism changes, some of the star search engineers will leave in disgust within 12 to 18 months. Mark 2012 on your calendars, it will be a good year for clean search plays like Blekko and DuckDuckGo. ;)

SEOs Should Focus On Where Google Is Heading

Nov 17th
posted in

Interesting little snippet from Mr Cutts:

"Matt recommends SEOs do not “chase the algorithm” and instead try to predict where Google will be going in the future". Matt was addressing PubCon.

Good advice, methinks.

Trying to predict where Google is going is something we do a lot of at SEOBook.com. Whilst no one has a crystal ball, it's good practice to keep one eye on the search horizon.

So, where do we think Google might be heading?

Google Will Continue To Dominate Search

Easy one, huh.

Their biggest competitors appear clueless when it comes to search. Bing may make some inroads. Maybe. It's hard to imagine anyone eating Google's lunch when it comes to search, for many years to come.

Is Facebook a threat? I doubt it. Search is difficult, and I can see no reason why Facebook - which has a media focus - could own the search channel any more than Yahoo could.

Search is, after all, an infrastructure problem. Google's infrastructure would be very difficult to replicate.

Google Won't Be Doing All That Much About Blackhat Sites

A search result set only really contains spam if the Google users think it contains spam i.e. they don't see the answer they were expecting.

The fact a website may fall outside Google's guidelines might get competing webmasters' knickers in a knot, but it probably doesn't matter that much to Google, or anyone else.

Even though Matt Cutts says Google will devote more resources to this, I suspect Google's efforts will largely remain focused on outright deception i.e. misrepresentation, hijacking and malware.

The Web Reflects Power Structures

We can forget the San Fran techno-hippy ethos of the web. It will not be a free-for-all democracy, if it ever was. History shows us that power tries to centralize control in order to maintain it.

Google may try to keep users on Google for longer. They do this by owning more and more verticals, and extracting data and reformatting it. When they send visitors away from Google, they'll try to do so more and more on their own terms. Watch very carefully what type of sites Google rewards, as opposed to what they may say they reward.

Expect less competition in the market as a result. Some people are already getting angry about it.

Be Where Your Users Are

Google follows users. So does Facebook. Anywhere your users are, you've got to be there, too. On Google Maps. On YouTube. Wherever and whenever. Think beyond your website. Think in terms of getting your data out there.

As Rich Skrenta pointed out in a recent interview:

Social media can drive tons of attention, awareness and traffic. But the search box is the best way to navigate to stuff you want. Now what will drive those results - if I type in "pizza", what should I get? The answer can be very different depending on whether the results are coming from the web, Yelp, or Facebook. So I guess my answer is that I still see search being the core way to navigate, but I think what gets searched is going to get a lot more structured and move away from simple keyword matches against unstructured web pages

A Shift To Localization

Microsoft Research found that people tend to organize their memories in geographic terms i.e. where they were when something happened.

If you want to know where Google is heading, then watch Marissa Mayer. Marissa has been responsible for much of what you see in Google in terms of how it is organized. Marissa has just moved to head of Geographic and Location Services.

Google Earth. Google Maps. Google Local. Google Street View. Mobile location data and targeting. Expect more data to be organized around locality.

Everything Changes, But Not That Fast

Aaron talked about TechCrunch's tendancy to over-hype new developments:

"...but this changes everything..."

SEO hasn't changed all that much in years. We still find an audience (keyword research), we publish content, we build links to the content, and then we repeat it all over again.

The changes come around the edges, especially for big companies like Google. There is a lot of risk to Google in making radical changes. Shareholders don't like it. Why risk breaking something that makes so much money, and is so popular?

The biggest changes in the way we do things on the web are probably going to come from the upstarts. They're probably hard at work in their garage right now.

Google - Now With More Google in Your Google TM

Nov 16th

Ben Edelman did it again :)

This time he highlighted how Google hard codes their search results:

[When] we roll[ed] out Google Finance, we did put the Google link first. It seems only fair right, we do all the work for the search page and all these other things, so we do put it first... That has actually been our policy, since then, because of Finance. So for Google Maps again, it's the first link. - Marissa Mayer

If they gain certain privileges in the marketplace by claiming to not abuse their power and that their algorithmic results are neutral, but those algorithmic results may be pushed below the fold, then is it "only fair" for them to put themselves in a default market leading position in any category they feel they can make money from by selling ads in? Or is that an abuse of power?

As Google adds features, collects more data, puts ads everywhere, and pushes into being a publisher on more fronts, at some point there will be a straw that breaks the camel's back. Big money is paying attention and the list of "evidence" grows weekly. Sometimes they still think like a start up. And that will lead to their demise.

It might not be anytime soon, but eventually they will hit a whammy.

A Warning Shot or an Accident? Does it Matter?

Nov 12th

On the 22nd of October Google had an indexing issue and a separate algorithmic change. Some of the sites associated with the indexing glitch quickly came back, whereas others seemed like they were hosed for weeks and headed toward the path of perpetual obscurity.

To give a visual of how dire this situation was for some webmasters, consider the following graphic.

The blue line is Google search traffic and the gray is total unique visitors. And since search visitors tend to monetize better than most other website visitors, the actual impact on revenues was greater than the impact on visitors. And, if you figure that sites have fixed costs (hosting, maintenance, new content creation, data licensing, marketing, etc.) then the impact on profits is even more extreme than the impact on revenues.

Hence in the search game you can go from hero to zero fast!

Search is one of the highest leverage business functions around today.

But it is also volatile. And it is a winner take most market.

When stuff heads south like that, what do you do? Do you consider it game over and try to lower costs further?

My approach to such events is to take it as a warning shot. To take it as a challenge. In the above example the traffic came back...

...but algorithms sometimes get rolled in using phases. Sometimes stuff that gets tripped up and later restored is being set up for a second fall when they refine their relevancy algorithms again. Sites that get caught in snags are sites which are fairly weak. So if you take any set back as motivation to create something better and work hard then you at least know that if you failed you tried and it just didn't work. Most likely, if you try hard, you will be able to make the site much better and not only reach your old traffic levels, but exceed them.

Even though the traffic came back for the above site, it has been getting a lot more effort. And it will continue to for months and months. The fear of loss is a great motivator to push people to create something better. Sometimes I think Google should mix up the results a bit more often just to drive people to create better stuff. :)

Google Ranking Internal Pages Rather Than Home Pages

Nov 3rd

When you get to *really* competitive keywords the results typically tend to be fairly stable because the cost of entry into the game is so high & many of the top players keep building additional signals of quality. You might get minor fluctuations from time to time, but large fluctuations on highly competitive keywords are fairly rare.

Over the last day or 2 Google has done yet another algorithm change (the 3rd or 4th noticeable one in 2 weeks), where on some searches they are ranking an internal page over the homepage. It is almost as if the best mental model for the algorithm that is doing this is...

  • find the top SITES that deserve to rank well & rank them based on that criteria
  • however, rather than ranking THOSE PAGES, instead do internal site searches & back in other relevancy factors to look for other popular & relevant pages on those sites
  • test to see how well searchers respond to them

Here is a pretty overt example, where Google changed 2 of the listings for "SEO" to internal pages.

I have seen other examples, some where Google also highlighted a new information-less blog post with only a couple automated backlinks pointing at it. I don't want to "out" that site though, but this is the type of image Google was showing beneath that entry

Google could conceivably use this sort of process to further adjust the search results based on demographics, searcher location, recent searches, searcher interests, and so on. Add in the ability to send searchers down a known path optimized for profitability, the ability to select vertical databases on the fly and change the titles on the fly and it allows whoever has the most search market share to keep refining the results to make them more appealing to users at an ever increasing level of granularity & greater profitability.

I have no problems keeping up with the increasing complexity of search, but Google is setting up some serious barriers to entry for new players. It is hard to explain in a straightforward manner that page A might be ranking due to relevancy signals pointing into page B, but these are the SERPs through which we make a living. And it is only going to keep growing more complex. ;)

Depending on how far Google pushes with this, it can have major implications in terms of rank tracking, SEO strategy, site architecture & conversion optimization. More on that stuff in the community forums.

Google Replacing Page Titles in Search Results With On-Page Headings

Nov 1st

When Bing launched, one of the interesting things they did to make the organic search results appear more relevant was to use link anchor text to augment page titles (where relevant). This would mean if people searched for a phrase that was mostly in your title (but maybe your page title was missing a word or 2 from the search) then Bing might insert those words into the page title area of your listing if they were in some of the link anchor text pointing into your page.

Before being switched over to Bing, Yahoo! would sometimes display the H1 heading as the clickable link to your site (rather than the page title). Bing also uses on page headings to augment page titles.

Historically if Google has thought it would appear more relevant to searchers, sometimes they have shown a relevant machine generated piece of your page displaying those keywords in context rather than the meta description in the snippet, but typically Google has been far more conservative with the page titles. Sometimes Google would list the ODP title for the title of a page, most until recently they have generally typically just listed the page title as the clickable link to your site.

Recently Google has grown more experimental on this front, being willing to use link anchor text and on-page headings as part of the listing. In addition, if the page title is short, Google may add the site's name at the end of the title.

Here is an example in Google of the page title being replaced by part of an on-page heading & also showing the site's name being added to the end of the link

And here is the associated on-page heading for the above

I have also seen a few examples of the link anchor text being added to the page title in Google, however it was on a client project & the client would prefer that I didn't share his new site on an SEO blog with 10's of thousands of readers. :D

Last November Matt Cutts recently did a video on the topic of Google editing the page titles for relevancy & how it was a fairly new thing for Google. Even back then Google was quite conservative in editing the clickable link ... I think they have only grown more aggressive on that front in the past month or so.

Localization, Unique Data Sets & the Future of Search

Oct 30th

Local is Huge

Google's US ad revenue is roughly 15 billion & the size of the US Yellow Pages market is roughly 14 billion. Most of that money is still in print, but that shift is only accelerating with Google's push into local.

Further, cell phones are location aware, can incorporate location into search suggest, and on the last quarterly conference call Google's Jonathan Rosenberg highlighted that mobile ads were already a billion Dollar market for Google.

Google has been working on localization for years, and as a top priority. When asked "Anything you’ve focused on more recently than freshness?" Amit Singal stated:

Localization. We were not local enough in multiple countries, especially in countries where there are multiple languages or in countries whose language is the same as the majority country.

So in Austria, where they speak German, they were getting many more German results because the German Web is bigger, the German linkage is bigger. Or in the U.K., they were getting American results, or in India or New Zealand. So we built a team around it and we have made great strides in localization. And we have had a lot of success internationally.

The Big Shift

I have been saving some notes on the push toward local for a while now, and with Google's launch of the new localized search results it is about time to do an overview. First here is Google's official announcement, and some great reviews from many top blogs.

Some of the localized results not only appear for things like Chicago pizza but also for single word searches in some cases, like pizza or flowers.

Promoting local businesses via the new formats has many strategic business benefits for Google

  • assuming they track user interactions, then eventually the relevancy is better for the end users
  • allows local businesses to begin to see more value from search, so they are more likely to invest into a search strategy
  • creates a direct relationship with business owners which can later be leveraged (in the past Google has marketed AdWords coupons to Google Analytics users)
  • if a nationwide brand can't dominate everywhere just because they are the brand, it means that they will have to pony up on the AdWords front if they want to keep 100% exposure
  • if Google manages to put more diversity into the local results then they can put more weight on domain authority on the global results (for instance, they have: looked at query chains, recommended brands in the search results, shown many results from the lead brand on a branded search query, listed the official site for searches for a brand + a location where that brand has no office, etc.)
  • it puts eye candy in the right rail that can make searchers more inclined to look over there
  • it makes SEO more complex & expensive
  • it allows Google to begin monetizing the organic results (rather than hiding them)
  • it puts in place an infrastructure which can be used in other markets outside of local

Data Data Data

Off the start it is hard to know what to make of this unless one draws historical parallels. At first one might be inclined to say the yellow page directories are screwed, but the transition could be a bit more subtle. The important thing to remember is that now that the results are in place, Google can test and collect data.

More data sources is typically better than better algorithms, and Google has highlighted that one of their richest sources of data is through tracking searcher behavior on their own websites.

Pardon Me, While I Steal Your Lunch

There are 2 strong ways to build a competitive advantage on the data front:

  • make your data better
  • starve competing business models to make them worse

Off the start yellow page sites might get a fair shake, but ultimately the direction they are headed in is being increasingly squeezed. In a mobile connected world with Google owning 97% search marketshare, while offering localized search auto-complete, ads that map to physical locations, and creating a mobile coupon offers network, the yellow page companies are a man without a country. Or perhaps a country without a plot of land. ;)

They are so desperate that they are cross licensing amongst leading competitors. But that just turns their data into more of a commodity.

Last December I cringed when I read David Swanson, the CEO of R.H. Donnelley, state: "People relate to us as a product company -- the yellow-pages -- but we don't get paid by people who use the yellow-pages, we get paid by small businesses for helping them create ad messages, build websites, and show up in search engine results. ... Most of the time today, you are not even realizing that you are interacting with us."

After seeing their high level of churn & reading the above comment, at that point I felt someone should have sent him the memo about the fate of thin affiliates on AdWords. Not to worry, truth would come out in time. ;)

Making things worse, not only is local heavily integrated into core search, with search suggest being localized, but Google is also dialing for Dollars offering flat rate map ads (with a free trial) and is testing fully automated flat rate local automated AdWords ads again.

Basic Economics

How does a business maximize yield? Externalize costs & internalize profits. Pretty straightforward. To do this effectively, Google wants to cut out as many middle men out of the game as possible. This means Google might decide to feed off your data while driving no traffic to your business, but rather driving you into bankruptcy.

Ultimately, what is being commoditized? Labor. More specifically:

  • the affiliate who took the risk to connect keywords and products
  • the labor that went into collecting & verifying local data
  • the labor that went into creating the editorial content on the web graph and the links which search engines rely on as their backbone.
  • the labor that went into manually creating local AdWords accounts, tracking their results, & optimizing them (which Google tracks & uses as the basis for their automated campaigns)
  • the labor that went into structuring content with the likes of micro-formats
  • the labor that went into policing and formatting user reviews
  • many other pieces of labor that the above labor ties into

Of course Google squirms out of any complaints by highlighting the seedy ends of the market and/or by highlighting how they only use such data "in aggregate" ... but if you are the one losing your job & having your labor used against you, "the aggregate" still blows as an excuse.

But if Google drives a business they are relying on into bankruptcy, won't that make their own search results worse?

Nope.

For 2 big reasons:

  • you are only judged on your *relative* performance against existing competitors
  • after Google drives some other players out of the marketplace and/or makes their data sets less complete, the end result is Google having the direct relationships with the advertisers and the most complete data set

The reason many Google changes come with limited monetization off the start is so that people won't question their motives.

Basically I think they look at it this way: "We don't care if we kill off a signal of relevancy because we will always be able to create more. If we poison the well for everyone else while giving ourselves a unique competitive advantage it is a double win. It is just like the murky gray area book deal which makes start up innovation prohibitively expensive while locking in a lasting competitive advantage for Google."

You would never hear Google state that sort of stuff publicly, but when you look at their private internal slides you see those sorts of thoughts are part of their strategy.

What is Spam?

The real Google guidelines should read something like this:

Fundamentally, the way to think about Google's perception of spam is that if Google can offer a similar quality service without much cost & without much effort then your site is spam.

Google doesn't come right out and say that (for anti-trust reasons), but they have mentioned the problem of search results in search results. And their remote rater documents did state this:

After typing a query, the search engine user sees a result page. You can think of the results on the result page as a list. Sometimes, the best results for "queries that ask for a list" are the best individual examples from that list. The page of search results itself is a nice list for the user.

...But This is Only Local...

After reading the above some SEOs might have a sigh of relief thinking "well at least this is only local."

To me that mindset is folly though.

Think back to the unveiling of Universal search. At first it was a limited beta test with some news sites, then Google bought Youtube, and then the search landscape changed...everyone wanted videos and all the other stuff all the time. :D

Anyone who thinks this rich content SERP which promotes Google is only about local is going to be sorely disappointed as it moves to:

  • travel search (Google doesn't need to sell airline tickets so long as they can show you who is cheapest & then book you on a high margin hotel)
  • any form of paid media (ebooks, music, magazines, newspapers, videos, anything taking micro-payments)
  • real estate
  • large lead generation markets (like insurance, mortgage, credit cards, .edu)
  • ecommerce search
  • perhaps eventually even markets like live ticketing for events

Google does query classification and can shape search traffic in ways that most people do not understand. If enough publishers provide the same sorts of data and use the same types of tags, they are creating new sets of navigation for Google to offer end users.

No need to navigate through a publisher's website until *after* you have passed the click toll booth.

Try #3 at Reviews

Google SearchWiki failed in large part because it confused users. Google launched SideWiki about a year ago, but my guess is it isn't fairing much better. When SideWiki launched Danny Sullivan wrote:

Sidewiki feels like another swing at something Google seems to desperately desires — a community of experts offering high quality comments. Google says that’s something that its cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more than a system for ranking web pages. They really wanted a system to annotate pages across the web.

The only way they are going to get that critical mass is by putting that stuff right in the search results. It starts with local (& scrape + mash in other areas like ecommerce), but you know what they want & they are nothing if not determined to get what they want! ;)

Long Term Implications

Scrape / mash / redirect may be within the legal limits of fair use, but it falls short in spirit. At some point publishers who recognize what is going on will align with better partners. We are already seeing an angry reaction to Google from within the travel vertical and from companies in the TV market.

Ultimately it is webmasters, web designers & web developers who market and promote search engines. If at some point it becomes consensus that Google is capturing more value than they create, or that perhaps Google search results have too much miscellaneous junk in them, they could push a lot more searchers over to search services which are more minimalistic + publisher friendly. Blekko launches Monday, and their approach to search is much like Google's early approach was. :)

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