Google Whores Out Users With False Privacy Claims

Oct 18th
posted in

So today Google announced that they have turned on SSL by default for logged in users, a feature that has been available for a while on encrypted.google.com. The way they set it up, as explained in this post, means that your search query will not be forwarded to the website you're visiting and that they can only see that you've come from an organic Google result. If you're buying AdWords however, you still get the query data.

This is what I call hypocrisy at work. Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don't. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public "stunt". The issue is, they don't care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers.

That might also enlighten you to the real issue: Google still has all your search data. It's just not allowing website owners to see it anymore. It's giving website owners aggregated data through Google Webmaster Tools, which would be nice if it hadn't shown to be so incredibly useless and inaccurate.

If Google really cared about your privacy, (delayed) retargeting wouldn't be available for advertisers. They wouldn't use your query data to serve you AdSense ads on pages, but I doubt they'll stop doing that, if they did they would have probably said so and made a big fuzz out of it.

If Google really cared, the keyword data that site owners now no longer receive from organic queries would no longer be available for advertisers either. But that would hit their bottom line, because it makes it harder to show ROI from AdWords, so they won't do that.

The Real Reason for killing organic referral data

So I think "privacy" is just a mere pretext. A "convenient" side effect that's used for PR. The real reason that Google might have decided to stop sending referral data is different. I think it is that its competitors in the online advertising space like Chitika and Chango are using search referral data to refine their (retargeted) ads and they're getting some astonishing results. In some ways, you could therefor describe this as mostly an anti-competitive move.

In my eyes, there's only one way out. We've now determined that your search data is private information. If Google truly believes that, it will stop sharing it with everyone, including their advertisers. Not sharing vital data like that with third parties but using it solely for your own profit is evil and anti-competitive. In a country such as the Netherlands where I live, where Google has a 99%+ market share, in other words: a monopoly, I'm hoping that'll result in a bit of action from the European Union.

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Joost is a freelance SEO consultant and WordPress developer. He blogs on yoast.com about both topics and maintains some of the most popular WordPress plugins for SEO and Google Analytics in existence.

Google Aggressively Enters Make Money Online Niche

Oct 17th

Even if you are in a seedy vertical that you think Google wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole, Google may still be gunning for you!

Recall that when Google bought DoubleClick, Larry Page wanted to keep running the Performics SEO & SEM shop:

Google would spin Performics out of DoubleClick, and sell it to holding firm Publicis. Only one major force inside of Google hated the plan. Guess who? Larry Page.

According to our source, Larry tried to sell the rest of Google's executive team on keeping Performics. "He wanted to see how those things work. He wanted to experiment."

A search engine selling SEO services? Yep.

And now they are aggressively entering the make money online niche. Both Prizes.org & YouTube are in the top 3 ad slots for "make money online"

And I am seeing some of those across portions of the content/display network as well. I just saw this in Gmail today.

How does this align with the Google AdWords TOS?

To protect the value and diversity of the ads running on Google, we don't generally permit advertisers to manage multiple accounts featuring the same business or keywords except in certain limited exceptions. Furthermore, Google doesn't permit multiple ads from the same or an affiliated company or person to appear on the same results page. We've found that pages with multiple text ads from the same company provide less relevant results and a lower quality experience for users. Over time, multiple ads from the same source also reduce overall advertiser performance and lower their return on investment.

Google doesn't allow advertisers or affiliates to have any of the following:

  • Ads across multiple accounts for the same or similar businesses
  • Ads across multiple accounts triggered by the same or similar keywords

Well, as it turns out, the Google AdWords TOS doesn't actually apply to Google.

Search is a zero sum game.

Google is just getting started with breakfast. I am afraid to see what the last meal looks like!

Mutated Search Queries

Oct 15th

Google has recently began refining search queries far more aggressively. In the past they would refine search queries if they thought there was a misspelling, but new refinements have taken to changing keywords that are spelled correctly to align them with more common (and thus profitable) keywords.

As one example, the search result [weight loss estimator] is now highly influenced by [weight loss calculator]. The below chart compares the old weight loss estimator SERP, the current weight loss estimator SERP & the current weight loss calculator SERP. Click on the image for a larger view.

Google keyword mutation.

There are 2 serious issues with this change

  • disclosure: in the past refinement disclosures appeared at the top of the search results, but now it often ends up at the bottom
  • awful errors: a couple months after I was born my wife was born in Manila. When I was doing some searches about visiting & things like that, sometimes Google would take the word "Manila" out of the search query. (My guess is because the word "Manila" is also a type of envelope?)

Here is an example of an "awful error" in action. Let's say while traveling you find a great gift & want to send it to extended family. Search for [shipping from las vegas to manila] and you get the following

The search results contain irrelevant garbage like an Urban Spoon page for Las Vegas delivery restaurants.

How USELESS is that?

And now, with disclosure of changes at the bottom of the search results, there isn't even a strong & clean signal to let end users tell Google "hey you are screwing this up badly."

In some ways I am inspired by Google's willingness to test and tweak, but in others I wonder if their new model for search is to care less about testing and hope that SEOs will highlight where Google is punting it bad. In that case, they just roped me into offering free advice. ;)

Panda 2.5...and Youtube Wins Again

On September 28th, Google rolled out Panda 2.5. Yet again Youtube is the #1 site on the leader board, while even some branded sites like MotorTrend were clipped, and sites that had past recovered from Panda (like Daniweb) were hit once more. In the zero sum game of search, Google's Android.com joins YouTube on the leader board.

It doesn't matter what "signals" Google chooses to use when Google also gets to score themselves however they like. And even if Google were not trying to bias the promotion of their own content then any signals they do collect on Google properties will be over-represented by regular Google users.

Google can put out something fairly average, promote it, then iterate to improve it as they collect end user data. Publishers as big as MotorTrend can't have that business model though. And smaller publishers simply get effectively removed from the web when something like Panda or a hand penalty hits them. Worse yet, upon "review" search engineers may choose to review an older version of the site rather than the current site!

With that level of uncertainty, how do you aggressively invest in improving your website?

Over a half-year after Panda launched there are few case studies of recoveries & worse yet, some of the few sites that recovered just relapsed!

If you look at search using a pragmatic & holistic view, then this year the only thing that really changed with "content" farms is you can now insert the word video for content & almost all that video is hosted on Youtube.

To highlight the absurdity, I created another XtraNormal video. :)

References for the above video:

Endless AdWords Profits

Sep 17th

"To thine own self be true"

In a word?

Prescient!

10 links in a single AdWords ad unit!

Then more ads below it. Then a single organic listing with huge sublinks too. And unless you have a huge monitor at that point you are "below the fold."

Negative advertising in AdWords is not allowed. So long as you build enough brand signals & pay the Google toll booth, public relations issues & reputation issues won't be accessible to searchers unless they learn to skip over the first screen of search results.

While it is generally against Google's TOS for advertisers to double dip in AdWords (outside of the official prescribed oversize ad units highlighted above), Google is doing exactly that with their multitude of brands.

BeatThatQuote is back yet again.

The line between ads & content is getting blurry. Mighty blurry.

Is it time yet for a new slogan?

Google: the sales engine!

Google+ Doorway Pages / Scraper Site

Sep 15th

Another friend sent me a message today: "just got a whole swathe of non-interlinked microsites torched today. Bastard! Just watching the rank reports coming in..."

I haven't seen his sites, but based on how he described them "whole swathe" I wouldn't guess the quality to be super high. One thing you could say for them was that they were unique.

Where putting in the effort to create original content falls flat on its face is when search engines chose to outrank aggregators (or later copies) over the original source. The issue has got so out of hand that Google has come right out & asked for help with it.

The big issue is that Google is often the culprit. Either indirectly through their ads programs & algorithmic biases or more directly through the launch of new features.

When Google launched Knol I was quick to flame them after I saw them ranking recycled content on Knol ahead of the original source. The Knol even highlighted similar works, showing that Google allowed Knol to outrank earlier sources of the same work.

In a recent WebmasterWorld thread Brett Tabke stated that Google is putting serious weight on Google+:

Some Google+ SEO factors now trump linking as prime algo ingredient. Google+ is already and clearly influencing rankings. I watched a presentation last night that definitely showed that rankings can occur from Google+ postings and photo's with no other means of support.

As Google+ grows - so will Google's understanding of how to use it as rankings signals.

We are not playing Google+ because we want too - we are playing Google+ because we have to.

I read that sorta half hoping he was wrong, but know he rarely is.

And then today Google hit me across the head with a 2x4, proving he was right again.

Business Insider is not some small niche site that Google can justify accidentally deleting from the web with 2 clicks of a mouse, yet when I was doing a *navigational* search, trying to find a piece of their content I had already read, guess what popped up in the search results.

Yup. Google+

What's worse is that isn't from a friend, isn't from the original source, is the full article wholesale, from Google Reader, and the source URL has Google's feedproxy in it.

If Google wants to add value to the ecosystem & insert themselves as a new layer of value then how can we do anything but welcome it. However, when they want to take 3rd party content & "wrap it in Google" it is absolutely unacceptable for them to outrank the original source with their copy of it, even if they feel the deserve to outrank it & have made multiple copies of it.

On large complex system I get that some advice will be self-serving and progress often comes with bumps and bruises.

But Google's dominance in search coupled with their dominance in display (from owning DoubleClick & YouTube) has led competing portals to team up to try to compete against Google with display ads.

And, if the big portals are struggling that much, then at the individual publisher level, how do you profitably produce content when Google takes your content & ranks their copy ahead of yours?

New Google "Search Results" Bar

Sep 14th

I recently got put in a test bucket for Google's new layout with a "search results" bar near the top of the page. Generally this impacts the search results in a couple ways:

  • First off, it is a much better looking design. In the past when the search results would move up and down with Google Instant it really felt like a hack rather than something you would see on the leading internet company's main website. Now with the results fixed it feels much cleaner & much more well put together.
  • The more stable basic layout of the SERP will allow Google to integrate yet more vertical data into it while making it still look & feel decent. Google may have localized search suggestions & the organic results for a significant period of time, but the combination of them with this new layout where the search results don't move feels much more cohesive.
  • To get the white space right on the new layout Google shifted from offering 5 Instant suggestion to 4. The Google Instant results don't disappear unless you hit enter, but because the interface doesn't change & move there isn't as much need to click enter. The search experience feels more fluid.
  • The horizontal line above the search results and the word "Search" in red in the upper left of the page is likely to pull some additional attention toward Google's vertical search features, helping Google to collect more feedback on them (and further use that user behavior to create a signal to drive further integration of the verticals into the regular organic search results).
  • On the flip side of this, in the past the center column would move up & down while the right column would remain stationary, so I would expect this to slightly diminish right column ad clicks (that appeared at the top even when the organic results moved downward) while boosting center column clicks to offset that.
  • In the past, when Google Instant would disappear from view, that would pull the center column organic results up a bit.
    • This always-on bar shifts the pixels above the first search result from about 123 to 184...so roughly 60 pixels downward.
    • As a baseline, a standard organic listing with no extensions is about 90 pixels tall, so this moves the search results down roughly 2/3 of a listing, which should drive more traffic to the top paid search ads & less to the organic results below them (offset by any diminished clicks on the right column ads).
    • This is a much cleaner way of taking advantage of white space than some of the cheesy & ugly-looking stuff they recently tested.

I tried to line up the results pretty closely on the new test results to show what they look like with Google Instant results showing & after you hit enter. Scroll over the below image to see how the result layout doesn't really change with Google Instant hidden or extended.

And here is an example image showing how the location is sometimes inserted directly into both the organic search results and the search suggestions.

Here is an image using Google's browser size tool to show how end users see the new search results. Note that in this example I used a keyword where Google has comparison/advisor ads, so in markets where they do not yet have those you would move all the organic results one spot up from what is shown below.

Google Offers a New Definition for Doorway Pages?

Sep 13th

In the past doorway pages could be loosely defined as "low-quality pages designed to rank for highly targeted search queries, typically designed to redirect searchers to a page with other advertisements."

The reason they are disliked is a click circus impact they have on web users as they keep clicking in an infinite loop of ads.

This would be a perfect example of that type of website:

However, ever since Google started to eat their "organic" search results, the definition of doorway pages has changed significantly.

A friend of mine told me that the reason CSN stores had to merge into a "brand" was not just because that was the direction of the algorithm, but also because they were hit with the "doorway page" penalty. I don't know if that is 100% accurate, but it sure sounds plausible, given that... (UPDATE: SEE COMMENTS BELOW)

  • recently multiple friends have told me they were hit with the "doorway page" issue
  • on WebmasterWorld there are multiple threads from small ecommerce players suggesting they were hit with the doorway page issue
    • "Today we received messages in our webmaster tools account, for all but 1 of our 20 domains, indicating that Google considers them doorway pages. We have also lost all of our SERP's for those sites." - Uncle_DK
    • "I was rather disappointed to see that before banning the site the rater visited a very drab and ordinary page on my site. Not a smoking gun of some incriminating evidence of a hacker break-in or some such I was looking for. Also disappointing is the fact that they visited one page only." - 1script
  • another friend today told me that one of their clients runs numerous websites & that ALL of the sites in the Google webmaster tools account blew up, getting hit with the "doorway page" label (and ALL the sites that were not in that webmaster tools account were missed by the Google engineers)


Like almost anything else Google offers, their webmaster tools are free, right up until Google changes their business objectives and one of their engineers decide that he should put you out of business.

I *knew* the point of the Panda update was not to kill content farms, but to use content farms as a convenient excuse to thin the herd of webmasters & consolidate markets. A couple obvious tells on that front were:

  • the update taking so long to happen
  • the first version of the Panda update embarrassingly missing eHow
  • the update hitting so many small ecommerce websites, even as it somehow missed eHow

Part of the brand bias in Google Panda allowed corporate branded doorway pages to rank higher than ever. Google's solution to this problem is, once again, to punish the victim - wiping independent webmasters off the web.

What is the new definition of doorway pages?

Pages on non-brand websites, that are not owned by a fortune 500 company, which aggressively monetizes web traffic without giving Google a piece of the action.

If you are not a brand you can be wiped out at any time with absolutely 0 recourse unless you can damage Google's brand or harm their standing before market regulators.

If you want to be an independent webmaster you better study public relations. Start here, with Edward Bernays.

Wal-Mart has received a bad reputation for how their dominant control of the supply chain sucked most the profits out of some markets & drove some of their suppliers into bankruptcy:

Young remembers begging Wal-Mart for relief. "They said, 'No way,' " says Young. "We said we'll increase the price"--even $3.49 would have helped tremendously--"and they said, 'If you do that, all the other products of yours we buy, we'll stop buying.' It was a clear threat."
...
Finally, Wal-Mart let Vlasic up for air. "The Wal-Mart guy's response was classic," Young recalls. "He said, 'Well, we've done to pickles what we did to orange juice. We've killed it. We can back off.' " Vlasic got to take it down to just over half a gallon of pickles, for $2.79. Not long after that, in January 2001, Vlasic filed for bankruptcy.

Such strong-arm business negotiation tactics might be sleazy, but you know one thing Wal-Mart does do? They tolerate multiple brands from a single manufacturer. In fact, many leading manufacturers are creating down market brands to compensate for the economic malaise we are going through:

P&G's roll out of Gain dish soap says a lot about the health of the American middle class: The world's largest maker of consumer products is now betting that the squeeze on middle America will be long lasting.

As far as publishing business models go, if Google starts calling ecommerce sites that are part of a network "doorway sites" then Google isn't really allow that sort of testing, unless the content comes from a fortune 500 or is content conveniently hosted on Google.com. As a publisher or merchant, how do you ever grow to scale if you are not allowed to test running multiple projects & products in parallel & keep reinvesting in whatever works best?

Even the biggest publishers are breaking some of their core brands into multiple sites (eg: Boston.com vs BostonGlobe.com) to test different business models. If you have scale that is fine, but if you are smaller that same strategy might soon be considered a black hat doorway strategy.

Meanwhile...

Google Eats Their Organic Search Results

Sep 8th

"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." - William Gibson

Not only do they monetize via AdWords, but Google has 6 listings in the "organic" search results.

Any Google search engineer care to have a public debate as to the legitimacy of that search result set?

If an SEO gets half of the search results (for anything other than his own brand) he is an overt spammer. If Google eats half of the search results with duplicating nepotism across their own house "brands" then it is legitimate.

Making the above even worse, smaller niche brands are regularly disappeared from Google's index. Google has the ability to redirect search intent to one that is easier to monetize & more along a path they approve of. I was searching for a post John Andrews (webmaster of johnon.com) wrote about Google censorship & what did Google do? They used their power over the dictionary to change the words I searched for on the fly & then promoted their ebooks offering yet again.

Note that listings 1 & 2 promote the exact same book. Google just lists the content they scraped into multiple categories that deserve to be showcased multiple times. How many ways did Google screw up the above search result?

  • they auto-corrected the search query to an unwanted alternate search
  • in spite of auto-correction, they still allowed their other verticals to be inserted in the results inline right near the top (when rare longtail searches are auto-corrected, one would expect them to be more adverse to embedding such an aggressive self-promotion in the search results)
  • they associate content hosted by them as being about their brand simply because they host it (even though that piece of content has no relation to them outside of them scraping it)
  • they list it not once but twice, right at the top of the results (even though it is duplicate content available elsewhere & both pages are the same on Google, with the exception of one promoting a recent version of the book & the other page promoting a decade older version of the exact same book)

As a publisher you are *required* to keep spending more money on deeper editorial to avoid being labeled as spam or tripping some arbitrary "algorithmic" threshold. And as you do so, Google is humping you from the backside to ensure your profit margins stay low, scraping whatever they can within the limits of the law & operating the types of websites that would be considered spam if anyone else ran them. Once regulatory pressures or public opinion catch on to Google's parasitic behavior, they buy a brand & leverage its content to legitimize their (often) illegitimate enterprise. :)

Oh, and how about a quote from the Censored Screams book: "censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.‎"

Google Appends Prior Search Query

Aug 28th

Smart SEOs have been preaching brand for years and years now (& so has Google if you read between the lines).

For some time Google has appended prior search queries in AdWords. In some cases they also show ads for related search queries, append your location to the search query for localization, spell-correct search results based on common search trends, and (as the Vince update showed) they can also use search query chains & brand related searches as a signal.

As far back as 2008 Google sugested previous query refinements for organic search, but they haven't been very prevalent thusfar IMHO.

While researching another article, I was searching for some browsers to see how search engines were advertising on various keywords, and after searching for Firefox I later searched for SEO & saw the following:

This is yet another way brand familiarity can boost rankings. Not only are you likely to score higher on generic search queries (due to the Vince & Panda updates), but having a well-known brand also makes Google more likely to recommend your brand as a keyword to suggest in Google Instant, makes people more likely to +1 your site, and it now also can impact the related organic search results further if people search for that brand shortly before searching for broader industry keywords.

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