When the internal Google remote quality rater guidelines leaked online there was a core quote inside it that defined the essence of spam:
Final Notes on Spam
When trying to decide if a page is Spam, it is helpful to ask yourself this question: if I remove the scraped (copied) content, the ads, and the links to other pages, is there anything of value left? if the answer is no, the page is probably Spam.
With the above quote in mind please review the typical Mahalo page
Adding a bit more context, the following 25 minute video from 2008 starts off with Matt Cutts talking about how he penalized a website for using deceptive marketing. Later into the video (~ 21 minutes in) the topic of search results within search results and then Mahalo come up.
Here is a transcription of relevant bits...
Matt Cutts: Would a user be annoyed if they land on this page, right. Because if users get annoyed, if users complain, then that is when we start to take action.
And so it is definitely the case where we have seen search results where a search engine didn't robots.txt something out, or somebody takes a cookie cutter affiliate feed, they just warm it up and slap it out, there is no value add, there is no original content there and they say search results or some comparison shopping sites don't put a lot of work into making it a useful site. They don't add value.
Though we mainly wanted to get on record and say that hey we are willing to take these out, because we try to document everything as much as we can, because if we came and said oh removed some stuff but it wasn't in our guidelines to do that then that would be sub-optimal.
So there are 2 parts to Google's guidelines. There are technical guidelines and quality guidelines. The quality guidelines are things where if you put hidden text we'll consider that spam and we can remove your page. The technical guidelines are more like just suggestions.
So we said don't have search results in search results. And if we find those then we may end up pruning those out.
We just want to make sure that searchers get good search results and that they don't just say oh well I clicked on this and I am supposed to find the answer, and now I have to click somewhere else and I am lost, and I didn't find what I wanted. Now I am angry and I am going to complain to Google.
Danny Sulivan: "Mahalo is nothing but search results. I mean that is explicitly what he says he is doing. I will let you qualify it, but if you ask him what it is still to this day he will say its a search engine. And then all the SEOs go 'well if it is a search engine, shouldn't you be blocking all your search results from Google' and his response is 'yeah well IF we ever see them do anything then we might do it'."
Matt Cutts: It's kinda interesting because I think Jason...he is a smart guy. He's a savvy guy, and he threaded the needle where whenever he talked to some people he called it a search service or search engine, and whenever he talked to other people he would say oh it is more of a content play.
And in my opinion, I talked to him, and so I said what software do you use to power your search engine? And he said we use Twika or MediaWiki. You know, wiki software, not C++ not Perl not Python. And at that point it really does move more into a content play. And so it is closer to an About.com than to a Powerset or a Microsoft or Yahoo! Search.
And if you think about it he has even moved more recently to say 'you know, you need to have this much content on the page.' So I think various people have stated how skilled he is at baiting people, but I don't think anybody is going to make a strong claim that it is pure search or that even he seems to be moving away from ok we are nothing but a search engine and moving more toward we have got a lot of people who are paid editors to add a lot of value.
One quick thing to note about the above video was how the site mentioned off the start got penalized for lying for links, and yet Jason Calacanis apologized for getting a reporter fired after lying about having early access to the iPad. Further notice how Matt considered that the first person was lying and deserved to be penalized for it, whereas when he spoke of Jason he used the words savvy, smart, and the line threaded the needle. To the layperson, what is the difference between being a savvy person threading the needle and a habitual liar?
Further lets look at some other surrounding facts in 2010, shall we?
How does Jason stating "Mahalo sold $250k+ in Amazon product in 2009 without trying" square with Matt Cutts saying "somebody takes a cookie cutter affiliate feed, they just warm it up and slap it out, there is no value add, there is no original content there" ... Does the phrase without trying sound like value add to you? Doesn't to me.
Matt stated "and if you think about it he has even moved more recently to say 'you know, you need to have this much content on the page,'" but in reality, that was a response to when I highlighted how Mahalo was scraping content. Jason dismissed the incident as an "experimental" page that they would nofollow. Years later, of course, it turned out he was (once again) lying and still doing the same thing, only with far greater scale. Jason once again made Matt Cutts look bad for trusting him.
Matt stated "I don't think anybody is going to make a strong claim that it is pure search" ... and no, its not pure search. If anything it is IMPURE search, where they use 3rd party content *without permission* and put most of it below the fold, while the Google AdSense ads are displayed front and center.
If you want to opt out of Mahalo scraping your content you can't because he scrapes it from 3rd party sites and provides NO WAY for you to opt out of him displaying scraped content from your site as content on his page).
Jason offers an "embed this" option for their content, so you can embed their "content" on your site. But if you use that code the content is in an iframe so it doesn't harm them on the duplicate content front AND the code gives Jason multiple direct clean backlinks. Whereas when Jason automatically embeds millions of scraped listings of your content he puts it right in the page as content on his page AND slaps nofollow on the link. If you use his content he gets credit...when he uses your content you get a lump of coal. NICE!
And, if you were giving Jason the benefit of the doubt, and thought the above was accidental, check out how when he scrapes the content in that all external links have a nofollow added, but any internal link *does not*
Matt stated "[Jason is] moving more toward we have got a lot of people who are paid editors to add a lot of value" ... and, in reality, Jason used the recession as an excuse to can the in house editorial team and outsource that to freelancers (which are paid FAR LESS than the amounts he hypes publicly). Given that many of the pages that have original content on them only have 2 sentences surrounded by large swaths of scraped content, I am not sure there is an attempt to "add a lot of value." Do you find this page on Shake and Bake meth to be a high quality editorial page?
What is EVEN MORE OUTRAGEOUS when they claim to have some editorial control over the content is that not only do they wrap outbound links which they are scraping content from in nofollow, but they publish articles on topics like 13 YEAR OLD RAPE. Either they have no editorial, or some of the editorial is done by pedophiles.
Here Jason is creating a new auto-generated page about me! And if I want to opt out of being scraped I CAN'T. What other source automatically scrapes content, republishes it wrapped in ads and calls it fair use, and then does not allow you to opt out? What is worse in the below example, is that on that page Jason stole the meta description from my site and used it as his page's meta description (without my permission, and without a way for me to opt out of it).
So basically Matt...until you do something, Jason is going to keep spamming the crap out of Google. Each day you ignore him another entreprenuer will follow suit trying to build another company that scrapes off the backs of original content creators. Should Google be paying people to *borrow* 3rd party content without permission (and with no option of opting out)?
I think Jason has pressed his luck and made Matt look naive and stupid. Matt Cutts has got to be pissed. But unfortunately for Matt, Mahalo is too powerful for him to do anything about it. In that spirit, David Naylor recently linked to this page on Twitter.
What is the moral of the story for Jason Calacanas & other SEOs?
If you have venture capital and have media access and lie to the media for years it is fine. If you are branded as an SEO and you are caught lying once then no soup for you.
If you are going to steal third party content and use it as content on your site and try to claim it is fair use make sure you provide a way of opting out (doing otherwise is at best classless, but likely illegal as well).
If you have venture capital and are good at public relations then Google's quality guidelines simply do not apply to you. Follow Jason's lead as long as Google permits mass autogenerated spam wrapped in AdSense to rank well in their search results.
The Google Webmaster Guidelines are an arbitrary device used to oppress the small and weak, but do not apply to large Google ad partners.
Don't waste any of your time reporting search spam or link buying. The above FLAGRANT massive violation of Google's guidelines was reported on SearchEngineLand, and yet the issue continues without remedy - showing what a waste of time it is to highlight such issues to Google.
The Google Buzz team has had quite a week. Their new product quickly lived up to its name, though mostly for the wrong reasons, generating buzz about its own privacy issues. Calling the original Google Buzz privacy settings lax would be a gross understatement. It created a storm of complaints, best put in perspective by Harriet Jacobs in her F*ck You, Google piece.
In short, when you logged into your Gmail account Google simply took all of your frequent contacts and mashed them up into an active social network without much input from people they were connecting. If you exchanged a lot of emails with your editor and your under-cover sources from the same Gmail account, now they were connected through your public profile if you didn't happen to catch the Buzz opt-out checkbox. Or what about using the same Gmail account for emailing your husband and your boyfriend? Well now they're introduced - you're welcome.
Yes, sounds like a pretty naïve and reckless way to implement a major feature but Google protested that they just wanted to help and meant no evil. After all, their CEO Eric Schmidt had an interesting take on expectations for privacy online: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place". That was said nary two months before Google Buzz launched - I guess people like Harriet Jacobs and her abusive ex-husband just didn't listen.
Oops, Our Bad: Thanks For All the Users...
Since the launch, Google has done an amazingly quick about-face and pledged to do better. The latest set of changes make signing up for Buzz a tangibly more transparent experience, probably what it should have been at launch time. The press has mostly applauded their quick response and patted Google on the back for their responsiveness and keen focus on Gmail user experience.
Buzz already rivals Twitter for sheer network size
Those are some pretty impressive numbers for any online launch, but to achieve this in under three days is just unheard of. Actually, there are businesses that do generate this level of interests from their prospects in that short of a time-frame and Gmail deals with them on a daily basis: spammers.
The '9 Million-Post' Question
The question is did Google simply make a "mistake" and not consider these fairly serious privacy issues, or did the massive amount of spam Gmail churns through each day actually demonstrate effectiveness of a new business model?
The former is hard to believe when you consider the army of privacy lawyers Google has and their job to review privacy considerations in revenue-generating AdSense programs. This is especially critical in Gmail, where you are shown ads based on emails you exchange. Gmail achieves this by reading through all your email and matching you up with advertisers interested in addressing your daily struggles. After the initial outrage over this concept a few years ago most users have resigned to trust Google that they have their best interests in mind.
Your Trust, Google's Toilet Paper
Google Buzz violates this trust in a serious way. In light of Google's experience in this field, it is hard not to take Google's mea culpa with a huge dose of skepticism. After all, if Google had made Buzz an opt-in service - something that users had to enable rather than be tricked into joining - they would be just another social network trying to compete with Facebook and Twitter.
Leveraging millions of Gmail users was a shortcut simply too tempting to avoid. The fact that Google decided to revise Google Buzz activation process over the weekend is simply a red herring: they only needed a few days to convert some of the hundred million plus Gmail users into millions of Buzz users, and become the de-facto Twitter competitor over a single long weekend.
Google "fixing" this privacy snafu a few days later is equivalent to spammers adding an "Unsubscribe" link to an email that's already done its damage.
The strong impression from the last few days is that Gmail users were a pawn in a very cynical game: Google trying desperately to become a player in the social networking space, after the Orkut launch and their acquisition of a handful of other companies in this space failed to produce results.
We're Not Evil
This is a tough act to pull off when your motto is Don't Be Evil. It's been said that eventually Google's shareholders will push it to make product moves and decisions that end up hurting its brand in a quest for monetization. It will be interesting to see if Google comes out of this with their motto intact.
Ben Edelman: "Although I had asked that the Google Toolbar be "disable[d]," and although the Google Toolbar disappeared from view, my network monitor revealed that Google Toolbar continued to transmit my browsing to its toolbarqueries.google.com server"
[update: Matt Cutts contacted me and mentioned that this was due to the Vevo launch which occurred after that page was cached. Over time that means such pages like the one mentioned below should be purged from the Google search index.]
Google claims they try to be pretty fair with publishers and publishing business models. They are fine with indexing preview versions of a page and just showing a user that, you can make the full article free, you can make the first x clicks free.
OR you can put it all behind a paywall and not get any search exposure.
UNLESS you are Youtube.
In which case you can put whatever you want behind a subscribe wall, still have that registration-required/paywall content fully indexed in Google, and then force users to sign in to view the content.
On the cache copy of pages people still can view the pre-roll ads, but not the content :D
Search Google for "poker face", observe all the Youtube data in the search results, click the top Youtube listing, and watch them send you to a login page so they can better track you and target ads against you.
Many publishers that are having trouble figuring out search (from a business model perspective) would have no problem making a ton of money from search if they got the good ole home cooking treatment that Youtube currently enjoys (universal search promotion + cloaking forcing registration).
And this is where Google being rumored to acquire other content properties (like Yelp) becomes scary for users and publishers and advertisers alike.
To understand our position in more detail, it helps to start with the assertion that open systems win. This is counter-intuitive to the traditionally trained MBA who is taught to generate a sustainable competitive advantage by creating a closed system, making it popular, then milking it through the product life cycle. The conventional wisdom goes that companies should lock in customers to lock out competitors. There are different tactical approaches — razor companies make the razor cheap and the blades expensive, while the old IBM made the mainframes expensive and the software ... expensive too. Either way, a well-managed closed system can deliver plenty of profits. They can also deliver well-designed products in the short run — the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples — but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system. If you don't have to work that hard to keep your customers, you won't.
Open systems are just the opposite. They are competitive and far more dynamic. In an open system, a competitive advantage doesn't derive from locking in customers, but rather from understanding the fast-moving system better than anyone else and using that knowledge to generate better, more innovative products. The successful company in an open system is both a fast innovator and a thought leader; the brand value of thought leadership attracts customers and then fast innovation keeps them. This isn't easy — far from it — but fast companies have nothing to fear, and when they are successful they can generate great shareholder value.
Open systems have the potential to spawn industries. They harness the intellect of the general population and spur businesses to compete, innovate, and win based on the merits of their products and not just the brilliance of their business tactics. The race to map the human genome is one example.
But as soon as Google gets a market dominant position, you can bet on them locking it down to enhance ad revenues. The secret search relevancy algorithms, AdWords ad quality score, using AdWords rebates to push Google Checkout, always-on search personalization (even when logged out), mystery meat payout rates to AdSense publishing partners, universal search algorithms that allow them to arbitrarily promote their own websites, YouTube cloaking, etc etc etc
It looks like they jumped the gun on Yelp. Google was already integrating Yelp reviews in their AdWords ads before the acquisition was finalized.
What does it mean for the rest of us?
I am not sure.
It depends on if Google believes in what they say or what they do. They can't believe both.
But even amongst the traditional listings there are lots of variations in how they are displayed.
Here is a regular result
with a second indented result
sometimes the second indented result can show inline sitelinks
traditional single listing with 2 indented results under it (and then sometimes a non-indented 4th listing)
traditional single listing with 3 or 4 inline sitelinks
sometimes that has a second indented listing as well
traditional single listing with 8 sublinks below it (and this often has the second intented results below it too...though in such cases it is not indented)
traditional single listing with 4 links under it (often with dates near them) for forums & some blogs
And the above does not take into account handling of domains vs subdomains (or http vs https), using breadcrumbs in the search results, insertion of additional data (like a picture of a video or reviews from micro-format data), other helpful links (like a link to the businesses location on Google Maps), and all the types of vertical search data (videos, music, movies, local, news, real time, shopping/product results) being pulled into the regular search results. And then you can layer personalization and localization on top of the search results as well as yet another layer of change. And don't forget about any user based metrics or temporal metrics Google might be able to add with caffeine.
When you think of all the different ways data can be modified and displayed it makes information architecture a bit challenging, especially for new projects when you don't know where you will be at in a year, how much the market will change in that next year, and how many additional formats Google will create between now and then.
One of Google's leading marketing secrets is to appeal to power users. When describing how they designed Gmail, Google's Todd Jackson stated:
We started with the early-adopter crowd. That was on purpose. We wanted to build a product for people who were getting hundreds of e-mails a day, because we believe by focusing on the power user, you're designing the product the rest of the market will want in a couple years when everyone's usage habits catch up to the most active users. We pay most attention to seven-day active users (those who use Gmail at least once every seven days) and usage--the amount of actual engagement with the product. Something that Larry and Sergey (Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's co-founders) are always, always telling us is to focus on usage rather than users. That's what matters more. You get better feedback and you are properly kept more on the leading edge if you're focusing on the people who are using the product all the time, using the product all day, than just the casual users.
This is why marketing to developers and designers is so important...they use the web more, and the stamp they leave on it is much deeper than the average user. But they also tend to be sensitive to marketing messaging, especially when it becomes a bit hypocritical.
Eric Schmidt On YOUR Privacy With Google
Recently in an interview Eric Schmidt made the awesome statement "Judgment is important ... If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
"Everyone knows that every site you visit and all address bar searches in Chrome go to Google, right?" - Christopher Blizzard
Why did Google create an operating system? So they can spy on you. Why does Google care about speed so much that they created a DNS service? It was a convenient excuse to use...so they can spy on you. Why is Google launching their own cell phone? So they can spy on you.
Mozilla makes most of its money from their search syndication partnership with Google, and yet Mozilla's Asa Dotzler wrote about how to switch your search provider to Bing. Explaining why he favors Bing, he wrote:
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
The following comment also reveals how this sort of tracking + philosophy on privacy can go astray
Why does Eric Schmidt dismiss your privacy?
Exploiting User Flaws for Maximum Profit Potential
Even better, the device knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read. ...
Some of these stories are part of a monthly subscription package. Some, where the free preview sucks me in, cost a few pennies billed to my account. Others are available at no charge, paid for by advertising. But these ads are not static pitches for products I'd never use. Like the news I am reading, the ads are tailored just for me. Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.
In a world where democracy is getting more participatory, it's very important that people are informed over a neutral medium so they can connect to whoever they want. Another issue that is very important is snooping. I don't want any snooping on my Internet traffic.
You can do things to ensure that my Internet runs smoothly, but when I am doing something which is perhaps very intimate: when someone looks up something to see if they have cancer, or a teenager wonders if they are homosexual or not and wants to go online to find answers, this should be private. So systems that monitor every click and build a profile of me are very damaging.
The things we do on the Internet are so intimate that they are much more valuable to others and damaging to me than having a permanent TV camera in my living room. I don't want my health premiums to go up if I look up health information; I don't want to be a suspected terrorist if I do research on chemicals, I don't want to get leaflets from gay rights groups if I look up something on sexuality.
At least we know why Eric Schmidt says "Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting" and why he thinks you don't need to worry about it.
But maybe Mr. Schmidt is right. Lets look at how Google operates...
With Nearly Unlimited Privacy & Secrecy
What happens when Google gets search personalization or search suggestion wrong and your spouse wants to divorce you because of a Google error? Judgment is important, after all. Well Google wouldn't make such errors, they are perfect. Or are they?
Google's Data Privacy Strategy is a Leaky Boat
Google wants you to trust them enough to store your data with them in the cloud. Eric Schmidt said that the cloud was their most important focus in 2010. Well what happens when your internal data is exposed publicly due to a Google bug? Couldn't happen? Well guess again and again.
Is Eric Schmidt suggesting that businesses simply shouldn't consider using Google Apps because Google has a track record of not caring about user privacy & being sloppy with private data? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
Google Promotes Lambasting Content
A few weeks back while watching CNBC I remember seeing reporters mention that if you want customer service from airlines that you should complain on Twitter. Google has since integrated such messages directly in their search results. So now any bad customer experience (or envious competitor) becomes part of your brand. And you can't make money while making everyone happy. As the web gets more competitive the markets will only get nastier, where more people try to cash in on established brands.
In fact, running AdWords ads asking if (or exclaiming that ) product or service x is a scam is one of the most popular AdWords affiliate strategies. Google doesn't let brand advertisers opt out of such messaging on their brands, and if you don't buy your brand they will be glad to sell that ad slot to someone else.
How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
Google Uses Limited Ad Disclosure
Google has frequently talked up the importance of publishers disclosing ads. And yet in some cases Google removed the "Ads by Google" notification with a little "I" button that you have to scroll over to see that it is an ad.
INT [interviewer]: “Why do the results on top have a yellow background, did you notice?”
TP [tester]: “I didn’t notice this.”
INT: “What does it mean?”
TP: “It definitely means they’re the most relevant.”
Google did not use this feedback to beef up their clearly confusing disclosure...they stuck with what was working well for them.
How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
Google Funds Manual Information Pollution
I was looking through some of the suggested article titles for some of the garbitrage websites, and came across gems like "Miley Cyrus Did What? Celebs who Make Bad Decisions and How to Teach our Kids Right"
Could that title be any more leading? And Google is funding that sort of garbage - right now.
How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
Google Funds Automated Information Pollution
And there are sites with automated content generation built around arbitraging brands. A few months ago I saw the following automated crap ranking for some of our branded keywords...trying to arbitrage our brand & associate it with foreclosure scams
And that was not a 1 off article...Google is paying to have 10,000's of such gems created, and is indexing them with glee
What does it say about the Google brand that their ads support this automated generation of trash? What message does that send to online consumers and business owners? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
Google's Enjoyment of Privacy (aka Black Box Pricing)
Are you a Google cell phone partner who built a phone on Google's Android OS? If so, did they tell you that they were going to thank you for the cross marketing by creating a competing product? I doubt it.
Are you a Google partner who syndicates their ads? Want to know what percent of the click price you are earning? Screw you, you can't. Go eat crow.
And in the markets where Google is dominant they not only pass arbitrary judgment without care, concern, or explanation...but they also use their market position to exert monopoly pricing powers. They frequently state that the market sets the prices on the ads, but for one of our sites we did some brand ads on informational searches where there are no competing sites buying AdWords ads.
Our ad is so relevant that even the broad matched version of the ad is pulling in a 12%+ clickthrough rate (with phrase match more than doubling that clickthrough rate). Searchers love our ad and website. But if we bid less than a nickel Google won't even display the ad (in spite of the high relevancy and complete lack of competition in the marketplace).
And yet you often hear Google talk about the power of democratic marketplaces. Something they clearly don't believe in. What message does that send to business owners? How should we judge Google based on their current business practices? Judgment is important.
What is YOUR Judgment on Google?
Anytime you see Google do something stupid make sure you blog about how stupid Google is, and compare their errors to what sort of results are available on Microsoft Bing. Feel free to leave your examples in the comments AND blog them. I'll share one of my favorite examples from today, showing me New York hotels near San Francisco :D
I still use a lot of Google products and write the above knowing that they have been pretty good to me, but seeing nonsensical garbage absolutist statements from the top of their company scares me.
Google announced product listing ads today, a cost-per-action ad program that shows images in the search results:
Product Listing Ads is part of our effort to simplify the advertising process for merchants with large product inventories. Some of the key features of Product Listing Ads include:
Pay only for results: Product Listing Ads are charged on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis, which means that you only pay when a user clicks on your ad and completes a purchase on your site. Because Product Listing Ads is charged on a CPA basis, it offers a risk-free way for you to reach a larger audience on Google.com.
List your entire inventory: Product Listing Ads requires no keywords or additional ad text. Whenever a user enters a search query relevant to an item in your Google Merchant Center account, Google will automatically show the most relevant products along with the associated image, price and product name. Product Listing Ads makes it easy for you to promote your entire product inventory on Google.com.
At this time, Product Listing Ads is still a beta feature and is only available to a limited number of retail advertisers. Over time, we'll increase the number of users who see Product Listing Ads as well as the number of advertisers able to participate.
Along with this launch, Google is also pushing product search harder in the organic search results. If you look back at our last post, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that those product listing ads and product search could eventually blend (to some degree) and appear as part of the AdWords ads above the organic search results.
Given that only launched today, the current impact on the search results of the new product ads is quite noticeable.
The big problem with this vertical data is that it is not as fuzzy as general search is...so none of the above products are the popular video game. But in time Google will collect lots of click data and use it to help determine if they should broaden or narrow the exposure for a particular product, product class, or vendor. And if they are collecting conversion data on the back end it makes it that much easier to measure customer satisfaction - just look at what adds the most money to Google's bank account.
In a recent interview Marissa Mayer stated that universal search results appear on about 25% of search results pages, and they would like to keep increasing that number:
When we launched [universal search], it was showing in about one in 25 queries. Today, it shows in about 25 percent of queries. And we think there are probably times when those auxiliary [file] formats could actually help, and we aren't triggering them on our results page. That's something we need to continue to strive to do.
As Google collects that data they can expand this stuff at will. It becomes a simple game of math. And even while charging CPA Google will still be able to increase yields because there will always be some new funded project, ambitious brand manager, or CEO looking to increase stock volatility to drive up share price to where "the company" wants to buy customers without profit to increase marketshare. Some non-sense metrics beyond lifetime customer value will be used to justify the expenses, because it is so easy to do nothing and let Google do all the work - even though that strategy yields no long-term competitive advantage.
Matt Cutts said that Google will wait on caffeine (though pieces of it might already be implemented), but I seriously doubt that any short-term changes to the search results under caffeine would present anywhere near as big of a concern to webmasters as Google becoming (roughly the equivalent of) an affiliate in ecommerce, local, and lead generation - while using their search results to aggressively push into market leadership roles in those new markets.
Question: Who cares where they rank algorithmically if the algorithmic #1 result is below the fold?
And yet for certain search types that is the world we are increasingly living in.
I am not sure how sloppy and aggressive searchers (and competitors) will let Google get with pushing verticals...but I am betting that the limit is probably even worse than the above. And remember that it can get far more aggressive while not appearing so to the end user. As Google collects data they will make the vertical insertions more relevant. And each time searchers see search results with more banner-like junk in them, they are being conditioned to expect more of it in the future.
Google realizes that if they want to keep increasing profits from search they have to drive down the organic search results with either
more ad units in different formats
other filler (like Youtube)
Increasingly these types of shifts in the search results will drive affiliate SEOs (or at least the ones that care about product quality and customer satisfaction and long-term profit margins) to create their own products & services rather than marketing someone else's. If you own the product you have the fattest margins and can partner directly with Google for distribution, rather than fighting for scraps of scraps as the organic search results keep disappearing.
The upside for searchers (and publishers) is that as Google aggressively pushes to become a back-door algorithmically driven portal it leaves a market opening for Blekko and other search players which would be happy to make just a few billion here or there...the same hole AltaVista and Yahoo! left for Google. :D
In the past many SEOs have called organic search results the results on the left side of the page and the pay-per-click / AdWords results as the results on the right side of the page. As Google has grown more aggressive with promoting vertical/universal search I think a better way of defining the portions of the search result page are ABOVE THE FOLD and BELOW THE FOLD.
As recently as yesterday Google stripped the phone numbers off of non-sponsored map listings, even if you were doing a navigational search! And that shows that the primary goal of the maps is as filler content (rather than utility).
Update: it looks like Google claimed the phone number removal was a bug, but weird timing that the bug appeared at the same time they started selling premium local ads that appear on the regular search results.
So lets redefine these search result pieces as they are...
AdWords Ads: the ads at the top of the search results and those which run down the right rail of the search results.
Universal Search Results: filler stuff to put in the search results to a.) drive the organic search results lower down the page, while b.) driving additional incremental click volume to other Google properties which display ads.
Organic Search Results: the results on the search result page that are determined algorithmically and appear below the fold. On some larger monitors a listing or 2 from this category may appear above the fold, at least for the time being.
In the future A LOT of verticals (movies, music, books, news, ecommerce, travel, etc.) are going to look more and more like local, where Google in some cases has at least 15 ads above the fold AND filler pushing down the organic search results...quietly building a backdoor portal that sends Google the second click if they were not able to monetize the first one.
To me this screams the importance of working the tail of search, because the more obscure a search query is the greater the risk to Google if they pollute it with junk from vertical search databases.
As Google gets stingier with their traffic that will increase the importance of relationship development and lead capture, as well as developing distribution channels outside of Google.
This new search result layout also highlights the importance of being #1 for your most important keywords...if only 1 result is going to show above the fold then there is little point being #2. So that will really help/force you to decide which words are practical to target and which words are not. If you have some valuable #3 or #4 listings you better start marketing them today before they end up below the fold tomorrow.
The last important thing this search result signals is the importance of increasing conversion rates and lifetime customer value...if/when search becomes pay-to-play in your market, will you still be able to compete? If not, what can be done to help bridge that gap?
For [Annual Credit Report] the government has stepped in and said what is right for the consumer. But the Google AdWords team has different ideas. "Increasing user choice" means the official site at best ranks #4.
Search competition is important, because without it, consumers lose out on choice. You can see the absurdity of Google's position when they claimed sitelinks on AdWords ads increase user choice. Giving the most dominant players in any market more share of voice only aims to consolidate the marketplace further. If they wanted to increase user choice they would show more result diversity on the page and/or more search results on the page, not just show you more from a big spending market leader.
When you think about Google moving into lead generation and becoming an affiliate play you can see they have massive upside potential. Why? They are the default way most people search the web. So even if someone is searching on a brand and making a navigational search, Google still gets a bite on the apple and shows up as the source of conversion. Don't pay Google their tithing? Too bad, they will sell your brand to leading competitors.
And they are aiming to extend out with this strategy. Not only did the Google Chrome browser replace the address bar with a search box, but Google has been pulling back on data they put in some search results to drive a second click onto other Google properties.
Here is my favorite local Indian restaurant on Google
Up until this past week that listing had a phone number on it. Now it doesn't. I am required to make 1 more click so Google can show their large local search marketplace and their dominance over local/maps search.
In the short run Google makes it easy to embed themselves in your business. Analytics and testing are free. They provide services at a loss to gather data and destroy marketplace competition - exerting their monopoly power without being called a monopoly. Cell phone providers get the Android operating system for less than free. Ecommerce players get a new commerce site search option. Content players get an enhanced Friend Connect. In the short run they make life easier and margins thicker. But after competition is removed from the marketplace look for Google to claw back on partners - just like they did to LendingTree, domainers, and anyone with a brand or a local business listing.
As Google has looked to increase revenues and move beyond being "just a search engine" they have put themselves at the top of the food chain in multiple categories. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc. ;)
If you search for books their book search is the result in natural search and when you search for movies they push their iGoogle application in paid search. Every holiday season Google tries to make further inroads in ecommerce by doing things like offering free Checkout services (at launch of Google Checkout), integrating Google Checkout with AdWords ads (and claiming this increases ad CTR by ~ 10%), and promoting Google Base / Google Product Search more aggressively in their navigation and organic search results. Some early Google Checkout users also got free links.
As Google dives into music services a new one-box with links to selected partners will appear at the top of the search results. And as Google makes tie-ins with more software providers you can look for Google to promote Google pack and other such offerings across the spectrum of search results.
But lets look at a recent search result for the eBay brand. Google knows that eBay.com gets a 90%+++ CTR, that the keyword is a trademark, that the keyword is navigational, etc etc etc. And in spite of eBay even bidding on their own brand, this is perhaps the first time Google takes a valuable partner hostage.
If Google claims that they need to show brands on generic search queries to increase user satisfaction then why do they pollute the associated brand search results with irrelevant nonsense? Navigational searches are the easiest ones in the world to get right, and if a site has historically got a 90%+++ click-through rate for a keyword, why would it ever make sense to risk putting a universal search result or a marginally relevant ad above the obvious #1 result?
If people are looking specifically for news when entering a branded 1 word trademarked keyword then surely they would skip past the #1 result for the official site. Sure there is money in promoting apps for eBay, but it seems so counter to Google's messaging when justifying their algorithmic editorial philosophy elsewhere.