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?
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."
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.
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
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.
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".
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
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.
Would that be Google moving from pushing bits & people to pushing physical products?
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.
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.
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 wanttoavoidregulatoryscrutiny 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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!
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.
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?
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.....
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.
"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:
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. ;)
"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.
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.
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.
[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?
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.
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. :)