China Still Censoring Google, Now Globally

Google Gets Out of China

In March of 2010 Google announced they would no longer censor their search results for China:

earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.

While the move was pitched as altruistic, it came only after the state put their thumb on the scales to promote domestic competitor Baidu in part by periodically blocking Google search from working.

The Value of Leaving China

By leaving China on their own accord, Google controlled the narrative for investors. They didn't "lose" a market, they chose to not operate in a market.

If you are destined to lose due to political interference, you may as well look principled in the process. The idea of staying the course (being highly compromised while also losing) would have lowered Google's leverage (over publishers and governments) as well as their brand value elsewhere.

Think of how long Google has kept the EU at bay in terms of their anti-competitive practices in search.

Countries like France and Australia are just now beginning to require payment to publishers from Google.

In spite of being in fifth place with about 2% search marketshare in China, one could easily argue that today Google is *still* being censored by China, except now it is global.

Official != Legitimate

Whenever there is a crisis Google has the ability to adjust their news algorithms (and rankings on other sources like YouTube) to prefer authoritative sources. If China lies but gives a direct quote that is an official response which can be reported in the media. Speculating, on the other hand, is not news, and thus is not likely to be done at scale on official sources.

The WHO parroted the official line of the Chinese Communist Party for months before sending in a team to begin investigating the virus which was quietly spreading globally in the background. This is evil (or, more charitably, ill-informed) their advice was:

Tedros said there was no need for measures that “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” and he specifically said that stopping flights and restricting Chinese travel abroad was “counter-productive” to fighting the global spread of the virus.

Evidence is Backward Looking

Promoting "consistent, evidence-based" risk control is utterly stupid because the evidence that you are dead only appears after you die.

It is not a game of 50/50 chance.

One outcome is death. And at the other end of the spectrum you spent $15 needlessly on a facemask.

How lowly must you view the value of a human life to determine a $15 spend on risk mitigation is reckless behavior?

Don't exceed the global standards based on China's misinformation. OR ELSE!!!

Evidence is backward looking even if the sources are not lying scum. When lying is vital to maintaining political power many people die while waiting on the true.

Can anyone who followed official anti-warnings get a refund on their death?

Better luck next life?

Evidence

While China's CCP was lying to the world, the WHO shared appreciation for their commitment to sharing info.

Not Just China

Health officials the world over were guilty of the same sort of "evidence-based" stupidity.

Here is a video from February of NYC health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot advising people to go out and take the subway and live their lives, noting that city preparedness is high, their personal risk is low, and casual contact was not a large risk.

You can see the stupidity in the circular logic here: "we also know that if it were likely to be transmitted casually we would be seeing a lot more cases."

Yes we would!
Or soon would be.
And did.

Time shift that statement a couple months and lawmakers are asking her to be fired.

May you enjoy a happy Lunar New Year:

“We are very clear: We wish New Yorkers a Happy Lunar New Year and we encourage people to spend time with their families and go about their celebration,” Dr. Barbot said.

Later, as evidence emerged, we learn from serological studies that around 24.7% of people in New York City & 14.9% of New York state had antibodies for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

If you are a poor minority you are more likely to die as you have less of a cushion to do things like taking time off work and AVOID TAKING THE SUBWAY.

Thank you Dr. Oxiris Barbot!

"New York politicians are seeking answers on how to handle the growing number of corpses left by the coronavirus pandemic, after dozens of bodies were discovered decomposing in rental trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home."
- Ben Chapman, WSJ

Even the New York Times warned against quarantines, virtually guaranteeing the city would get one.

And for a cherry on top of the stupidity cake, New York City only closed their subway system during off hours from 1AM to 5AM for daily cleanings on April 30th, *AFTER* months of letting the virus spread across the city & many blog posts like this one were published. A quarter of their population had to contract the virus before cleaning the subway regularly seemed like a good idea.

We should always in all cases everywhere blindly trust the experts:

just last year, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the organization led by Dr. Fauci, funded scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutions for work on gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses . ... Many scientists have criticized gain of function research, which involves manipulating viruses in the lab to explore their potential for infecting humans, because it creates a risk of starting a pandemic from accidental release.

Protecting Yourself from Dr. Oxiris Barbot & the CCP

How many billions of dollars do people spend buying lotto tickets?

A high-quality facemask was a $15 lotto ticket that might save you from death. But buying one was ill-informed & xenophic & antisocial and and and.

Back in January I saw a video on Twitter of a guy walking down the street in Wuhan and then just fall over and die. Upon seeing that, I quickly ordered facemasks for my wife, our babysitter, my wife's parents, my mom, and my siblings.

My mom thought I was crazy for spending hundreds buying so many masks, but it was a fairly simple calculation. Whatever China was saying was hot garbage as they were literally welding apartment complexes shut.

Ongoing Disinformation Campaign

The CCP accosted doctors who warned of the pending pandemic, locked down millions of people, and held internal briefs about human to human transmission was happening while lying externally about it. China then pushed some garbage about how the US Army created the coronavirus which caused COVID-19, then they both claimed it was racist to state the disease came from China while also claiming it originated in Italy.

That's the CCP - literally zero shame.

You can be against the jackbooted CCP while not hating Chinese people. I would rather be wrongly called a racist and not die of coronavirus than virtue signal my way to death via Italy's "Hug a Chinese" day.

As a general rule of thumb, life is more important than the feelz.

My wife took a DNA test and a big part of her ethnic background is Chinese. When she and I are in the Philippines many people think she is a foreigner. When I was walking with my wife in Hong Kong years ago a local street vender started talking to her in Chinese thinking she was a local. And there's nobody in the world I love more than her, but that does not mean she or I are planning a trip to Wuhan anytime soon or wanted to end up as statistics as a side effect of virtue signaling.

To this day China is using their ability to purchase foreign debts & infrastructure across weaker European countries to push the EU to understate the culpability of the CCP:

"Bowing to heavy pressure from Beijing, European Union officials softened their criticism of China this week in a report documenting how governments push disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to documents, emails and interviews. Worried about the repercussions, European officials first delayed and then rewrote the document in ways that diluted the focus on China, a vital trading partner ... China moved quickly to block the document’s release, and the European Union pulled back. The report had been on the verge of publication, until senior officials ordered revisions to soften the language."

Maintaining The Illusion of Stability

The doom scenario for China would be one where the disease spread widely across their society while not directly impacting other economies. Currencies float and trade can eventually be re-routed if supply chains are unreliable. If a place where repeated coronavirus outbreaks happen has massive hidden debts in their shadow economy the propped up currency peg would likely fall as those debts go bad and their economy crashes. Hot money has been rushing out of China for years: their companies buying foreign companies, individuals buying foreign real estate, short domain names, Bitcoin, life insurance policies, etc.

China already faced sharp food price inflation last year as African Swine Flu killed a lot of their herd. When people can't afford to eat they are more likely to push for political change. Hyperinflation is the reciprocal of political stability. Maintaining a stable food supply is a core requirement of staying in power.

Masks might make no difference, but if I spend a fraction of a percent of my income protecting my immediate and extended family even slightly then that is a good investment.

What is the price of a single needless death?

That is the calculation one should use when adopting simple & cheap life changes that can protect their families and society as a whole.

The mainstream media not only downplayed Covid-19 to pitch Trump as xenophobic & neurotic, but after the most important story they got entirely wrong was revealed as the disaster it was, they also warned about the wrong people hoarding much needed supplies.

If people would have rushed to buy masks in January it would have sent the market signal to make more. Virtue signaling was considered more important than life.

Instead of any attempts at truth we got communist-fed false assurances to provide the illusion of stability. Lives lack value when compared against maintaining political power:

In 1989, when Chinese citizens raised a Goddess of Democracy on Tiananmen Square, some pinned their hopes on the People’s Liberation Army: Surely the people’s army would never fire on the people. In fact, PLA soldiers proved quite adept at firing on the people. And to this day Beijing refuses to come clean about how many it killed at Tiananmen.
...
Communism has always been far more about Lenin than Marx—that is, about getting and holding power, rather than any economic arrangement. And it’s extraordinary how consistent the lies and violence have been across time and geography, given the many different flavors of communism.

Fake News About Fake News

As China was lying to the world, setting hundreds of thousands of people up for death & destroying the global economy, we suggested the problem was not lies from the CCP or the disease that spread globally in part due to their lies, but rather we should fight "fake news"

The rise of “fake news” - including misinformation and inaccurate advice on social media - could make disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic currently spreading in China worse, according to research published on Friday.

The WHO shills for the CCP:

The lengths to which the WHO went to sacrifice its scientific- and health-related mission for political considerations relating to China were at times both absurd and trivial. For example, in the Coronavirus Q&A that was first posted to its website, the WHO maintained multiple versions. The original English language version of the Q&A counseled that there were four common myths about preventing or curing a COVID-19 infection: smoking, wearing multiple masks, taking antibiotics, and traditional herbal remedies. The original Chinese version omitted ‘traditional herbal remedies’ as a myth. Then the WHO took down ‘traditional herbal remedies’ in both languages. Politics over health. Politics over science. At even the smallest, silliest level.

As the WHO praises the CCP we learn fake news is anything which counters the WHO.

And to protect people globally and fight sources of fake news Google is working with ... the WHO:

WHO is also battling misinformation, working with Google to ensure that people get facts from the U.N. health agency first when they search for information about the virus. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation and rumors about the outbreak.

YouTube is also removing medically substantiated content about coronavirus.

Now that the coronavirus is widespread the idea of keeping the economy perpetually shut down with healthy people quarantined is idiotic & runs counter to science. Those who shelter in place have less exposure to viruses and bacteria from their surrounding environment, which over time leads to weakened immune systems. Add to that all sorts of other issues like: doctors and nurses furloughed while hospitals are idled awaiting a pandemic that never came to most places, economic incentives to misclassify deaths as COVID-19 while ignoring other issues, missing routine treatments that would have diagnosed other health issues that are going undiagnosed for months, loss of job, loss of income, loss of purpose/meaning/ability to provide for family, depression, raging alcoholism, increased domestic violence globally & increased divorce rates in China.

Doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi expressed concerns about many of the above types of issues (video interview & presentation here) and were swiftly shot down as YouTube pulled the video.

Even the China Uncensored video about the CCP's coverup has a COVID-19 learn more banner redirecting attention back to official sources if you watch the video on YouTube.

Now there are some horrible and ridiculous official statements being made & a whole bunch of crazies spreading "eat aquarium cleaner, protect yourself from COVID-19." I even read a story about a guy who committed suicide because he feared he had COVID-19. All that stuff is horrible, but any and all attempts to defuse those horrible issues & clean them up should come with a note about how the CCP lied broadly, extensively, and is to not be trusted in any way, shape or form.

The AP report continues...

Chinese officials are increasingly speaking out.

And so should we! At least while we still can:

Where possible, China wants to criminalize any speech … any social media … that does not follow the official party line. Where it’s not possible to criminalize that speech, China wants to ban it through the cooperative censorship of global tech and media platforms. Where it’s not possible to ban that speech, China wants to shame it into the shadows by getting us to reject it as “fake news”.

And if you don’t see that the United States is about two minutes behind China in doing the same damn thing, then you’re just not paying attention.

And while the WHO has tech companies censor "fake news" the CCP releases puppet theatre cartoons about the coronavirus which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Yes that video is real. And yes, they really are that scummy.

The puppet theatre video makes no mention of police going after doctors for mentioning the virus, Taiwan reporting the virus to the WHO, the WHO ignoring Taiwan, internal briefings to Xi while the public was left in the dark, or any of the other disconnects between inside and outside voices.

The CCP disinformation campaign is widespread. They buy ads for content use cute animals to promote their absolute propaganda:

Anything that diminishes the power and prestige of the CCP is worse than death:

The biggest threat facing the U.S. is not the new virus, but rather right-wing populists who are intent on creating trouble with their strain of political virus.

The above statement only serves to confirm the following:

Communism has always been far more about Lenin than Marx—that is, about getting and holding power, rather than any economic arrangement. And it’s extraordinary how consistent the lies and violence have been across time and geography, given the many different flavors of communism.

Luckily China does not have a monopoly on political cartoons and they have not yet managed to classify the following as some form of fake news or hate speech to be censored.

"This is the Chinese Communist Party, with their callousness, their deceitfulness, their inhumanity, and their disregard for any values. This has come to the forefront. That’s what this pandemic has done. It has exposed to the world exactly who they are, what they are, what they will do and what means they will use to get to the ends they want. ... [China's lap dogs are] a combination of the city of London and Wall Street and global corporatists, and even certain media outlets. ... They knew they had community spread no later than the third or fourth week of December 2019. They prosecuted many of the heroes of Wuhan who tried to get word out to their fellow citizens. As you know, they prosecuted Dr. Li [Wenliang, the early whistleblower who died of Covid-19 at the age of 33] and other heroes. And they made them sign rumor mongering confessions, which is one of the worst things you can do in China. ... The University of Southampton in the United Kingdom did a study that showed that had they just come forward in the last week of December or the first week of January and admitted that they had human-to-human transmission and community spread that 95 percent of the the deaths, 95 percent of the agony, 95 percent of the economic destruction could have all been avoided. ... they were hiding things. They wanted to make sure that nothing came up before they signed the trade deal [January 15, 2020]. They wanted to make sure nothing exposed them during Davos [January 21-24, 2020], where they had organized their biggest contingent ever to Davos. But if Lunar New Year had not been in those weeks, if this had happened in, let’s say, in October or November, we have no earthly idea how long they would have tried to suppress this. ... We now know that Xi Jinping took personal responsibility starting on January 6 or 7. We know that the World Health Organization put out its press release on the 9th. Then the tweet on the 14th said that after consultation with China’s Ministry of Health that there is no human-to-human transmission or community spreading. That’s all a lie. We also know they [China] restricted travel shortly thereafter, or in China domestically. But they did not stop traveling throughout the world, particularly to Europe and the United States. ... They’re engaged in economic warfare." - Steve Bannon

Increasing Time on Site

Changing User Intents

Google's search quality rater document highlights how the intent of searches can change over time for a specific keyword.

A generic search for [iPhone] is likely to be related to the most recent model. A search for [President Bush] likely was related to the 41st president until his son was elected & then it was most likely to be related to 43.

Faster Ranking Shifts

About 17 years ago when Google was young they did monthly updates where most of any ranking signal shift that would happen would get folded into the rankings. The web today is much faster in terms of the rate of change, amount of news consumption, increasing political polarization, social media channels that amplify outrage and how quickly any cultural snippet can be taken out of context.

Yesterday President Trump had some interesting stuff to say about bleach. In spite of there being an anime series by the same name, news coverage of the presser has driven great interest in the topic.

And that interest is already folded into the organic search results through Google News insertion, Twitter tweet insertion, and the query deserves freshness (QDF) algorithm driving insertion of news stories in other organic search ranking slots.

If a lot of people are searching for something and many trusted news organizations are publishing information about a topic then there is little risk in folding fresh information into the result set.

Temporary Versus Permanent Change

When the intent of a keyword changes sometimes the change is transitory & sometimes it is not.

One of the most common ad-driven business models online is to take something that was once paid, make it free, and then layer ads or some other premium features on top to monetize a different part of the value chain. TripAdvisor democratized hotel reviews. Zillow made foreclosure information easily accessible for free, etc.

The success of remote working & communication services like Skype, Zoom, Basecamp, Slack, Trello, and the ongoing remote work experiment the world is going through will permanently change some consumer behaviors & how businesses operate.

A Pew survey mentioned 43% of Americans stated someone in their house recently lost their job, had their hours reduced, and/or took pay cuts. Hundreds of thousands of people are applying to work in Amazon's grueling fulfillment centers.

To many of these people a lone wolf online job would be a dream come true.

If you had a two hour daily commute and were just as efficient working at home most days would you be in a rush to head back to the office?

How many former fulltime employees are going to become freelancers building their own small businesses they work on directly while augmenting it with platform work on other services like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Upwork, Fiverr, 99 Designs, or even influencer platforms like Intellifluence?

If big publishers are getting disintermediated by monopoly platforms & ad networks are offering crumbs of crumbs there's no harm in selling custom ads directly or having your early publishing efforts subsidized through custom side deals as you build market awareness and invest into building other products and services to sell.

Wordpress keeps adding more features. Many technology services like Shopify, Stripe & Twilio are making most parts of the tech stack outside of marketing cheaper & easier to scale.

Some universities are preparing for the fall semester being entirely online. As technology improves, we spend more time online, more activities happen online, and more work becomes remote. All this leads to the distinction between online and offline losing meaning other than perhaps in terms of cost structure & likelihood of bankruptcy.

Before Panda / After Panda


Before the Panda update each additional page which was created was another lotto ticket and a chance to win. If users had a crappy user experience on a page or site maybe you didn't make the sale, but if the goal of the page was to have the content so crappy that ads were more appealing that could lead to fantastic monetization while it lasted.

That strategy worked well for eHow, fueling the pump-n-dump Demand Media IPO.

Demand Media had to analyze eHow and pay to delete over a million articles which they deemed to have a negative economic value in the post-Panda world.

After the Panda update having many thin pages laying around and creating more thin pages was layering risk on top of risk. It made sense to shift to a smaller, tighter, deeper & more differentiated publishing model.

Entropy & Decay

The web goes through a constant state of reinvention.

Old YouTube Flash embeds break.

HTTP content calls in sites that were upgraded to HTTPS break.

Software which is not updated has security exploits.

If you have a large website and do not regularly update where you are linking to your site is almost certainly linking to porn and malware sites somewhere.

As users shifted to mobile websites that ignored mobile interfaces became relatively less appealing.

Changing web browser behaviors can break website logins and how data is shared across websites dependent on third party services.

Competition improves.

Algorithms change.

Ads eat a growing share of real estate on dominant platforms while organic reach slides.

Everything on the web is constantly dying as competition improves, technology changes and language gets redefined.

Staying Relevant

Even if a change in user intent is transitory, in some cases it can make sense to re-work a page to address a sudden surge of interest to improve time on site, user engagement metrics & make the content on your page more citation-worthy. If news writers are still chasing a trend then having an in-depth background piece of content with more depth gives them something they may want to link at.

Since the Covid-19 implosion of the global economy came into effect I've seen two different clients have a sort of sudden surge in traffic which would make little to no sense unless one considered currently spreading news stories.

News coverage creates interest in topics, shapes perspectives of topics, and creates demand for solutions.

If you read the right people on Twitter sometimes you can be days, weeks or even months ahead of the broader news narrative. Some people are great at spotting the second, third and fourth order effects of changes. You can spot stories bubbling up and participate in the trends.

An Accelerating Rate of Change

When the web was slower & easier you could find an affiliate niche and succeed in it sometimes for years before solid competition would arrive. One of the things I was most floored about this year from a marketing perspective was how quickly spammers ramped up a full court press amplifying the fear the news media was pitching. I think I get something like a hundred spam emails a day pitching facemasks and other COVID-19 solutions. I probably see 50+ other daily ads from services like Outbrain & similar.

The web moves so much faster that the SEC is already taking COVID-19 related actions against dozens of companies. Google banned advertising protective masks and recently announced they are rolling out advertiser ID verification to increase transparency.

If Google is looking at their advertisers with a greater degree of suspicion even into an economic downturn when Expedia is pulling $4 billion from their ad budget & Amazon is cutting back on their Google ad budget and Google decides to freeze hiring then it makes far more sense to keep reinvesting into improving any page which is getting a solid stream of organic search traffic.

Company Town

After Amazon cut their Google ad budget in March Google decided to expand Google Shopping to include free listings. When any of the platforms is losing badly they can afford to subsidize that area and operate it at a loss to try to gain marketshare while making the dominant player in that category look more extreme.

When a player is dominant in a category they can squeeze down on partners. Amazon once again cut affiliate payouts and the Wall Street Journal published an article citing 20 current and former Amazon insiders who stated Amazon uses third party merchant sales data to determine which products to clone:

Amazon employees accessed documents and data about a bestselling car-trunk organizer sold by a third-party vendor. The information included total sales, how much the vendor paid Amazon for marketing and shipping, and how much Amazon made on each sale. Amazon’s private-label arm later introduced its own car-trunk organizers. ... Amazon’s private-label business encompasses more than 45 brands with some 243,000 products, from AmazonBasics batteries to Stone & Beam furniture. Amazon says those brands account for 1% of its $158 billion in annual retail sales, not counting Amazon’s devices such as its Echo speakers, Kindle e-readers and Ring doorbell cameras.

Amazon does not even need to sell their private label products to shift their economics. As Amazon clones products they force the branded ad buy for a company to show up for their own branded terms, taking another bite out of the partner: "Fortem spends as much as $60,000 a month on Amazon advertisements for its items to come up at the top of searches, said Mr. Maslakou."

Amazon has grown so dominant they've not only cut their affiliate & search advertising while hiring hundreds of thousands of employees, but they've also dramatically slowed down shipping times while pulling back on their on-site people also purchase promotions to get users to order less.

While they are growing stronger department stores and other legacy retailers are careening toward bankruptcy.

Multiple Ways to Improve

If you have a page which is ranking that gets a sudden spike in traffic it makes a lot of sense to consider current news & try to consider if the intent of the searcher has changed. If it has, address it as best you can in the most relevant way possible, even if the change is temporary, then consider switching back to the old version of the page or reorganizing your content if/when/as the trend has passed.

One of the pages mentioned above was a pre-Panda "me too" type page which was suddenly flooded with thousands of user visitors. A quality inbound link can easily cost $100 to multiples of that. If a page is already getting thousands of visitors, why not invest a couple hundred dollars into dramatically improving it, knowing that some of those drive by users will likely eventually share it? Make the page an in-depth guide with great graphics and some of those 10,000's of visitors will eventually link to it, as they were already interested in the topic, the page already gets a great stream of traffic, and the content quality is solid.

Last week a client had a big spike from a news topic that changed the intent of a keyword. Their time on site from those visitors was under a minute. After the page was re-created to reflect changing consumer intent their time on site jumped to over 3 minutes for users entering that page. Those users had a far lower bounce rate, a far better user experience, are going to be more likely to trust the site enough to seek it out again, and this sends a signal to Google that the site is still maintained & relevant to the modern search market.

There are many ways to chase the traffic stream

  • create new content on new pages
  • gut the old page & publish entirely new content
  • re-arrange the old page while publishing new relevant breaking news at the top

In general I think the third option is often the best approach because you are aligning the page which already sees the traffic stream with the content they are looking for, while also ensuring any users from the prior intent can still access what they are looking for.

If the trend is huge, or the change in intent is permanent then you could also move the old content to a legacy URL archived page while making the high-traffic page focus on the spiking news topic.

The above advice applies to pages which rank for keywords that change in intent, but it can also apply to any web page which has a strong flow of user traffic. Keep improving the things people see most because improvements there have the biggest returns. How can you make a page deeper, better, more differentiated from the rest of the web?

Does Usage Data Matter?

Objectively, if people visit your website and do not find what they were looking for they are going to click the back button and be done with you.

Outdated content that has become irrelevant due to changing user tastes is only marginally better than outright spam.

While Google suggests they largely do not use bounce rate or user data in their rankings, they have also claimed end user data was the best way they could determine if the user was satisfied with a particular search result. Five years ago Bill Slawski wrote a blog post about long clicks which quoted Steven Levy's In The Plex book:

"On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the "Long Click" — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query."

Think of how many people use the Chrome web browser or have Android tracking devices on them all hours of the day. There is no way Google would be able to track those billions of users every single day without finding a whole lot of signal in the noise.

Revenue Quality & Leverage

The coronavirus issue is likely to linger for some time.

Up to 70% of Germany could become infected & some countries like the UK are even considering herd immunity as a strategy:

"I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire"
- William Hanage

What if their models are broken?

Many companies like WeWork or Oyo have been fast and loose chasing growth while slower growing companies have been levering up to fund share buybacks. Airlines spent 96% of free cash flow on share buybacks. The airlines seek a $50 billion bailout package.

There are knock-on effects from Boeing to TripAdvisor to Google all the way down to travel affiliate blogger, local restaurants closing, the over-levered bus company going through bankruptcy & bondholders eating a loss on the debt.

Companies are going to let a lot of skeletons out of the closet as literally anything and everything bad gets attributed to coronavirus. Layoffs, renegotiating contracts, pausing ad budgets, renegotiating debts, requesting bailouts, etc. The Philippine stock market was recently trading at 2012 levels & closed indefinitely.

Brad Geddes mentioned advertisers have been aggressively pulling PPC budgets over the past week: “If you have to leave the house to engage in the service, it just seems like it’s not converting right now.”

During the prior recession Google repriced employee options to retain talent.

In spite of consumers being glued to the news, tier one news publishers are anticipating large ad revenue declines:

Some of the largest advertisers, including Procter & Gamble Unilever, Apple, Microsoft, Danone, AB InBev, Burberry and Aston Martin, made cuts to sales forecasts for the year. With the outlook for the spread of the virus changing by day, many companies are caught in a spiral of uncertainty. That tends to gum up decisions, and ad spending is an easy expenditure to put on pause. The New York Times has warned that it expects advertising revenue to decline “in the mid-teens” in the current quarter as a result of coronavirus.

More time online might mean search engines & social networks capture a greater share of overall ad spend, but if large swaths of the economy do not convert & how people live changes for an extended period of time it will take time for the new categories to create the economic engines replacing the old out-of-favor categories.

[IMPORTANT: insert affiliate ad for cruise vacations here]

As Google sees advertisers pause ad budgets Google will get more aggressive with keeping users on their site & displacing organic click flows with additional ad clicks on the remaining advertisers.

When Google or Facebook see a 5% or 10% pullback other industry players might see a 30% to 50% decline as the industry pulls back broadly, focuses more resources on the core, and the big attention merchants offset their losses by clamping down on other players.

At its peak TripAdvisor was valued at about $14 billion & it is now valued at about $2 billion.

TripAdvisor announced layoffs. As did Expedia. As did Booking.com. As did many hotels. And airlines. etc. etc. etc.

I am not suggesting people should be fearful or dominated by negative emotions. Rather one should live as though many other will be living that way.

In times of elevated uncertainty, in business it is best to not be led by emotions unless they are positive ones. Spend a bit more time playing if you can afford to & work more on things you love.

Right now we might be living through the flu pandemic of 1918 and the Great Depression of 1929 while having constant access to social media updates. And that's awful.

Consume less but deeper. Less Twitter, less news, fewer big decisions, read more books.

It is better to be more pragmatic & logic-based in determining opportunity cost & the best strategy to use than to be led by extreme fear.

  • If you have sustainable high-margin revenue treasure it.
  • If you have low-margin revenue it might quickly turn into negative margin revenues unless something changes quickly.
  • If you have low-margin revenue which is sustainable but under-performed less stable high-margin revenues you might want to put a bit more effort into those sorts of projects as they are more likely to endure.

On a positive note, we might soon get a huge wave of innovation...

"Take the Great Depression. Economist Alexander Field writes that “the years 1929–1941 were, in the aggregate, the most technologically progressive of any comparable period in U.S. economic history.” Productivity growth was twice as fast in the 1930s as it was in the decade prior. The 1920s were the era of leisure because people could afford to relax. The 1930s were the era of frantic problem solving because people had no other choice. The Great Depression brought unimaginable financial pain. It also brought us supermarkets, microwaves, sunscreen, jets, rockets, electron microscopes, magnetic recording, nylon, photocopying, teflon, helicopters, color TV, plexiglass, commercial aviation, most forms of plastic, synthetic rubber, laundromats, and countless other discoveries."

The prior recession led to trends like Groupon. The McJobs recovery led to services like Uber & DoorDash. Food delivery has been trending south recently, though perhaps the stay-at-home economy will give it a boost.

I have been amazed at how fast affiliates moved with pushing N95 face masks online over the past couple months. Seeing how fast that stuff spun up really increases the perceived value of any sustainable high-margin businesses.

Amazon.com is hiring another 100,000 warehouse workers as people shop from home. Amazon banned new face masks and hand sanitizer listings. One guy had to donate around 18,000 cleaning products he couldn't sell.

I could see online education becoming far more popular as people aim to retrain while stuck at home.

What sorts of new industries will current & new technologies lead to as more people spend time working from home?

Gain a Competitive Advantage Today

Your top competitors have been investing into their marketing strategy for years.

Now you can know exactly where they rank, pick off their best keywords, and track new opportunities as they emerge.

Explore the ranking profile of your competitors in Google and Bing today using SEMrush.

Enter a competing URL below to quickly gain access to their organic & paid search performance history - for free.

See where they rank & beat them!

  • Comprehensive competitive data: research performance across organic search, AdWords, Bing ads, video, display ads, and more.
  • Compare Across Channels: use someone's AdWords strategy to drive your SEO growth, or use their SEO strategy to invest in paid search.
  • Global footprint: Tracks Google results for 120+ million keywords in many languages across 28 markets
  • Historical data: since 2009, before Panda and Penguin existed, so you can look for historical penalties and other potential ranking issues.
  • Risk-free: Free trial & low price.
Your competitors, are researching your site

Find New Opportunities Today

Subscription Fatigue

Subscription Management

I have active subscriptions with about a half-dozen different news & finance sites along with about a half dozen software tools, but sometimes using a VPN or web proxy across different web browsers makes logging in to all of them & clearing cookies for some paywall sites a real pain.

If you don't subscribe to any outlets then subscribing to an aggregator like Apple News+ can make a lot of sense, but it is very easy to end up with dozens of forgotten subscriptions.

Winner-take-most Market Stratification

The news business is coming to resemble other tech-enabled businesses where a winner takes most. The New York Times stock, for instance, is trading at 15 year highs & they recently announced they are raising subscription prices:

The New York Times is raising the price of its digital subscription for the first time, from $15 every four weeks to $17 — from about $195 to $221 a year.

With a Trump re-election all but assured after the Russsia, Russia, Russia garbage, the party-line impeachment (less private equity plunderer Mitt Romney) & the ridiculous Iowa primary, many NYT readers will pledge their #NeverTrumpTwice dollars with the New York Times.

If you think politics looks ridiculous today, wait until you see some of the China-related ads in a half-year as the 2019 novel coronavirus spreads around the world.

Arresting a doctor who warned about the outbreak doesn't have good optics, particularly after hundreds of other deaths piled up from it & when he later died from from the virus.

The optics keep getting worse.

How does a broad-based news site compete with the user generated Tweets in such a zone?

And any widely known individual journalist who builds a large audience might get disappeared.

Twitter recently surpassed $1 billion in quarterly revenues, but time spent on Twitter is time not spent on other news websites.

McClatchy filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Outside of a few core winners, the news business online has been so brutal that even Warren Buffett is now a seller. As the economics get uglier news sites get more extreme with ad placements, user data sales, and pushing subscriptions. Some of these aggressive monetization efforts make otherwise respectable news outlets look like part of a very downmarket subset of the web.

Users Fight Back

Users have thus adopted to blocking ads & are also starting to ramp up blocking paywall notifications.

Each additional layer of technological complexity is another cost center publishers have to fund, often through making the user experience of their sites worse, which in turn makes their own sites less differentiated & inferior to the copies they have left across the web (via AMP, via Facebook Instant Articles, syndication in Apple News or on various portal sites like MSN or Yahoo!).

A Web Browser For Every Season

Google Chrome is spyware, so I won't recommend installing that.

Here Google's official guide on how to remove the spyware.

The easiest & most basic solution which works across many sites using metered paywalls is to have multiple web browsers installed on your computer. Have a couple browsers which are used exclusively for reading news articles when they won't show up in your main browser & set those web browsers to delete cookies on close. Or open the browsers in private mode and search for the URL of the page from Google to see if that allows access.

  • If you like Firefox there are other iterations from other players like Pale Moon, Comodo IceDragon or Waterfox using their core.
  • If you like Google Chrome then Chromium is the parallel version of it without the spyware baked in. The Chromium project is also the underlying source used to build about a dozen other web browsers including: Opera, Vivaldi, Brave, Cilqz, Blisk, Comodo Dragon, SRWare Iron, Yandex Browser & many others. Even Microsoft recently switched their Edge browser to being powered by the Chromium project. The browsers based on the Chromium store allow you to install extensions from the Chrome web store.
  • Some web browsers monetize users by setting affiliate links on the home screen and/or by selling the default search engine recommendation. You can change those once and they'll typically stick with whatever settings you use.
  • For some browsers I use for regular day to day web use I set them up to continue session on restart, and I have a session manager plugin like this one for Firefox or this one for Chromium-based browsers. For browsers which are used exclusively for reading paywall blocked articles I set them up to clear cookies on restart.

Bypassing Paywalls

Many web browsers have a "reader" mode available which bypasses some JavaScript overlays that obfuscate content.

Here is a picture of the Mozilla Firefox reading mode button and how a website appears after clicking it.

There are also a couple solid web browser plugins built specifically for bypassing paywalls.

Academic Journals

Unpaywall is an open database of around 25,000,000 free scholarly articles. They provide extensions for Firefox and Chromium based web browsers on their website.

News Articles

There is also one for news publications called bypass paywalls.

  • Mozilla Firefox: To install the Firefox version go here.
  • Chrome-like web browsers: To install the Chrome version of the extension in Opera or Chromium or Microsoft Edge you can download the extension here, enter developer mode inside the extensions area of your web browser & install extension. To turn developer mode on, open up the drop down menu for the browser, click on extensions to go to the extension management area, and then slide the "Developer mode" button to the right so it is blue.

Regional Blocking

If you travel internationally some websites like YouTube or Twitter or news sites will have portions of their content restricted to only showing in some geographic regions. This can be especially true for new sports content and some music.

These can be bypassed by using a VPN service like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Witopia or IPVanish. Some VPN providers also sell pre-configured routers. If you buy a pre-configured router you can use an ethernet switch or wifi to switch back and forth between the regular router and the VPN router.

You can also buy web proxies & enter them into the Foxy Proxy web browser extension (Firefox or Chromium-compatible) with different browsers set to default to different country locations, making it easier to see what the search results show in different countries & cities quickly.

If you use a variety of web proxies you can configure some of them to work automatically in an open source rank tracking tool like Serposcope.

The Future of Journalism

I think the future of news is going to be a lot more sites like Ben Thompson's Stratechery or Jessica Lessin's TheInformation & far fewer broad/horizontal news organizations. Things are moving toward the 1,000 true fans or perhaps 100 true fans model:

This represents a move away from the traditional donation model—in which users pay to benefit the creator—to a value model, in which users are willing to pay more for something that benefits themselves. What was traditionally dubbed “self-help” now exists under the umbrella of “wellness.” People are willing to pay more for exclusive, ROI-positive services that are constructive in their lives, whether it’s related to health, finances, education, or work. In the offline world, people are accustomed to hiring experts across verticals

A friend of mine named Terry Godier launched a conversion-oriented email newsletter named Conversion Gold which has done quite well right out of the gate, leading him to launch IndieMailer, a community for paid newsletter creators.

The model which seems to be working well for those sorts of news sites is...

  • stick to a tight topic range
  • publish regularly at a somewhat decent frequency like daily or weekly, though have a strong preference to quality & originality over quantity
  • have a single author or a small core team which does most the writing and expand editorial hiring slowly
  • offer original insights & much more depth of coverage than you would typically find in the mainstream news
  • Rely on Wordpress or a low-cost CMS & billing technology partner like Substack, Memberful, sell on a marketplace like Udemy, Podia or Teachable, or if they have a bit more technical chops they can install aMember on their own server. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I opened up a membership site about a decade back was hand rolling custom code for memberhsip management. At one point we shut down the membership site for a while in order to allow us to rip out all that custom code & replace it with aMember.
  • Accept user comments on pieces or integrate a user forum using something like Discord on a subdomain or a custom Slack channel. Highlight or feature the best comments. Update readers to new features via email.
  • Invest much more into obtaining unique data & sources to deliver new insights without spending aggressively to syndicate onto other platforms using graphical content layouts which would require significant design, maintenance & updating expenses
  • Heavily differentiate your perspective from other sources
  • maintain a low technological maintenance overhead
  • low cost monthly subscription with a solid discount for annual pre-payment
  • instead of using a metered paywall, set some content to require payment to read & periodically publish full-feature free content (perhaps weekly) to keep up awareness of the offering in the broader public to help offset churn.

Some also work across multiple formats with complimentary offerings. The Ringer has done well with podcasts & Stratechery also has the Exponent podcast.

There are a number of other successful online-only news subscription sites like TheAthletic & Bill Bishop's Sinocism newsletter about China, but I haven't subscribed to them yet. Many people support a wide range of projects on platforms like Patreon & sites like MasterClass with an all-you-can-eat subscription will also make paying for online content far more common.

Favicon SEO

Google recently copied their mobile result layout over to desktop search results. The three big pieces which changed as part of that update were

  • URLs: In many cases Google will now show breadcrumbs in the search results rather than showing the full URL. The layout no longer differentiates between HTTP and HTTPS. And the URLs shifted from an easily visible green color to a much easier to miss black.
  • Favicons: All listings now show a favicon next to them.
  • Ad labeling: ad labeling is in the same spot as favicons are for organic search results, but the ad labels are a black which sort of blends in to the URL line. Over time expect the black ad label to become a lighter color in a way that parallels how Google made ad background colors lighter over time.

One could expect this change to boost the CTR on ads while lowering the CTR on organic search results, at least up until users get used to seeing favicons and not thinking of them as being ads.

The Verge panned the SERP layout update. Some folks on Reddit hate this new layout as it is visually distracting, the contrast on the URLs is worse, and many people think the organic results are ads.

I suspect a lot of phishing sites will use subdomains patterned off the brand they are arbitraging coupled with bogus favicons to try to look authentic. I wouldn't reconstruct an existing site's structure based on the current search result layout, but if I were building a brand new site I might prefer to put it at the root instead of on www so the words were that much closer to the logo.

Google provides the following guidelines for favicons

  • Both the favicon file and the home page must be crawlable by Google (that is, they cannot be blocked to Google).
  • Your favicon should be a visual representation of your website's brand, in order to help users quickly identify your site when they scan through search results.
  • Your favicon should be a multiple of 48px square, for example: 48x48px, 96x96px, 144x144px and so on. SVG files, of course, do not have a specific size. Any valid favicon format is supported. Google will rescale your image to 16x16px for use in search results, so make sure that it looks good at that resolution. Note: do not provide a 16x16px favicon.
  • The favicon URL should be stable (don’t change the URL frequently).
  • Google will not show any favicon that it deems inappropriate, including pornography or hate symbols (for example, swastikas). If this type of imagery is discovered within a favicon, Google will replace it with a default icon.

In addition to the above, I thought it would make sense to provide a few other tips for optimizing favicons.

  • Keep your favicons consistent across sections of your site if you are trying to offer a consistent brand perception.
  • In general, less is more. 16x16 is a tiny space, so if you try to convey a lot of information inside of it, you'll likely end up creating a blob that almost nobody but you recognizes.
  • It can make sense to include the first letter from a site's name or a simplified logo widget as the favicon, but it is hard to include both in a single favicon without it looking overdone & cluttered.
  • A colored favicon on a white background generally looks better than a white icon on a colored background, as having a colored background means you are eating into some of the scarce pixel space for a border.
  • Using a square shape versus a circle gives you more surface area to work with.
  • Even if your logo has italics on it, it might make sense to avoid using italics in the favicon to make the letter look cleaner.

Here are a few favicons I like & why I like them:

  • Citigroup - manages to get the word Citi in there while looking memorable & distinctive without looking overly cluttered
  • Nerdwallet - the N makes a great use of space, the colors are sharp, and it almost feels like an arrow that is pointing right
  • Inc - the bold I with a period is strong.
  • LinkedIn - very memorable using a small part of the word from their logo & good color usage.

Some of the other memorable ones that I like include: Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Paypal, Google Play & CNBC.

Here are a few favicons I dislike & why

  • Wikipedia - the W is hard to read.
  • USAA - they included both the logo widget and the 4 letters in a tiny space.
  • Yahoo! - they used inconsistent favicons across their sites & use italics on them. Some of the favicons have the whole word Yahoo in them while the others are the Y! in italics.

If you do not have a favicon Google will show a dull globe next to your listing. Real Favicon Generator is a good tool for creating favicons in various sizes.

What favicons do you really like? Which big sites do you see that are doing it wrong?

Brands vs Ads

Brand, Brand, Brand

About 7 years ago I wrote about how the search relevancy algorithms were placing heavy weighting on brand-related signals after Vince & Panda on the (half correct!) presumption that this would lead to excessive industry consolidation which in turn would force Google to turn the dials in the other direction.

My thesis was Google would need to increasingly promote some smaller niche sites to make general web search differentiated from other web channels & minimize the market power of vertical leading providers.

The reason my thesis was only half correct (and ultimately led to the absolutely wrong conclusion) is Google has the ability to provide the illusion of diversity while using sort of eye candy displacement efforts to shift an increasing share of searches from organic to paid results.

Shallow Verticals With a Shill Bid

As long as any market has at least 2 competitors in it Google can create a "me too" offering that they hard code front & center and force the other 2 players (along with other players along the value chain) to bid for marketshare. If competitors are likely to complain about the thinness of the me too offering & it being built upon scraping other websites, Google can buy out a brand like Zagat or a data supplier like ITA Software to undermine criticism until the artificially promoted vertical service has enough usage that it is nearly on par with other players in the ecosystem.

Google need not win every market. They only need to ensure there are at least 2 competing bids left in the marketplace while dialing back SEO exposure. They can then run other services to redirect user flow and force the ad buy. They can insert their own bid as a sort of shill floor bid in their auction. If you bid below that amount they'll collect the profit through serving the customer directly, if you bid above that they'll let you buy the customer vs doing a direct booking.

Adding Volatility to Economies of Scale

Where this gets more than a bit tricky is if you are a supplier of third party goods & services where you buy in bulk to get preferential pricing for resale. If you buy 100 rooms a night from a particular hotel based on the presumption of prior market performance & certain channels effectively disappear you have to bid above market to sell some portion of the rooms because getting anything for them is better than leaving them unsold.

"Well I am not in hotels, so thankfully this won't impact me" is an incomplete thought. Google Ads now offer a lead generation extension.

Dipping a bit back into history here, but after Groupon said no to Google's acquisition offer Google promptly partnered with players 2 through n to ensure Groupon did not have a lasting competitive advantage. In the fullness of time most those companies died, LivingSocial was acquired by Groupon for nothing & Groupon is today worth less than the amount they raised in VC & IPO funding.

Markets Naturally Evolve Toward Promoting Brands

When a vertical is new a player can compete just by showing up. Then over time as the verticals become established consumers develop habits, brands beat out generics & the markets get consolidated down to being heavily influenced & controlled by a couple strong players.

In the offline world of atoms there are real world costs tied to local regulations, shipping, sourcing, supply chains, inventory management, etc. The structure of the web & the lack of marginal distribution cost causes online markets to be even more consolidated than their offline analogs.

When Travelocity outsourced their backend infrastructure to Expedia most people visiting their website were unaware of the change. After Expedia acquired the site, longtime Travelocity customers likely remained unaware. In some businesses the only significant difference in the user experience is the logo at the top of the page.

Most large markets will ultimately consolidate down to a couple players (e.g. Booking vs Expedia) while smaller players lack the scale needed to have the economic leverage to pay Google's increasing rents.

This sort of consolidation was happening even when the search results were mostly organic & relevancy was driven primarily by links. As Google has folded in usage data & increased ad load on the search results it becomes harder for a generically descriptive domain name to build brand-related signals.

Re-sorting the Markets Once More

It is not only generically descriptive sorts of sites that have faded though. Many brand investments turned out to be money losers after the search result set was displaced by more ads (& many brand-related search result pages also carry ads above the organic results).

The ill informed might write something like this:

Since the Motorola debacle, it was Google's largest acquisition after the $676 million purchase of ITA Software, which became Google Flights. (Uh, remember that? Does anyone use that instead of Travelocity or one of the many others? Neither do I.)

The reality is brands lose value as the organic result set is displaced. To make the margins work they might desperately outsource just about everything but marketing to a competitor / partner, which will then latter acquire them for a song.

Travelocity had roughly 3,000 people on the payroll globally as recently as a couple of years ago, but the Travelocity workforce has been whittled to around 50 employees in North America with many based in the Dallas area.

The best relevancy algorithm in the world is trumped by preferential placement of inferior results which bypasses the algorithm. If inferior results are hard coded in placements which violate net neutrality for an extended period of time, they can starve other players in the market from the vital user data & revenues needed to reinvest into growth and differentiation.

Value plays see their stocks crash as growth slows or goes in reverse. With the exception of startups funded by Softbank, growth plays are locked out of receiving further investment rounds as their growth rate slides.

Startups like Hipmunk disappear. Even an Orbitz or Travelocity become bolt on acquisitions.

The viability of TripAdvisor as a stand alone business becomes questioned, leading them to partner with Ctrip.

TripAdvisor has one of the best link profiles of any commercially oriented website outside of perhaps Amazon.com. But ranking #1 doesn't count for much if that #1 ranking is below the fold. Or, even worse, if Google literally hides the organic search results.

TripAdvisor shifted their business model to allow direct booking to better monetize mobile web users, but as Google has ate screen real estate and grew Google Travel into a $100 billion business other players have seen their stocks sag.

Top of The Funnel

Google sits at the top of the funnel & all other parts of the value chain are compliments to be commoditized.

  • Buy premium domain names? Google's SERPs test replacing domain names with words & make the words associated with the domain name gray.
  • Improve conversion rates? Your competitor almost certainly did as well, now you both can bid more & hand over an increasing economic rent to Google.
  • Invest in brand awareness? Google shows ads for competitors on your brand terms, forcing you to buy to protect the brand equity you paid to build.

Search Metrics mentioned Hotels.com was one of the biggest losers during the recent algorithm updates: "I’m going to keep on this same theme there, and I’m not going to say overall numbers, the biggest loser, but for my loser I’m going to pick Hotels.com, because they were literally like neck and neck, like one and two with Booking, as far as how close together they were, and the last four weeks, they’ve really increased that separation."

As Google ate the travel category the value of hotel-related domain names has fallen through the floor.

Most of the top selling hotel-related domain names were sold about a decade ago:

On August 8th HongKongHotels.com sold for $4,038. A decade ago that name likely would have sold for around $100,000.

And the new buyer may have overpaid for it!

Growing Faster Than the Market

Google consistently grows their ad revenues 20% a year in a global economy growing at under 4%.

There are only about 6 ways they can do that

  • growth of web usage (though many of those who are getting online today have a far lower disposable income than those who got on a decade or two ago did)
  • gain marketshare (very hard in search, given that they effectively are the market in most markets outside of a few countries like China & Russia)
  • create new inventory (new ad types on image search results, Google Maps & YouTube)
  • charge more for clicks
  • improve at targeting through better surveillance of web users (getting harder after GDPR & similar efforts from some states in the next year or two)
  • shift click streams away from organic toward paid channels (through larger ads, more interactive ad units, less appealing organic result formatting, pushing organic results below the fold, hiding organic results, etc.)

Six of One, Half-dozen of the Other

Wednesday both Expedia and TripAdvisor reported earnings after hours & both fell off a cliff: "Both Okerstrom and Kaufer complained that their organic, or free, links are ending up further down the page in Google search results as Google prioritizes its own travel businesses."

Losing 20% to 25% of your market cap in a single day is an extreme move for a company worth billions of dollars.

Thursday Google hit fresh all time highs.

"Google’s old motto was ‘Don’t Be Evil’, but you can’t be this big and profitable and not be evil. Evil and all-time highs pretty much go hand in hand." - Howard Lindzon

Booking held up much better than TripAdvisor & Expedia as they have a bigger footprint in Europe (where antitrust is a thing) and they have a higher reliance on paid search versus organic.

Frozen in Fear vs Fearless

The broader SEO industry is to some degree frozen by fear. Roughly half of SEOs claim to have not bought *ANY* links in a half-decade.

Long after most of the industry has stopped buying links some people still run the "paid links are a potential FTC violation guideline" line as though it is insightful and/or useful.

Ask the people carrying Google's water what they think of the official FTC guidance on poor ad labeling in search results and you will hear the beautiful sound of crickets chirping.

Where is the ad labeling in this unit?

Does small gray text in the upper right corner stating "about these results" count as legitimate ad labeling?

And then when you scroll over that gray text and click on it you get "Some of these hotel search results may be personalized based on your browsing activity and recent searches on Google, as well as travel confirmations sent to your Gmail. Hotel prices come from Google's partners."

Ads, Scroll, Ads, Scroll, Ads...

Zooming out a bit further on the above ad unit to look at the entire search result page, we can now see the following:

  • 4 text ad units above the map
  • huge map which segments demand by price tier, current sales, luxury, average review, geographic location
  • organic results below the above wall of ads, and the number of organic search results has been reduced from 10 to 7

How many scrolls does one need to do to get past the above wall of ads?

If one clicks on one of the hotel prices the follow up page is ... more ads.

Check out how the ad label is visually overwhelmed by a bright blue pop over.

Defund

It is worth noting Google Chrome has a built-in ad blocking feature which allows them to strip all ads from displaying on third party websites if they follow Google's best practices layout used in the search results.

You won't see ads on websites that have poor ad experiences, like:

  • Too many ads
  • Annoying ads with flashing graphics or autoplaying audio
  • Ad walls before you can see content

When these ads are blocked, you'll see an "Intrusive ads blocked" message. Intrusive ads will be removed from the page.

The following 4 are all true:

And, as a bonus, to some paid links are a crime but Google can sponsor academic conferences for market regulators while requesting the payments not be disclosed.

Excessive Profits = Spam

Hotels have been at the forefront of SEO for many years. They drive massive revenues & were perhaps the only vertical ever referenced in the Google rater guidelines which explicitly stated all affiliate sites should be labeled as spam even if they are helpful to users.

Google has won most of the profits in the travel market & so they'll need to eat other markets to continue their 20% annual growth.

As they grow, other markets disappear.

"It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug." - Googler John Rockway, January 31, 2012

Some people who market themselves as SEO experts not only recognize this trend but even encourage this sort of behavior:

Zoopla, Rightmove and On The Market are all dominant players in the industry, and many of their house and apartment listings are duplicated across the different property portals. This represents a very real reason for Google to step in and create a more streamlined service that will help users make a more informed decision. ... The launch of Google Jobs should not have come as a surprise to anyone, and neither should its potential foray into real estate. Google will want to diversify its revenue channels as much as possible, and any market that allows it to do so will be in its sights. It is no longer a matter of if they succeed, but when.

If nobody is serving a market that is justification for entering it. If a market has many diverse players that is justification for entering it. If a market is dominated by a few strong players that is justification for entering it. All roads lead to the pile of money. :)

Extracting information from the ecosystem & diverting attention from other players while charging rising rents does not make the ecosystem stronger. Doing so does not help users make a more informed decision.

Information as a Vertical

The dominance Google has in core profitable vertical markets also exists in the news & general publishing categories. Some publishers get more traffic from Google Discover than from Google search. Publishers which try to turn off Google's programmatic ads find their display ad revenues fall off a cliff:

"Nexstar Media Group Inc., the largest local news company in the U.S., recently tested what would happen if it stopped using Google’s technology to place ads on its websites. Over several days, the company’s video ad sales plummeted. “That’s a huge revenue hit,” said Tony Katsur, senior vice president at Nexstar. After its brief test, Nexstar switched back to Google." ... "Regulators who approved that $3.1 billion deal warned they would step in if the company tied together its offerings in anticompetitive ways. In interviews, dozens of publishing and advertising executives said Google is doing just that with an array of interwoven products."

News is operating like many other (broken) markets. The Salt Lake Tribune converted to a nonprofit organization.

Many local markets have been consolidated down to ownership by a couple private equity shop roll ups looking to further consolidate the market. Gatehouse Media acquired Gannett & has a $1.8 billion mountain of debt to pay off.

McClatchy - the second largest domestic newspaper chain - may soon file for bankruptcy:

there’s some nuance in this new drama — one of many to come from the past decade’s conversion of news companies into financial instruments stripped of civic responsibility by waves of outside money men. After all, when we talk about newspaper companies, we typically use their corporate names — Gannett, GateHouse, McClatchy, MNG, Lee. But it’s at least as appropriate to use the names of the hedge funds, private equity companies, and other investment vehicles that own and control them.

The Washington Post - owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos - is creating an ad tech stack which serves other publishers & brands, though they also believe a reliance on advertiser & subscription revenue is unsustainable: “We are too beholden to just advertiser and subscriber revenue, and we’re completely out of our minds if we think that’s what’s going to be what carries us through the next generation of publishing. That’s very clear.”

Future Prospects

We are nearing inflection points in many markets where markets that seemed somewhat disconnected from search will still end up being dominated by Google. Gmail, Android, Web Analytics, Play Store, YouTube, Maps, Waze ... are all additional points of leverage beyond the core search & ads products.

If all roads lead to money one can't skip healthcare - now roughly 20% of the United States GDP.

Google scrubbed many alternative health sites from the search results. Some of them may have deserved it. Others were perhaps false positives.

Google wants to get into the healthcare market in a meaningful way. Google bought Fitbit and partnered with Ascension on a secret project gathering health information on over 50 million Americans.

Google is investing heavily in quantum computing. Google Fiber was a nothingburger to force competing ISPs into accelerating expensive network upgrades, but beaming in internet services from satellites will allow Google to bypass local politics, local regulations & heavy network infrastructure construction costs. A startup named Kepler recently provided high-bandwidth connectivity to the Arctic. When Google launches a free ISP there will be many knock on effects causing partners to long for the day where Google was only as predatory as they are today.

"Capitalism is an efficient system for surfacing and addressing the needs of consumers. But once it veers toward control over markets by a single entity, those benefits disappear." - Seth Godin

Internet Wayback Machine Adds Historical TextDiff

The Wayback Machine has a cool new feature for looking at the historical changes of a web page.

The color scale shows how much a page has changed since it was last cached & you can select between any two documents to see how a page has changed over time.

You can then select between any two documents to see a side-by-side comparison of the documents.

That quickly gives you an at-a-glance view of how they've changed their:

  • web design
  • on-page SEO strategy
  • marketing copy & sales strategy

For sites that conduct seasonal sales & rely heavily on holiday themed ads you can also look up the new & historical ad copy used by large advertisers using tools like Moat, WhatRunsWhere & Adbeat.

Dofollow, Nofollow, Sponsored, UGC

A Change to Nofollow

Last month Google announced they were going to change how they treated nofollow, moving it from a directive toward a hint. As part of that they also announced the release of parallel attributes rel="sponsored" for sponsored links & rel="ugc" for user generated content in areas like forums & blog comments.

Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.

In many emerging markets the mobile web is effectively the entire web. Few people create HTML links on the mobile web outside of on social networks where links are typically nofollow by default. This reduces the potential signal available to either tracking what people do directly and/or shifting how the nofollow attribute is treated.

Google shifting how nofollow is treated is a blanket admission that Penguin & other elements of "the war on links" were perhaps a bit too effective and have started to take valuable signals away from Google.

Google has suggested the shift in how nofollow is treated will not lead to any additional blog comment spam. When they announced nofollow they suggested it would lower blog comment spam. Blog comment spam remains a growth market long after the gravity of the web has shifted away from blogs onto social networks.

Changing how nofollow is treated only makes any sort of external link analysis that much harder. Those who specialize in link audits (yuck!) have historically ignored nofollow links, but now that is one more set of things to look through. And the good news for professional link auditors is that increases the effective cost they can charge clients for the service.

Some nefarious types will notice when competitors get penalized & then fire up Xrummer to help promote the penalized site, ensuring that the link auditor bankrupts the competing business even faster than Google.

Links, Engagement, or Something Else...

When Google was launched they didn't own Chrome or Android. They were not yet pervasively spying on billions of people:

If, like most people, you thought Google stopped tracking your location once you turned off Location History in your account settings, you were wrong. According to an AP investigation published Monday, even if you disable Location History, the search giant still tracks you every time you open Google Maps, get certain automatic weather updates, or search for things in your browser.

Thus Google had to rely on external signals as their primary ranking factor:

The reason that PageRank is interesting is that there are many cases where simple citation counting does not correspond to our common sense notion of importance. For example, if a web page has a link on the Yahoo home page, it may be just one link but it is a very important one. This page should be ranked higher than many pages with more links but from obscure places. PageRank is an attempt to see how good an approximation to "importance" can be obtained just from the link structure. ... The denition of PageRank above has another intuitive basis in random walks on graphs. The simplied version corresponds to the standing probability distribution of a random walk on the graph of the Web. Intuitively, this can be thought of as modeling the behavior of a "random surfer".

Google's reliance on links turned links into a commodity, which led to all sorts of fearmongering, manual penalties, nofollow and the Penguin update.

As Google collected more usage data those who overly focused on links often ended up scoring an own goal, creating sites which would not rank.

Google no longer invests heavily in fearmongering because it is no longer needed. Search is so complex most people can't figure it out.

Many SEOs have reduced their link building efforts as Google dialed up weighting on user engagement metrics, though it appears the tide may now be heading in the other direction. Some sites which had decent engagement metrics but little in the way of link building slid on the update late last month.

As much as Google desires relevancy in the short term, they also prefer a system complex enough to external onlookers that reverse engineering feels impossible. If they discourage investment in SEO they increase AdWords growth while gaining greater control over algorithmic relevancy.

Google will soon collect even more usage data by routing Chrome users through their DNS service: "Google isn't actually forcing Chrome users to only use Google's DNS service, and so it is not centralizing the data. Google is instead configuring Chrome to use DoH connections by default if a user's DNS service supports it."

If traffic is routed through Google that is akin to them hosting the page in terms of being able to track many aspects of user behavior. It is akin to AMP or YouTube in terms of being able to track users and normalize relative engagement metrics.

Once Google is hosting the end-to-end user experience they can create a near infinite number of ranking signals given their advancement in computing power: "We developed a new 54-qubit processor, named “Sycamore”, that is comprised of fast, high-fidelity quantum logic gates, in order to perform the benchmark testing. Our machine performed the target computation in 200 seconds, and from measurements in our experiment we determined that it would take the world’s fastest supercomputer 10,000 years to produce a similar output."

Relying on "one simple trick to..." sorts of approaches are frequently going to come up empty.

EMDs Kicked Once Again

I was one of the early promoters of exact match domains when the broader industry did not believe in them. I was also quick to mention when I felt the algorithms had moved in the other direction.

Google's mobile layout, which they are now testing on desktop computers as well, replaces green domain names with gray words which are easy to miss. And the favicon icons sort of make the organic results look like ads. Any boost a domain name like CreditCards.ext might have garnered in the past due to matching the keyword has certainly gone away with this new layout that further depreciates the impact of exact-match domain names.

At one point in time CreditCards.com was viewed as a consumer destination. It is now viewed ... below the fold.

If you have a memorable brand-oriented domain name the favicon can help offset the above impact somewhat, but matching keywords is becoming a much more precarious approach to sustaining rankings as the weight on brand awareness, user engagement & authority increase relative to the weight on anchor text.

New Keyword Tool

Our keyword tool is updated periodically. We recently updated it once more.

For comparison sake, the old keyword tool looked like this

Whereas the new keyword tool looks like this

The upsides of the new keyword tool are:

  • fresher data from this year
  • more granular data on ad bids vs click prices
  • lists ad clickthrough rate
  • more granular estimates of Google AdWords advertiser ad bids
  • more emphasis on commercial oriented keywords

With the new columns of [ad spend] and [traffic value] here is how we estimate those.

  • paid search ad spend: search ad clicks * CPC
  • organic search traffic value: ad impressions * 0.5 * (100% - ad CTR) * CPC

The first of those two is rather self explanatory. The second is a bit more complex. It starts with the assumption that about half of all searches do not get any clicks, then it subtracts the paid clicks from the total remaining pool of clicks & multiplies that by the cost per click.

The new data also has some drawbacks:

  • Rather than listing search counts specifically it lists relative ranges like low, very high, etc.
  • Since it tends to tilt more toward keywords with ad impressions, it may not have coverage for some longer tail informational keywords.

For any keyword where there is insufficient coverage we re-query the old keyword database for data & merge it across. You will know if data came from the new database if the first column says something like low or high & the data came from the older database if there are specific search counts in the first column

For a limited time we are still allowing access to both keyword tools, though we anticipate removing access to the old keyword tool in the future once we have collected plenty of feedback on the new keyword tool. Please feel free to leave your feedback in the below comments.

One of the cool features of the new keyword tools worth highlighting further is the difference between estimated bid prices & estimated click prices. In the following screenshot you can see how Amazon is estimated as having a much higher bid price than actual click price, largely because due to low keyword relevancy entities other than the official brand being arbitraged by Google require much higher bids to appear on competing popular trademark terms.

Historically, this difference between bid price & click price was a big source of noise on lists of the most valuable keywords.

Recently some advertisers have started complaining about the "Google shakedown" from how many brand-driven searches are simply leaving the .com part off of a web address in Chrome & then being forced to pay Google for their own pre-existing brand equity.

AMP'd Up for Recaptcha

Beyond search Google controls the leading distributed ad network, the leading mobile OS, the leading web browser, the leading email client, the leading web analytics platform, the leading mapping platform, the leading free video hosting site.

They win a lot.

And they take winnings from one market & leverage them into manipulating adjacent markets.

Embrace. Extend. Extinguish.

AMP is an utterly unnecessary invention designed to further shift power to Google while disenfranchising publishers. From the very start it had many issues with basic things like supporting JavaScript, double counting unique users (no reason to fix broken stats if they drive adoption!), not supporting third party ad networks, not showing publisher domain names, and just generally being a useless layer of sunk cost technical overhead that provides literally no real value.

Over time they have corrected some of these catastrophic deficiencies, but if it provided real value, they wouldn't have needed to force adoption with preferential placement in their search results. They force the bundling because AMP sucks.

Absurdity knows no bounds. Googlers suggest: "AMP isn’t another “channel” or “format” that’s somehow not the web. It’s not a SEO thing. It’s not a replacement for HTML. It’s a web component framework that can power your whole site. ... We, the AMP team, want AMP to become a natural choice for modern web development of content websites, and for you to choose AMP as framework because it genuinely makes you more productive."

Meanwhile some newspapers have about a dozen employees who work on re-formatting content for AMP:

The AMP development team now keeps track of whether AMP traffic drops suddenly, which might indicate pages are invalid, and it can react quickly.

All this adds expense, though. There are setup, development and maintenance costs associated with AMP, mostly in the form of time. After implementing AMP, the Guardian realized the project needed dedicated staff, so it created an 11-person team that works on AMP and other aspects of the site, drawing mostly from existing staff.

Feeeeeel the productivity!

Some content types (particularly user generated content) can be unpredictable & circuitous. For many years forums websites would use keywords embedded in the search referral to highlight relevant parts of the page. Keyword (not provided) largely destroyed that & then it became a competitive feature for AMP: "If the Featured Snippet links to an AMP article, Google will sometimes automatically scroll users to that section and highlight the answer in orange."

That would perhaps be a single area where AMP was more efficient than the alternative. But it is only so because Google destroyed the alternative by stripping keyword referrers from search queries.

The power dynamics of AMP are ugly:

"I see them as part of the effort to normalise the use of the AMP Carousel, which is an anti-competitive land-grab for the web by an organisation that seems to have an insatiable appetite for consuming the web, probably ultimately to it’s own detriment. ... This enables Google to continue to exist after the destination site (eg the New York Times) has been navigated to. Essentially it flips the parent-child relationship to be the other way around. ... As soon as a publisher blesses a piece of content by packaging it (they have to opt in to this, but see coercion below), they totally lose control of its distribution. ... I’m not that smart, so it’s surely possible to figure out other ways of making a preload possible without cutting off the content creator from the people consuming their content. ... The web is open and decentralised. We spend a lot of time valuing the first of these concepts, but almost none trying to defend the second. Google knows, perhaps better than anyone, how being in control of the user is the most monetisable position, and having the deepest pockets and the most powerful platform to do so, they have very successfully inserted themselves into my relationship with millions of other websites. ... In AMP, the support for paywalls is based on a recommendation that the premium content be included in the source of the page regardless of the user’s authorisation state. ... These policies demonstrate contempt for others’ right to freely operate their businesses.

After enough publishers adopted AMP Google was able to turn their mobile app's homepage into an interactive news feed below the search box. And inside that news feed Google gets to distribute MOAR ads while 0% of the revenue from those ads find its way to the publishers whose content is used to make up the feed.

Appropriate appropriation. :D

Thank you for your content!!!

The mainstream media is waking up to AMP being a trap, but their neck is already in it:

European and American tech, media and publishing companies, including some that originally embraced AMP, are complaining that the Google-backed technology, which loads article pages in the blink of an eye on smartphones, is cementing the search giant's dominance on the mobile web.

Each additional layer of technical cruft is another cost center. Things that sound appealing at first blush may not be:

The way you verify your identity to Let's Encrypt is the same as with other certificate authorities: you don't really. You place a file somewhere on your website, and they access that file over plain HTTP to verify that you own the website. The one attack that signed certificates are meant to prevent is a man-in-the-middle attack. But if someone is able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack against your website, then he can intercept the certificate verification, too. In other words, Let's Encrypt certificates don't stop the one thing they're supposed to stop. And, as always with the certificate authorities, a thousand murderous theocracies, advertising companies, and international spy organizations are allowed to impersonate you by design.

Anything that is easy to implement & widely marketed often has costs added to it in the future as the entity moves to monetize the service.

This is a private equity firm buying up multiple hosting control panels & then adjusting prices.

This is Google Maps drastically changing their API terms.

This is Facebook charging you for likes to build an audience, giving your competitors access to those likes as an addressable audience to advertise against, and then charging you once more to boost the reach of your posts.

This is Grubhub creating shadow websites on your behalf and charging you for every transaction created by the gravity of your brand.

Shivane believes GrubHub purchased her restaurant’s web domain to prevent her from building her own online presence. She also believes the company may have had a special interest in owning her name because she processes a high volume of orders. ... it appears GrubHub has set up several generic, templated pages that look like real restaurant websites but in fact link only to GrubHub. These pages also display phone numbers that GrubHub controls. The calls are forwarded to the restaurant, but the platform records each one and charges the restaurant a commission fee for every order

Settling for the easiest option drives a lack of differentiation, embeds additional risk & once the dominant player has enough marketshare they'll change the terms on you.

Small gains in short term margins for massive increases in fragility.

"Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don't like standardization ... it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction" - Gabe Newell

The other big issue is platforms that run out of growth space in their core market may break integrations with adjacent service providers as each want to grow by eating the other's market.

Those who look at SaaS business models through the eyes of a seasoned investor will better understand how markets are likely to change:

"I’d argue that many of today’s anointed tech “disruptors” are doing little in the way of true disruption. ... When investors used to get excited about a SAAS company, they typically would be describing a hosted multi-tenant subscription-billed piece of software that was replacing a ‘legacy’ on-premise perpetual license solution in the same target market (i.e. ERP, HCM, CRM, etc.). Today, the terms SAAS and Cloud essentially describe the business models of every single public software company.

Most platform companies are initially required to operate at low margins in order to buy growth of their category & own their category. Then when they are valued on that, they quickly need to jump across to adjacent markets to grow into the valuation:

Twilio has no choice but to climb up the application stack. This is a company whose ‘disruption’ is essentially great API documentation and gangbuster SEO spend built on top of a highly commoditized telephony aggregation API. They have won by marketing to DevOps engineers. With all the hype around them, you’d think Twilio invented the telephony API, when in reality what they did was turn it into a product company. Nobody had thought of doing this let alone that this could turn into a $17 billion company because simply put the economics don’t work. And to be clear they still don’t. But Twilio’s genius CEO clearly gets this. If the market is going to value robocalls, emergency sms notifications, on-call pages, and carrier fee passed through related revenue growth in the same way it does ‘subscription’ revenue from Atlassian or ServiceNow, then take advantage of it while it lasts.

Large platforms offering temporary subsidies to ensure they dominate their categories & companies like SoftBank spraying capital across the markets is causing massive shifts in valuations:

I also think if you look closely at what is celebrated today as innovation you often find models built on hidden subsidies. ... I’d argue the very distributed nature of microservices architecture and API-first product companies means addressable market sizes and unit economics assumptions should be even more carefully scrutinized. ... How hard would it be to create an Alibaba today if someone like SoftBank was raining money into such a greenfield space? Excess capital would lead to destruction and likely subpar returns. If capital was the solution, the 1.5 trillion that went into telcos in late '90s wouldn’t have led to a massive bust. Would a Netflix be what it is today if a SoftBank was pouring billions into streaming content startups right as the experiment was starting? Obviously not. Scarcity of capital is another often underappreciated part of the disruption equation. Knowing resources are finite leads to more robust models. ... This convergence is starting to manifest itself in performance. Disney is up 30% over the last 12 months while Netflix is basically flat. This may not feel like a bubble sign to most investors, but from my standpoint, it’s a clear evidence of the fact that we are approaching a something has got to give moment for the way certain businesses are valued."

Circling back to Google's AMP, it has a cousin called Recaptcha.

Recaptcha is another AMP-like trojan horse:

According to tech statistics website Built With, more than 650,000 websites are already using reCaptcha v3; overall, there are at least 4.5 million websites use reCaptcha, including 25% of the top 10,000 sites. Google is also now testing an enterprise version of reCaptcha v3, where Google creates a customized reCaptcha for enterprises that are looking for more granular data about users’ risk levels to protect their site algorithms from malicious users and bots. ... According to two security researchers who’ve studied reCaptcha, one of the ways that Google determines whether you’re a malicious user or not is whether you already have a Google cookie installed on your browser. ... To make this risk-score system work accurately, website administrators are supposed to embed reCaptcha v3 code on all of the pages of their website, not just on forms or log-in pages.

About a month ago when logging into Bing Ads I saw recaptcha on the login page & couldn't believe they'd give Google control at that access point. I think they got rid of that, but lots of companies are perhaps shooting themselves in the foot through a combination of over-reliance on Google infrastructure AND sloppy implementation

Today when making a purchase on Fiverr, after converting, I got some of this action

Hmm. Maybe I will enable JavaScript and try again.

Oooops.

That is called snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

My account is many years old. My payment type on record has been used for years. I have ordered from the particular seller about a dozen times over the years. And suddenly because my web browser had JavaScript turned off I was deemed a security risk of some sort for making an utterly ordinary transaction I have already completed about a dozen times.

On AMP JavaScript was the devil. And on desktop not JavaScript was the devil.

Pro tip: Ecommerce websites that see substandard conversion rates from using Recaptcha can boost their overall ecommerce revenue by buying more Google AdWords ads.

---

As more of the infrastructure stack is driven by AI software there is going to be a very real opportunity for many people to become deplatformed across the web on an utterly arbitrary basis. That tech companies like Facebook also want to create digital currencies on top of the leverage they already have only makes the proposition that much scarier.

If the tech platforms host copies of our sites, process the transactions & even create their own currencies, how will we know what level of value they are adding versus what they are extracting?

Who measures the measurer?

And when the economics turn negative, what will we do if we are hooked into an ecosystem we can't spend additional capital to get out of when things head south?

Pages