Sorry I haven't blogged as much lately, but one of our employees recently had a child and Google sending out so many warning messages in webmaster central has created a ton of demand for independent SEO advice. Our growth in demand last month was higher than any month outside of the time a few years ago when we announced we would be raising prices and got so many new subscribers that I had to close down the ability to sign up for about 3 or 4 months because there were so many new customers.
Google has been firing on all cylinders this year. They did have a few snafus in the press, but those didn't have any noticeable impact on user perception or behavior & Google recently rolled out yet another billion Dollar business in their consumer surveys.
Google is doing an excellent job of adding friction to SEO & managing its perception to make it appear less stable, less trustworthy and to discourage investment in SEO. They send out warnings for unnatural links, warnings for traffic drops, and even warnings for traffic increases.
Any SEO company which has clients sign up for their own Webmaster Tools account now has to deal with explaining why things change, when many of the changes that happen are more driven by algorthmic shifts (adding local results to the SERPs or taking them away, other forms of localization, changing of ad placement on the SERP, etc.) than by the work of the SEO. This in turn adds costs to managing SEO projects while also making them seem less stable (even outside of those who were use paid link networks). Think through the sequence...
Google first sends a warning for traffic going up, and the SEO tells the client that this is because they did such a great job with SEO.
Then Google sends a warning for traffic dropping & the client worries that something is wrong.
The net impact on actual traffic or conversions could be a 0, but the warnings amplify the perception of changes.
Any SEO who doesn't use Webmaster Tools loses search referral data. It first started with logged in Google users, but apparently it is also headed to Firefox. Who's to say Google Chrome & Safari won't follow Firefox at some point?
Google has changed & obfuscated so many things that it is very hard to isolate cause and effect. They have made changes to how much data you get, changes to their analytics interface & how they report unique visitors, changes to how tightly they filter certain link behaviors, they have rolled in frequent Panda updates, and they have nailed a number of the paid link networks.
Google, since they grant themselves more editorial leeway. If everyone is a scofflaw then they can hit just about anyone they want. And the organic search results are going to be far easier to police if many market participants are held back by a fear tax.
Larger businesses which are harder to justify hitting & which can buy out smaller businesses at lower multiples based on the perception of fear.
Sites which were outranked by people using the obvious paid links, which now rank a bit better after some of those paid link buyers were removed from the search results.
some of the paid link networks & those who used them for years
under-priced SEO service providers who were only able to make the model work by scaling up on risk
smaller businesses who are not particularly spammy, but are so paralyzed by fear that they won't put in enough effort & investment to compete in the marketplace
One of the reasons I haven't advocated using the paid link networks is I was afraid of putting the associated keywords into a hopper of automated competition that I would then have to compete against year after year. Even if you usually win, over the course of years you can still lose a lot of money by promoting the creation of disposable, automated & scalable competing sites. If you don't mind projects getting hit & starting over the ROI on such efforts might work out, but after so many years in the industry the idea of starting over again and again as sites get hit is less appealing.
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
If that doesn't change then negative SEO will become a bigger issue than paid links ever were.
What is hard about Google penalizing websites for such links is that it is cheap & easy for someone else to set you up. Shortly after Dan Thies mentioned that it was "about time" to Matt Cutts on Twitter someone started throwing some of the splog links at his site. It is safe to say that Dan didn't build those links, but there are many people who will be in the same situation as Dan who did nothing wrong but had a competitor set them up.
And there is no easy way to disconnect your site from those types of links.
If you go back a few years, it was quite easy to win at SEO by doing it in a "paint by number" fashion. One rarely got hit unless they were exceptionally excessive and stuck out like a sore thumb.
But after all of Google's recent moves, a few missed steps in a drunken stupor can have the same result.
the page disclaims that it is not endorsed by Google
the page embeds a Google search box
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory search box
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory PPC ads (on the categories which have them)
the page strips out the Yahoo! Directory logo
Recall that when Google ran their bogus sting operation on Bing, Google engineers suggest that Bing was below board for using user clickstreams to potentially influence their search results. That level of outrage & the smear PR campaign look ridiculous when compared against Google's behavior toward the Yahoo! Directory, which is orders of magnitude worse:
Bing vs Google
Google vs Yahoo! Directory
Uses user-experience across a wide range of search engines to potentially impact a limited number of search queries in a minor way.
Shags expensive hand-created editorial content wholesale & hosts it on Google.com.
Bing hosts Bing search results using Bing snippets.
Google hosts Yahoo! Directory results using Yahoo! Directory listing content & keeps all the user data.
Bing publicly claimed for years to be using a user-driven search signal based on query streams.
Google removes the Yahoo! Directory logo to format the page. Does Google remove the Google logo from Google.com when formatting for mobile? Nope.
Bing sells their own ads & is not scraping Google content wholesale.
Google scrapes Yahoo! Directory content wholesale & strips out the sidebar CPC ads.
Bing puts their own search box on their own website.
Google puts their own search box on the content of the Yahoo! Directory.
Google claimed that Bing was using "their data" when tracking end user behavior.
Google hosts the Yahoo! Directory page, allowing themselves to fully track user behavior, while robbing Yahoo! of the opportunity to even see their own data with how users interact with their own listings.
In the above case the publisher absorbs 100% of the editorial cost & Google absorbs nearly 100% of the benefit (while disclaiming they do not endorse the page they host, wrap in their own search ad, and track user behavior on).
As we move into a search market where the search engines give you a slightly larger listing for marking up your pages with rich snippets, you will see a short term 10% or 20% lift in traffic followed by a 50% or more decline when Google enters your market with "instant answers."
The ads remain up top & the organic resultss get pushed down. It isn't scraping if they get 10 or 20 competitors to do it & then use the aggregate data to launch a competing service ... talk to the bankrupt Yellow Pages companies & ask them how Google has helped to build their businesses.
Update: looks like this has been around for a while...though when I spoke to numerous friends nobody had ever seen it before. The only reason I came across it was seeing a referrer through a new page type from Google & not knowing what the heck it was. Clearly this search option doesn't get much traffic because Google even removes their own ads from their own search results. I am glad to know this isn't something that is widespread, though still surprised it exists at all given that it effectively removes monetization from the publisher & takes the content wholesale and re-publishes it across domain names.
Since it took me a few hours to put together my SMX presentation I figured it was worth sharing that information on the blog as well. This post will discuss examples of how Google has dialed up their brand bias over time & points to where Google may be headed in the future.
Note that I don't have anything against them promoting brands, I just think it is dishonest to claim they are not.
Against All Odds
When analyzing Google's big-brand bias the question is not "do some small sites manage to succeed against all odds" but…
What are the trends?
What are the biases?
Eric Schmidt once stated that "Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired."
We have a fear of the unknown. Thus that which we have already experienced is seen as less risky than something new & different. This is a big part of why & how cumulative advantage works - it lowers perceived risk.
A significant portion of brand-related searches are driven by offline advertising. When a story becomes popular in the news people look online to learn more. The same sort of impact can be seen with ads - from infomercials to Superbowl ads. Geico alone spends nearly a billion Dollars per year on advertising, & Warren Buffet mentioned that 3/4 of their quotes come from the internet.
Some of the most profitable business models are built off of questionable means.
Many big brands are owned by conglomerates with many horses in the race. When one gets caught doing something illegal they close it down or sell off the assets & move to promote their parallel projects more aggressively.
If things aligned with brands become relevancy signals then to some degree those measure longevity & size of a company (and their ad budget) rather than the quality of their offering.
Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.
Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.
Since Panda Overstock has moved into offering ebooks & insurance quotes while companies like Barnes & Noble run affiliate listings for rugs.
As an example of the above trend gone astray, my wonderful wife recently purchased me a new computer. I was trying to figure out how to move over some user databases (like our Rank Checker & Advanced Web Ranking) and in the search results were pages like this one:
The problems with the above are:
actual legitimate reviews get pushed down by such filler
the business model behind doing such actual reviews gets eroded by the automated syndicated reviews
outside of branding & navigation the content is fully syndicated
that particular page is referencing the 2005 version of the software, so the listed price is wrong & the feature set has changed a lot in the last 7 years
Such scrape-n-mash content strategies by large brands are not uncommon. Sites like Answers.com can quickly add a coupons section, sites like FindTheBest can create 10s of millions of automated cross-referencing pages that load a massive keyword net of related keywords below the fold, news sites can create auto-generated subdomains of scraped content, etc.
Eric Schmidt highlighted FindTheBest publicly as an example of a successful vertical search play. That site was launched by an ex-Googler, but if I did the same thing you can be certain that the only way Google would highlight it publicly would be as a "type of spam."
The issue with broadly measuring user experience is that I am still going to visit Yahoo! Sports repeatedly even if my experience on Yahoo! Downloads is pretty crappy. A site which is a market leader in one niche can take those signals to launch a "me too" service in other parallel markets & quickly dominate the market.
Potential Brand Signals
When attempting to debunk the concept of "brand bias" some people claim that it would be ridiculous for Google to have a list of brands that get an across-the-board boost. Of course that debunking is debunking a straw man that was never stated publicly (outside of the irrelevant debunking).
However, some of Google's old rater documents *did* have certain sites whitelisted & Google's Scott Huffman once wrote the following:
At a [search] quality level, we have something similar. On a continuous basis in every one of our data centers, a large set of queries are being run in the background, and we’re looking at the results, looking up our evaluations of them and making sure that all of our quality metrics are within tolerance.
These are queries that we have used as ongoing tests, sort of a sample of queries that we have scored results for; our evaluators have given scores to them. So we’re constantly running these across dozens of locales. Both broad query sets and navigational query sets, like “San Francisco bike shop” to the more mundane, like: Here’s every U.S. state and they have a home page and we better get that home page in the top results, and if we don’t … then literally somebody’s pager goes off.
(Outside of some fraternal Google properties) the algorithm isn't hardcoded to rank sites x & y at #1, but if some sites don't rank for certain queries it does cause an alert to be sent out.
Google has a wide host of quality-based metrics they could look at and analyze when determining if something gets a brand boost, gets ignored, or gets hit by an algorithm like Panda.
If you search for "fishing gear" and then click their Bass Shop refinement link in the search results, you are thus directly creating that search funnels relevancy "signal." Even if you don't click on that link the exposure to the term may make you remember it and search for it later.
When some small bloggers were selling paid links to K-Mart as part of a "sponsored conversations" outreach, Matt Cutts equated the practice to selling bogus solutions to brain cancer & stated: "Those blogs are not trusted in Google's algorithms any more."
Google also started sending webmasters automated messages for bad links pointing at their sites:
Dear site owner or webmaster of domain.com, We've detected that some of your site's pages may be using techniques that are outside Google's Webmaster Guidelines.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results.
So if you run a big site & they automatically detect paid links they generally just ignore those links and leave your site alone. If you are a small site & they automatically detect paid links they may decide to automatically penalize your site.
Same offense, entirely different outcome.
Is cloaking evil?
Once again, it depends on who is doing it.
I have a Vistaprint Visa card (so I could get a credit card with our dog's picture on it) and one of the pages that was ranking for Vistaprint Visa was the Singapore Groupon website.
The page forces a pop up and you can't do anything on that page (view the content, scroll around the site, etc.) other than filling in the lead generation form or logging into an existing account. I would never try that because I know I would get smoked for it. ;)
After the first iteration of the Google Panda update Google allowed users to vote to block websites. Experts Exchange was hated among some programmers in part because they used scroll cloaking. That in turn got their site hit by the second Panda update.
Smaller webmasters who ran network of sites in some cases got hit with "doorway page" penalties for owning networks of sites registered in Google Webmaster Tools, even if each site was a full fledged ecommerce website.
Is content farming evil?
Once again, it depends on who is doing it (and where it is hosted).
Another thing that is interesting about the content farms and the alleged need for the Panda algorithm was that in spite of flagrant editorial violations by both eHow and Mahalo, Google didn't smoke them until it could be done "algorithmically."
On the flip side of the above, in some cases Google has chose to keep smaller webmasters penalized because content that was at one point on their site months in the past!
A couple weeks after that aggressive promotional integration Amit Singal stated: "The overall takeaway that I have in my mind is that people are judging a product and an overall direction that we have in the first two weeks of a launch, where we are producing a product for the long term."
The problem with build preferential rankings first & increase quality later is that is the exact opposite of what Google is asking publishers to do with algorithms like Panda. Worse yet, Google not only does this integration when you are logged in, but also shows it on obscure longtail advanced queries when you are not logged in.
In Google's remote rater documents they suggested that hotel affiliate sites be marked as spam, even if they are helpful.
On Google's reconsideration request form they also stated: "In general, sites that directly profit from traffic (e.g. search engine optimizers, affiliate programs, etc.) may need to provide more evidence of good faith before a site will be reconsidered."
The broken piggy bank in the above cycle highlights the break that exists in the process to building a big brand. It is quite hard to have any level of certainty in the search ecosystem with an algorithm like Panda. Without that level of certainty companies must build from low cost structures, but that very constraint makes them more likely to get hit by an algorithm or search engineer.
Being an entrepreneur is all about taking smart calculated bets & managing risk. However as search engines become closed off portals that compete with (& exclude) publishers, there are so many unknowns that estimating risk is exceptionally challenging.
CustomMade is a Google-funded start up launched by an SEO who purchased an old website & created a vertical directory out of it (just like TeachStreet was trying to do, but in a different vertical). Googler's helped with the project & the article highlighting that shared this quote: "Having Google as an investor gives you a branding piece that you can't ignore." - Christopher Ahlberg.
Penalties: How Hard Were They Hit?
Years ago when BMW or Wordpress.org got caught spamming aggressively they were back in good graces in a mater of days.
About the only times well known (non-affiliate) sites have been penalized for a significant duration was when JC Penney & Overstock.com were hit. But that happened around the time of the Panda fiasco & Google had incentive to show who was boss. When the flower sites were outed for massive link buying that was ignored because Google had already rolled out Panda & reasserted the perception of their brand.
In 2009 Google banned over 30,000 affiliates from the AdWords auction. In some cases the problem was not with a current ad (or even a landing page the advertiser controlled), but rather ads that ran years ago promoting 3rd party products. In some cases Google changed their AdWords TOS after the fact in an ex post facto style. Google won't allow some of these advertisers to advertise unless they fix the landing page, but if they don't control the landing page they can't ever fix the problem. Making things worse, to this day Google still suggests affiliates do direct linking. But if the company they promote gets bought out by someone too aggressive then that affiliate could be waiting for a lifetime ban through no fault of their own.
In Australia a small travel site had a similar issue with AdSense. The only way they were able to get a reconsideration was to lodge a formal complaint with regulators. If that is how Google treats their business partners, it colors how they view non-business partners who monetize traffic without giving Google a taste of the revenues.
Why Does Google Lean Into Brand?
Minimize legal risks: if they hit small businesses almost nobody will see/notice/care, but big businesses are flush with cash and political connections. When Google hits big businesses they create organizations & movements like Fair Search & Search Neutrality.
Minimize duplication: some small businesses & affiliates simply repeat offers that exist on larger merchant sites. That said, many big businesses buy out a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th site in a vertical to have multiple placements in the search results.
Better user experience: the theory is that the larger sites have more data and capital to improve user experience, but they don't always do it.
Business partnerships: if Google wants to strike up closed door business partnerships with big business then some of those negotiations will have specific terms attached to them. It costs Google nothing to give away part of the organic results as part of some custom deals. If Google wants to sell TV ads & run a media streaming device they need to play well with brands.
CPA-based product ads: on some searches Google provides CPA-based product ads above the search results. It makes sense for Google to promote those who are buying their ads to get the best relationships possible.
Fewer people tasting the revenues: the fewer organizations an ecosystem needs to support the more of the profits from that ecosystem that can be kept by the manager.
More complete ad cycle: if Google caters to direct response advertisers they get to monetize the demand fulfillment of demand, however that is only a small slice of the complete ad cycle. If Google caters to brands they get to monetize (directly or indirectly) every piece of the ad cycle. For example, buying display ads helps build brand searches which helps create brand signals. In such a way, improved rankings in the organic results subsidize ad buying.
Brands buying their equity: Google has create exceptionally large ad units & has convinced many brands to buy their own pre-existing brand equity.
Lack of Diversity
The big issue with brand bias is that a lot of the same *types* of companies rank with roughly similar consumer experiences. If there is a mix of large and small businesses that rank then many of those small businesses will be able to differentiate their offering by adding services to their products, doing in-depth reviews, and so on.
Sure Zappos is a big company known for customer service, but how different is the consumer-facing experience if I click on Target.com or Walmart.com? Sure the text on the page may be slightly different, but is there any real difference beyond aesthetic? Further, a lot of the business models built around strong in-depth editorial reviews & comparisons are eroded by the current algorithms. If the consumer reviews are not good enough, then tough luck!
Do Brands Always Provide a Better User Experience?
For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. "If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we've sent you or visit our Web site, we'll record it and link it to your Guest ID," Pole said. "We want to know everything we can."
Many big media companies provided watered down versions of their content online because they don't want to cannibalize their offline channels. Likewise some large stores may consider their website an afterthought. When I wanted to order my wife a specific shoe directly from the brand they didn't have customer support open for extended hours during the holidays and their shopping cart kept kicking an error. Since they *are* the brand, that brand strength allows them to get away with other issues that need fixed.
Some of those same sites carry huge AdSense ad blocks on the category pages & have funky technical issues which act like doorway pages & force users who are using any browser to go through their homepage if they land on a deep page.
Missing the Target indeed.
That above "screw you" redirect error has been going on literally for weeks now, with Target's webmaster asleep at the wheel. Perhaps they want you to navigate their site by internal search so they can track every character you type.
Riding The Waves
With SEO many aggressive techniques work for a period of time & then suddenly stop working. Every so often there are major changes like the Florida update & the Panda update, but in between these there are other smaller algorithmic updates that aim to fill in the holes until a big change comes about.
No matter what Google promotes, they will always have some gaps & relevancy issues. Some businesses that "ignore the algorithms and focus on the user" are likely to run on thinner margins than those who understand where they algorithms are headed. Those thin margins can quickly turn negative if either Google enters your niche or top competitors keep reinvesting in growth to buy more marketshare.
Given the above pattern - where trends spread until they get hit hard - those who quickly figure out where the algorithms are going & where there are opportunities have plenty of time to monetize their efforts. Whereas if you have to wait until things are widely spread on SEO blogs as common "tricks of the trade" or wait until a Google engineer explicitly confirms something then you are likely only going to be adopting techniques and strategies after most of the profit potential is sucked out of them, just before the goal posts move yet again.
People who cloned some of the most profitable eHow articles years ago had plenty of time to profit before the content farm business model got hit. Those who waited until Demand Media spelled their business model out in a Wired article had about 1.5 years until the hammer. Those who waited until the content farm controversy started creating a public relations issue to clone the model may have only had a couple months of enhanced revenues before their site got hit & was worse off than before they chased the algorithm late in the game.
Ride The Brand
If Google does over-represent established branded websites in their algorithms then in many cases it will be far easier to rank a Facebook notes page or a YouTube video than to try to rank a new site from scratch. There are a ton of web 2.0 sites driven by user generated content.
In addition to those sorts of sites, also consider participating in industry websites in your niche & buying presell pages on sites that rank especially well.
Collecting (& Abusing) User Data
Google has been repeatedly branded as being a bit creepy for their interest in user tracking.
Collecting that data & using it for ad targeting can have profound personal implications (think of serving a girl with anorexia ads about losing weight everywhere she goes online, simply because she clicks the ad, in such a case Google reinforces a warped worldview). Then when the person needs counseling Google can recommend a service provider there as well. ;)
Throughout the history of the web there will be many cycles between open and closed ecosystems. Currently we are cycling toward closed silos (Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook). As these silos become more closed off they will end up leaving gaps that create new opportunities.
While on one front Google keeps making it easier for brands to compete against non-brands, Google also keeps clawing back a bigger slice of that branded traffic through larger AdWords ad units & integration of listings from services like Google+, which can in some cases outrank the actual brand.
Google has multiple platforms (Android Marketplace, Chrome Marketplace, Enterprise Marketplace) competing against iTunes. Google recently decided to merge some of their offerings into Google Play. In addition to games, music & books, Play will soon include audiobooks, magazines & other content formats.
Having a brand & following will still be important for allowing premium rates, fatter margins, building non-search distribution (which can be used to influence the "relevancy" signals), and to help overturn manual editorial interventions. But algorithmically brand emphasis will peak in the next year or two as Google comes to appreciate that they have excessively consolidated some markets and made it too hard for themselves to break into those markets. (Recall how Google came up with their QDF algorithm only *after* Google Finance wasn't able to rank). At that point in time Google will push their own verticals more aggressively & launch some aggressive public relations campaigns about helping small businesses succeed online.
Once Google is the merchant of record, almost everyone is just an affiliate, especially in digital marketplaces with digital delivery.
For the top tier broad social networks framing the idea of integrating promotion of their networks directly in the search results is a natural & desirable conclusion, but is that just a convenient answer to the wrong question?
If Facebook is already getting something like 20% of US pageviews & users are still looking for information elsewhere, doesn't that indicate that they probably desire something else? Absolutely Facebook should rank for Facebook navigational queries, but given all their notes spam, I don't like seeing them in the search results much more than seeing a site like eHow.
At any point Google can promote one of their new verticals in a prominent location in the search results & if they are anywhere near as good as the market leader eventually they can beat them out of nothing more than the combination of superior search placement, monopoly search marketshare, account bundling & user laziness. What's more, they can make paid products free and/or partner with competitors 2 through x in an attempt to destroy the business model of anyone they couldn't acquire (talk to Groupon).
"The overall takeaway that I have in my mind is that people are judging a product and an overall direction that we have in the first two weeks of a launch, where we are producing a product for the long term." If the product wasn't ready for prime time you were not required to mix it directly into the organic search results right off the bat. It could have been placed at the bottom of the search results, like the "Ask on Google" links were. Bing has been working on social search for 18 months & describes their moves as "being very conservative."
"The user feedback we have been getting has been almost the other side of the reaction we’ve seen in the blogosphere." Of course publishers who see their content getting scraped & see the scraped copy outranking the original have a financial incentive to care about a free & automated scraper site displacing their work. They don't get those pageviews, they don't get that referrer data, and they don't get those ad impressions. Google's PR team is anything but impressed when another company dares do that to Google.
"The users who have seen this in the wild are liking it, and our initial data analysis is showing the same." Much like the Google Webmaster Tools shows that pages with a +1 in the search results get a higher CTR, this Google+ social stuff also suffers from the same type of sampling bias & giving the listings a larger and more graphical stand out further help them pull in much more clicks. Any form of visual highlighting & listing differentiation can lift CTR. I might be likely to click on some of my own results more, but when I do so you might just be grabbing a slice of navigational searches I was going to do anyway where I was looking for something else I posted on Google+ or my Google+ account or the account of a friend & so on. Further, aggregate data hides many data points that are counter to the general trend. I have seen instances of branded searches where the #1 organic site was getting a CTR above 70% (it even had organic sitelinks, further indicating it was a navigational search) and for such a search in some cases there were 2 Adwords ads above the organic results & then the Google+ page for a brand outranked the associated brand in the SERPs for those who followed it! That is a terrible user experience, particularly since the + page hasn't even had any activity for months.
"Every time a real user is getting those results, they really are delighted. Given how personal this product is, you can only judge it based on personal experiences or by aggregate numbers you can observe through click-through." First, publishers are not fake users. Secondly, as mentioned above, there is a sampling bias & the + listings stand out with larger & more graphical listings. If they didn't get a higher CTR that would mean they were *really* irrelevant.
"out of the gate, whereas we had limited users to train this system with, I’m actually very happy with the outcome of the personal results." They could have been placed at the bottom of the search results or off to the side or some such until there was greater confidence in the training set.
"People are coming to a conclusion about the product today, within the first two weeks, and they’re not fully seeing the potential where we can build this product around real identities and real relationships." If a publisher promotes a site to the top of the search results & then says something like 'we will improve quality later' they are branded as spammers. In the past Google has justified penalizing a site based on its old content that no longer exists on the site. Investing in depth, quality & volume is a cycle. If others get prohibited from evolving through the cycles due to algorithms like Panda then it becomes quite hard to compete as a new start up when Google can just insert whatever it wants right near the top & then work on quality after the fact.
"We don’t think of this as a promotional unit now. This is a place that you would find people with real identities who would be interesting for your queries." If this is the case then why does it only promote Google+?
"We’re very open to incorporating information from other services, but that needs to be done on terms that wouldn’t change in a short period of time and make our products vanish." The problem is, if a company builds a reputation as a secretive one that clones the work of its partners & customers then people don't want to do open-ended transparent relationships. Naive folks might need to see the blood and tears 3 or 4 times to pick up on the trend, but even the slowest of the slow notice it after a dozen such moves.
"I’m just very wary of building a product where the terms can be changed." Considering Google's lack of transparency & self-promotional bias on the social networking front, would you be fully transparent and open with Google? If so, then aren't the search algorithms complex enough that it would make sense to make those transparent as well? How can you ask other social networks to increase transparency at the same time Google is locking down their search data on claims of protecting user privacy?
"It’s not just about content. It’s about identity, and when you start talking about these things and what it takes to build this, the data needed is much more than we can publicly crawl." This is where being trustworthy is so crucial. Past interactions with Yelp, TripAdvisor & Groupon likely make future potential partners more risk adverse & cautious. Outrageous "accidents" like those that happened with Mocality & Open Street Map from playing fast and loose further erode credibility. And even when Google hosts the media & has full access to user data they still rank inferior stuff sometimes (like the recent Santorum YouTube cartoon fiasco), even on widely searched core/head keywords.
The big issue is that if people feel the game is rigged they won't have much incentive to share on Google+. I largely only share stuff that is irrelevant to tangentially relevant to our business interests & won't share stuff that is directly relevant, because I don't want to be forced to compete against an inferior version of my own work when the deck is stacked so the inferior version wins simply because it is hosted on Google.
As we move into the information age a lot of physical stores are shutting down. Borders went bust last year. Sears announced the closure of many stores. And many of the people shopping in the physical stores that remain are using cell phones for price comparisons. Given Google's mobile OS share this is another area where they can build trust or burn it. A friend today mentioned how their online prices on Google Product search almost always show a lower price near the header than the lowest price available in the list - sometimes by a substantial margin.
Identity vs Anonymous Contractors
In the past we have mentioned that transparency is often a self-serving & hypocritical policy by those atop power systems who want to limit the power of those whom they aim to control.
When Google was caught promoting illegal drug ads there was no individual who took the blame for it. When the Mocality scraping & the Open Street Map vandalism issues happened, all that we were told was that Google "was mortified" and it was "a contractor." If people who did hit jobs could just place all the blame on "the contractor" then the world would be a pretty crappy place!
Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies -- whoever they happen to be at the time.
Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.
If you’re signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries – or tailor your search results – based on the interests you’ve expressed in Google+, Gmail, and YouTube. We’ll better understand which version of Pink or Jaguar you’re searching for and get you those results faster.
Is social media a cleaner signal than links? If search engines put the same weight on social media that they put on links it would get spammed to bits. It won't be long until a firm like Ad.ly offers sponsored Google+ posts.
When Ad.ly introduced self-destructing Charlie Sheen to Twitter, he was paid about $50,000 per tweet. It was worth it. Sheen’s tweet for Internships.com generated 95,333 clicks in the first hour and 450,000 clicks in 48 hours, created a worldwide trending topic out of #tigerbloodintern, attracted 82,148 internship applications from 181 countries, and added 1 million additional visits to Internships.com.
Search engines might consider these to be clean signals if those same search engines were not busy buying the manipulation of said "relevancy" signals.
Attention is purchased to create demand. It isn't comfortable to put it this way, but we are trained to obey authority & to like what others like:
The average Facebook user has 130 friends, which equates with four degrees of separation to thousands of people, Mr. Fischer said. Metrics like that led him to believe that if Facebook could figure out a way to capitalize on "social endorsements," it would be like creating a word-of-mouth campaign that could reach millions of people simultaneously. Since the campaigns would come from a friend, they would theoretically be taken more seriously than, say, a TV commercial, he said.
There recently was a question raised about how Google's rating systems skewed high on the underlying data. Surely Overstock (the same Overstock Google penalized earlier this year) wouldn't promote Google's trusted stores aggressively on their own site if it made their business appear worse than it actually is, thus a positive bias must be baked in to the system.
Does all the above sound circular, conflicting, corrupt & confusing? It should, because that is how power works & comes off as seeming semi-legitimate when acting in illigitimate ways. The perception of reality is warped to create profitable opportunties that are monetized on the way up and the way down.
I recently read a blog post about how anyone could do the above & the opportunity is open to everyone. But the truth is, I can't state that something will become a relevancy signal that manipulates the search results in order to get buy in. Or, if I did something which actually had the same net effect, Google would likely chop my legs off for promoting a link scheme.
The startup had been on a roll up until last February when Google altered its ranking algorithm with the release of “Panda.” The changes decimated TeachStreet’s traffic, and the company never quite recovered.
“We lost a lot of our traffic, and overnight we started talking to partners for biz dev, not for acquisition,” he said. However, many of the potential partners wanted to know about an outright acquisition.
The biggest worry, though, is that the decline of About.com itself may be irreversible. Fewer people are clicking on About ads placed by Google and the site’s own display ads have dropped in value.
The company has attributed this decline in value to Google’s decision last year to downgrade About pages in its search results. With more than 80% of traffic coming from search, the Google denigration was indeed a blow but About’s problems may be rooted in something deeper.
Keep in mind that the reason these websites were hit was that they were claimed to be thin & thus a poor user experience. When the NYT bought About.com one of the top competing bidders was Google!
Now that the "thin content" has been demoted in the search results Google can integrate deep content silos from Google+, like this one:
That is an 8-word Google+ post about how short another blog post is. I like Todd & do like to read his writings, but here Google is clearly favoring the same sort of content they would have torched if it was done on an independent webmaster's website.
How Google has raters view other websites that redirect traffic is based upon those sites having a substantial value add. Clearly in the above example there was nothing added to the interaction beyond sharing a bookmark with a punchy tagline.
If Google wants to use the + notation to pull up that other referenced page then perhaps that can make sense, but to list an 8-word Google+ page in the search results nearly a year after the Panda algorithm is outrageous. This sort of casual mention integration in the search results occurs on expensive keywords as well. Not only do they list your own Google+ posts...
...but they also list them from anyone you follow...
*Since I thought the above was obnoxious, I renamed our Google+ company page to S_E_O Book to help Google fix their relevancy problems.
Can anyone explain how Google's speed bias is aligned with putting plus junk right at the top, even on brand searches? Yahoo! has been pretty aggressive with putting shopping ads in the search results, but their implementation is still a better user experience than what Google did above.
And Bing offers an even cleaner experience than that.
"The only technology I’d rather own than Windows would be English," McNealy said. "All of those who use English would have to pay me a couple hundred dollars a year just for the right to speak English. And then I can charge you upgrades when I add new alphabet characters like ‘n’ and ‘t.’ It would be a wonderful business."
Further, Google can chose at any point to respond to or ignore market regulations in accordance with whatever makes them the most money. They can also fund 3rd parties doing the same (like undermining copyright) to force others to strike an official deal with Google to be "open."
A lot of businesses live on small profit margins, so Google's ability to insert itself & fund criminal 3rd parties aligned with Google's internal longterm interests is a big big big deal. Companies will learn that you either work with Google on Google's terms or you die.
Yahoo! put out a research paper highlighting activity bias, stating that the efficacy of online advertising is often over-stated because people who see ads about a topic were already more closely tied in with that particular network & that particular topic before they even saw the ad. As an example, any person who sees an AdWords ad for hemorrhoid treatment was already searching for hemorrhoid-related topics before they saw your ad (thus they were in the subset of individuals that might have came across your site in some way if you were in the search ad ecosystem or not).
This sort of activity bias-driven selection bias (homophily) exists on social networks online & offline.
Google Analytics is the leading & most widely used web analytics program. They can share whatever metrics help them sell more ads (defaulting to crediting the last click for conversions, even if it was on a navigational search to your site) & pull back on features that are not aligned with their business interests (SEO referral data anyone?)
This goes back to Scott McNealy's quote: "The only technology I’d rather own than Windows would be English. All of those who use English would have to pay me a couple hundred dollars a year just for the right to speak English. And then I can charge you upgrades when I add new alphabet characters like ‘n’ and ‘t.’ It would be a wonderful business."
While Google is primarily known as a search company, it is getting harder to get off of Google though any channel other than a toll booth. Google keeps driving the organic search results downward, while Google verticals fill up many of the organic results that remain. Many companies already buy Google ads on their own YouTube content. Some buy ads on Google to drive them to their Youtube videos & then buy ads on their own Youtube video to promote their websites. Soon Google will try to push you to buy them on your Google+ page as well. Google is becoming a walled garden:
Google wants to control more elements of your social world now. They don’t just want to be a search engine.
Is that so bad? Maybe not. It’s certainly no different from how other companies, from AOL, to Microsoft, to Apple, to Disney, to Facebook, have viewed the world — as ideally a walled garden, an all-consuming platform that most people use for pretty much every form of entertainment and social interaction.
A lot of people thought that Google was somehow different. They were, of course, wrong.
To move forward either as the old Google or Google+, Google needs to be capable of making fair deals with the partner ecosystem. It needs to curb its instinct to kill competing media companies that were actually producing great content that Google helped you find.
I suspect there will be plenty of bloodshed before Google figures that one out.
"This is the path we’re headed down – a single unified, ‘beautiful’ product across everything. If you don’t get that, then you should probably work somewhere else." - Larry Page
Google no longer believes in the concept of the open web. Blame it on Larry Page becoming the CEO, blame it on him talking to Steve Jobs & Steve telling him to make fewer and tighter products, blame it on Google funding eHow, or blame it on basically anything. But if you go back far enough, much of the stuff that is going on now was clearly envisioned a decade ago:
I was lucky enough to chat with Larry one-to- one about his expectations for Google back in 2002. He laid out far-reaching views that had nothing to do with short-term revenue goals, but raised questions about how Google would anticipate the day sensors and memory became so cheap that individuals would record every moment of their lives. He wondered how Google could become like a better version of the RIAA - not just a mediator of digital music licensing - but a marketplace for fair distribution of all forms of digitized content. I left that meeting with a sense that Larry was thinking far more deeply about the future than I was, and I was convinced he would play a large role in shaping it. I would rather jump on board that bullet train than ride a local that never missed a revenue stop but never." - Douglas Edwards
What happens when the Google+ version of your content outranks the version on your own site? And what happens when your branded channel and/or your fans become a vertical ad silo Google sells to your competitors?
I tested submitting a couple posts to Google+ with a Wordtracker top keywords list & valuable keywords (on a cpc*traffic) basis in posts about top keywords. Those posts rank #2 or #3 in Google for many people that follows me. No harm to me since those posts were irrelevant to this site, but if they were about my theme & topic I just would have out-competed myself. When Google outranks you (even with a copy of your content) they get to taste the data again and sell off the attention another time. You only get a slice of that monetization, even when it is your work that is being monetized. Maybe it is great for stuff that is somewhat less relevant and/or keywords that are so competitive that you otherwise wouldn't score for them, but we have to be really careful we don't out-compete ourselves. Though if Googke keeps this up they won't be the only ones monetizing it. Give it a few months and celebrities will be selling sponsored Google+ posts based on some metric created by multiplying search volume, CPC & how many followers they have.
Is Bing Better? Will Enough People Ask That Question to Matter?
Google's big risk in their coupling of aggressive monetization, aggressive self-promotion & changing how users feel about user privacy is that they can create the perception that users should go elsewhere for for an honest or trustworthy search. This not only builds momentum for smaller search services like DuckDuckGo & Blekko, but has also won praise for Bing from Gizmodo, Dave Winer & The Next Web.
You can learn a lot more about what Google really thinks by reading what their new hires say. They are not yet skilled in the arts of public relations & make major gaffs like this one:
Instead of being able to SEO the entire Internet, businesses can now only affect the search results for a tiny percentage of users. That's a good thing because SEO can't scale, and SEO isn't good for users or the Internet at large.
If you look at the Google experience from the standpoint of customers, it's pretty good. Users get relevant search results and ads. Advertisers get their content on top of everything else. It's a good compromise between advertising and usability, and it works really well. It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug. Manipulating Google results shouldn't be something you feel entitled to be able to do. If you want to rank highly in Google, be relevant for the user currently searching. Engage him in social media or email, provide relevant information about what you're selling, and, generally, be a "good match" for what the user wants. - Googley Jon Rockway
Would love to hear someone more senior confirm this as the official Google company position, however they are too skilled at public relations to make that blunder (at least outside of foreign AdWords ads that tell you to "forget SEO").
BBVA, Spain’s second-largest bank by assets, is teaming up with Google to use its search engine results to provide advanced forecasts of hotel and tourism demand in the country, part of a plan to market real-time economic indicators to its clients.
The bank and internet group will announce on Monday a scheme called the “BBVA-Google tourism activity in Spain indicator”. The first pilot project has focused on measuring advance demand for hotel stays and tourism interest in Spain by using search engine data.
Private investors get to see that search data before anyone else does. If you have a retirement plan invested in stocks, then you are at an asymmetrical information disadvantage because Google is providing an in-depth look at that search data to competing investors who can trade on the information before it is public.
Is search traffic a big deal? Is there enough signal there to matter? Yes. And yes.
I read an investment report earlier today about a company where the hedge fund's rating & valuation was largely based on / justified by the SEO strategy of the underlying company & their current Google rankings...the report even had keyword ranking charts in it!
If Google has over 90% search marketshare in many EU countries & is willing to leverage proprietary search data to win contracts in other fields, how does anyone compete against that data bundling?
Further, think of all the damage hedge funds & huge banks have done to societies the globe over this past decade & now Google is directly helping the bad guys.
That is Google's approach to their proprietary information: if you invest in their ecosystem and use their analytics tools you can't get your own analytics data (as they have to protect "user privacy"), but they will gladly sell that same data off to someone else.
If there is no public outrage at this "test" then the data units will start getting more granular. Rather than measuring categories Google may sell data on a per-site or per-company basis. Looking at how Google has consistently disintermediated "partners" everywhere else, if Google is feeling bold they may suggest that selling the data to others also permits Google to trade on the data as well.
"One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try and predict the stock market..." Eric Schmidt continues, "and then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that."
Based on Mr. Schmidt's above comment, is it reasonable that Google now profits off leveraging their data for securities analysis? What made the above clearly illegal & what is going on now above board? What's the difference between them? Perhaps a "contractor" layer?
According to this post, Google was caught scraping Mocality, calling the listed businesses, soliciting that they move to Google "Get Your Business Online", disparaged the directory they were scraping in the client call, and then lied about having the permission of the directory they were scraping to try to con businesses into working with Google.
A few select quotes:
There are absolutely no costs, and this will be agreed on before it’s put on… No one will come and tell you like Mocality used to do, someone tells you it’s free and then they come to ask for money. You know that Google doesn’t fool around here.
Mocality used to charge people and many of the people who used to be in Mocality we have taken them and transferred them here. Didn’t we also find you on Mocality?
Ai…they used to…but some people didn’t used to pay. They [Mocality] used to go and ask people to pay them around Ksh. 20,000 and people refused. It was things like that.)
Google's business model *is* buying or building things that are free and then later pulling back features and/or sneaking costs in on them. Whether it be clubbing Android carriers with compatibility, saying search ads are evil then placing them everywhere, Google Maps API terms changes, terms changes on the Google AdWords API, Google hotel place listings with endless price ads, or keyword (not provided) in web analytics while trying to force you to register in Google Webmaster Tools to get any keyword data at all!
As if that wasn't bad enough, when the fake business asked Google if Mocality was ok with this, this was the exchange:
My question is does Mocality know that you’re getting their con…our contacts from their directory?
Yah. They know. They know that very well. They have agreed with Google when they were on that thing.
I have long stated that the difference between spam and quality content is who is spamming. With the recent widely criticized over-promotion of Google+ in the search results and this sort of scrape, lie & disintermediate the source Google's true character is shining through.
Facebook & Twitter are smart not to leave the barn door open for Google.
All information wants to be free and wrapped in Google's ads. Or so the saying goes. But until they can be trusted it won't be. They have done A LOT of brand damage to themselves in the past couple months.
Update: Google was mortified that they got caught doing this:
We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites. We’ve already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We’re still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we’ll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved.
That is what they say, typically at the bottom of the posts, in blog posts that equate Google Chrome to being the Internet & spread misinformation about how Chrome is good for small business.
some of those sites are paid posts and have live links in them to Google Chrome without using nofollow & talk about SEO in the same post as well!
some of those posts link to the example businesses Google was paying to have covered
and all the posts are effectively "buying YouTube video views" for this video youtube.com/watch?v=QFLP7HD1s7k
You can say they didn't require the links, that the links were incidental, that leaving nofollow off was an accident, etc. ... but does Google presume the same level of innocence when torching webmasters? They certainly did not to the bloggers who reviewed K-Mart & the Google reconsideration request form states:
“In general, sites that directly profit from traffic (e.g. search engine optimizers, affiliate programs, etc.) may need to provide more evidence of good faith before a site will be reconsidered.”
The Orwellian things about Google using the above strategy to market Chrome are:
Google has a clear pro-corporate big brand bias to their algorithms & layout (Vince & Panda updates + the part near the top of the SERPs for some searches that says "brands" as a filter type).
The more usage data Google collects the more stupid hoops it forces smaller businesses to jump through in order to compete, thereby further driving them under. (If small business owners didn't have enough time & resources for SEO, do they now also have time to get reviews, get local citations, deal with social stuff on Twitter + Facebook + Youtube + Google+ and a bit of SEO?)
Google polices how small businesses can even make income online. When K-Mart paid some small business bloggers to do sponsored posts Matt Cutts wrote a post (mattcutts.com/blog/sponsored-conversations/) about how he torched those small bloggers (while doing nothing to K-Mart) & equated that exercise to selling links that promote bogus brain cancer solutions. Yet Google Japan was already dinged for this sort of paid post activity & now Google is doing the same thing again.
The fact that Google is paying to spread that sort of misinformation about how their browser is helping small businesses is sort of like BP buying ads about doing tourism in the gulf. Only since Google destroying smaller businesses is something more abstract on virtual lands the PR propaganda campaign is much more effective, because (unlike oil washing ashore) people do not see what is not there. (The birds still die, but the black oil covered carcass isn't rotting on the beach).
Should you follow Google & buy ads on these sites? Are they christened & beyond reproach? I would sort of be afraid to buy exposure on the blogs where Google is buying coverage...if that latent public relations disaster eventually blows up in their face, they may assume others are as guilty as Google is & burn down the whole forest.
Google the dictator meet Google the marketer. You guys are going to get on well together!
Update: Danny highlighted how Google's Chrome ad buy created a lot of the low-quality filler pablum content that the Panda update was alleged to discourage.