More Ways for Google to Embed Themselves in Your Conversion Stream

Nov 5th

The Free Credit Report ads have caused such user confusion in the marketplace that the government has felt the need to create a spoof site with $100,000 worth of amateur video to mock Free Credit Report.com. And yet even if you search for the official website [Annual Credit Report] to this very day Google is cashing in showing 3 PPC ads ABOVE the organic search results for that NAVIGATIONAL search query...sorta like how they were cashing in on eBay's brand recently.

For [Annual Credit Report] the government has stepped in and said what is right for the consumer. But the Google AdWords team has different ideas. "Increasing user choice" means the official site at best ranks #4.

It doesn't matter if you are a white knight SEO. This free credit report link doesn't matter if Google is going to put scammy AdWords ads at the top of the search results where most searchers think those are the most important results.

Google is cashing in on searcher ignorance and misplaced trust, at least while they can - just like other scammers pushing reverse billing fraud would do.

Search competition is important, because without it, consumers lose out on choice. You can see the absurdity of Google's position when they claimed sitelinks on AdWords ads increase user choice. Giving the most dominant players in any market more share of voice only aims to consolidate the marketplace further. If they wanted to increase user choice they would show more result diversity on the page and/or more search results on the page, not just show you more from a big spending market leader.

When you think about Google moving into lead generation and becoming an affiliate play you can see they have massive upside potential. Why? They are the default way most people search the web. So even if someone is searching on a brand and making a navigational search, Google still gets a bite on the apple and shows up as the source of conversion. Don't pay Google their tithing? Too bad, they will sell your brand to leading competitors.

And they are aiming to extend out with this strategy. Not only did the Google Chrome browser replace the address bar with a search box, but Google has been pulling back on data they put in some search results to drive a second click onto other Google properties.

Here is my favorite local Indian restaurant on Google

Up until this past week that listing had a phone number on it. Now it doesn't. I am required to make 1 more click so Google can show their large local search marketplace and their dominance over local/maps search.

In the short run Google makes it easy to embed themselves in your business. Analytics and testing are free. They provide services at a loss to gather data and destroy marketplace competition - exerting their monopoly power without being called a monopoly. Cell phone providers get the Android operating system for less than free. Ecommerce players get a new commerce site search option. Content players get an enhanced Friend Connect. In the short run they make life easier and margins thicker. But after competition is removed from the marketplace look for Google to claw back on partners - just like they did to LendingTree, domainers, and anyone with a brand or a local business listing.

BEWARE: Information wants to be free. Attention wants to be monetized. After net-neutrality will we need a Google neutrality?

Published: November 5, 2009

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Comments

November 5, 2009 - 3:57pm

For a definition of "evil" that still works.
Maybe I'll Google it.

November 5, 2009 - 6:29pm

I wanted to get a little fired up when I saw the phone numbers had been removed from Google Local listings, but my first reaction was that this is no different than the strategy many other yellow pages publishers took for years in order to generate more page views and to sell advertisers on the click that revealed the phone number in a results page. This is the kind of strategic thinking has helped speed up the trip to bankruptcy for several yellow pages cos.

While I wouldn't suggest that Google is in the same league, this kind of move feels like a step in that general direction. Sucks for us in the near term but I believe it will suck more for GOOG in the long term.

November 5, 2009 - 8:39pm

There is no reason that the FTC should get a free ride; why shouldn't they advertise their website using google adwords?

Surely their high quality score would drive out the other bidders and probably do at least as much good as their website.

November 5, 2009 - 10:14pm

I am not saying that the FTC should get a free ride. BUT if a scam is so abusive and prevalent that the FTC needs to address it directly then WHEN PEOPLE DO A NAVIGATIONAL SEARCH FOR THE REAL PRODUCT why does Google feel the need to put 3 scammy ads above the top result?

Remember how they did algorithm changes to try to make search more relevant and quicker by showing more brands on some generic search queries? Well when someone searches for a brand by name (ie does a navigational search) it is sorta bogus to throw 3 scams at the top of the page. It is certainly counter to the concept of relevancy and user experience ethos Google claims to hold near and dear.

November 6, 2009 - 12:54am

Sorry, I disagree.

The credit repair field is very competitive, and if the FTC wants to be serious it should take out the appropriate ads.

But the FTC is way behind the curve: my own site about franchise business opportunity fraud outranks their own dedicated pages!

See: http://www.bizop.ca/blog2/due-diligence/how-bizopca-out-ranks-us-gover.html

And I don't even know what I am doing with SEO.

November 6, 2009 - 1:16am

Well I think you proved my point.
1.) They care so little that they haven't even tried ranking for that
2.) Even when they do care they still can't outrank the Google AdWords ads if Google decides to plaster them at the top of the search results

November 6, 2009 - 2:00am

The point is that the FTC should pay to play, and they could drive down inappropriate ads because of the FTC's quality score. At the very least, the FTC could increase the cost of scam artists run ads - which is a very good thing.

November 6, 2009 - 6:33am

Why should the FTC have to ***pay*** in a bidding war to block scams? If Google gave a crap about user experience (and not just monetizing user attention) it would be something Google should do automatically.

November 6, 2009 - 2:34pm

The FTC spends millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation dollars yearly to enforce both Section 5 and the Franchise Rule against scammers. Their dollar return for this litigation is about 5 cents on the dollar.

Prior to the 1999, most of the Franchise Rule violations started with ads in the classified sections of newspapers - the business opportunity section. The FTC would have loved the opportunity to make those ads more expensive to the con criminals.

Today, there are virtually no offline business opportunity classifieds left.

The con criminals have migrated to the internet, and have sophisticated adwords programs, among other things.

The FTC still acts, although to give it credit it is changing, as if it only has to put up warnings on its government site to be effective.

There are a lot of things it could do, and paying for ads which lower con criminal's take by making it a) more expensive and b) less lucrative by not being in the top spot.

Participating in a bidding war is far more effective than spending litigation dollars after the fact.

Googe's user experience is largely determined by automatic auction and the FTC, like every other seller, has to understand the auction because the con criminals certainly know how to game the system.

November 7, 2009 - 1:14pm

Googe's user experience is largely determined by automatic auction

Google likes webmasters to believe that everything is down to automatic auctions and algorithms because it makes it easier to justify killing certain businesses without concern or remorse.
...BUT...

  • people at Google write those algorithms
  • those algorithms are frequently tested in various ways to maximize yield (how broad does broad match go, etc.)
  • many of the "algorithms" are human reviewers...Google has over 10,000 remote quality raters...not even counting all the internal reviewers they have as well
  • even when there is limited marketplace demand (1 advertiser) and high ad relevancy (~ 20% CTR) sometimes Google arbitrarily sets a market floor price on clicks far north of the alleged market-based floors they claim drive their system
  • further, Google is now choosing to selectively bid against their customers (sometimes using the customer's own data directly against them) with new vertical ad initiatives (like local and mortgage leads)

It doesn't matter if a person does something directly or indirectly through "an algorithm" they hand code.

The excuse of "the algorithm did it" is a way of copping out for flaws (and/or scammy monetization strategies) that are core to Google's business strategy. As long as they have 30%+ profit margins (and over 10,000 reviewers) the claim of a lack of manpower or that "the algorithm did it" is not a legitimate one.

November 7, 2009 - 5:59pm

Aaron, this is a thread about whether the FTC should pay to play when trying to inform the public. You now appear to agree, roughly, with my view that the FTC should be using as sophisticated adword campaigns as the con criminals.

Do you agree with this or not? Yes or no.

We can debate some of your riffs on the algorithm made me do it another time. In fact, you probably have a full article on the subject.

November 7, 2009 - 7:16pm

For navigational searches ***that are intended to go to an official government website*** I don't think the government should have to pay a search engine to avoid listing scams above the official website.

The search engine (which falsely throws around moral garbage when policing others) should police itself.

Now if the government wants to rank #1 for "free credit report" then absolutely they can (and should) buy those clicks. But for "annual credit report" Google is willfully misleading and scamming consumers. The government should not be forced to pay for a keyword and brand they created.

Google intercepting and misdirecting users really shows how the Google of today is becoming a lot more like the search engines the Google founders were afraid of:

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is "The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention", a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Indeed they will be, and are, including Google!

November 9, 2009 - 1:45am

Aaron;

I think that you have a good reply.

I don't agree, but I feel this thread has covered both ends of the discussion reasonably well.

My own view is that nothing is free, and that the FTC has to compete to establish their brand - even if it is a public service brand.

November 5, 2009 - 9:24pm

Listen carefully and you may hear how consumers are learning to associate Google with Internet scams. I hear it more often every year... "it was a total rip off. I got it off Google, but it was a scam".

Seeing them remove phone numbers is comforting to me... they are going faster than I previously expected. I thought Google Voice would intervene there, but it's even better for them to take the "walled garden" path. There's plenty of profit for everyone if Google would just stop being such a pig...maybe if they capture their audience AOL style they will focus on that and leave the rest of us alone.

As for that FTC garbage, I fully expect our tax dollars to pay for those impotent "viral videos" and much much more going forward. Someone should start a counter like the big social security one or the tax deficit one, only this time counting dedicated websites built by the US government. I think we're up to several hundred already in the cesspool (probably all with 5 year maintenance contracts)

November 5, 2009 - 10:02pm

If Google had to mark those ads clearly as paid advertising - not sponsored links there could be a change - but they drop in maps and check out listings or videos or news etc.

The possibility of a break up of Google creates all sorts of strange paths... would the Maps etc have to pay for placement, which could survive stand alone?

November 5, 2009 - 10:29pm

This has been in development for a long time for the maps thing. Continuous clicks on G properties and never visit an actual website to get info. That is why I am against Google extracting more and more content from our sites and re-producing it on their SERPs.

November 5, 2009 - 11:51pm

BUT...the phone number is there right now. It's 3:45PM Mountain Standard Time on 11/5/09, and the phone number is back up there.

Perhaps it wasn't Google who did this, but an SEO trying to generate a click through?? Adwords advertisers sometimes place phone numbers in their ad copy to PREVENT a click. Perhaps the "maps" guy is trying to promote a click to his site??

Just a thought. I have tried a few examples here locally, some have phone numbers and some don't. I don't think Google is responsible for it.

November 6, 2009 - 1:13am

You are not bursting my bubble. Most likely a Google engineer read this post and then fixed the issue.

There has been more than 1 occasion where I made a blog post and then Google changed something based on my blog post.

And I doubt the local restaurant which accepts phone orders cares about getting a clickthrough to their site...they just want the call and the business.

Sure AdWords advertisers may want to prevent a click (to get a free lead) but the map that is inserted in Google's organic search results does not charge for clicks or calls (not yet anyhow...I suspect in time they will eventually sell enhanced listings though, monetizing the organic search results).

November 6, 2009 - 3:37pm

Yeah, great point. I hadn't thought about that. It's actually kinda funny to think that someone at Google is watching the top seo blogs to watch for complaints!

Here's another question...if the number disappears from that maps box, does it also disappear from a maps search on the iPhone? I use that app all the time to find stuff close to me.

November 6, 2009 - 12:52am

A couple of weeks ago I noticed Google had inserted itself in the local maps listing for the search "bay area web design." The six local business listings that had been there before were replaced by two listings for Google, one for Digg, and a few new companies that hadn't appeared there before. It looked like they broke it pretty good.

Now it looks like that search, along with some city+"web design" searches don't pull up local business lisings at all. But sitting on top of the sponsored links is an ad for Google's free websites.

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