Virtual Real Estate Virtually Disappears

Back in 2009 Google executives were scared of not being able to retain talent with stock options after Google's stock price cratered with the rest of the market & Google's ad revenue growth rate slid to zero. That led them to reprice employee stock options. That is as close as Google has come to a "near death" experience since their IPO. They've consistently grown & become more dominant.

In November of 2009 I cringed when I saw the future of SEO in Google SERPs where the organic results were outright displaced & even some of the featured map listings had their phone numbers removed.

Investing in Search

In 2012 a Googler named Jon Rockway was more candid than Googlers are typically known for being: "SEO isn't good for users or the Internet at large. ... It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug."

It isn't surprising Google greatly devalued keyword domain names & hit sites like eHow hard. And it isn't surprising Demand Media is laying off staff and is rumored to be exploring selling their sites. If deleting millions of articles from eHow doesn't drive a recovery, how much money can they lose on the rehab project before they should just let it go?

Breaking spirits works!

"If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits." - Matt Cutts

Through a constant ex-post-facto redefinition of "what is spam" to include most anything which is profitable, predictable & accessible, Google engineers work hard to "deny people money."

Over time SEO became harder & less predictable. The exception being Google investments like Thumbtack, in which case other's headwind became your tailwind & a list of techniques declared off limits became a strategy guidebook.

Communications got worse, Google stopped even pretending to help the ecosystem, and they went so far as claiming that even asking for a link was spam. All the while, as they were curbing third party investment into the ecosystem ("deny them money"), they work on PR for their various investments & renamed the company from Google to Alphabet so they can expand their scope of investments.

"We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!" - Larry Page

From Do/Know/Go to Scrape/Displace/Monetize

It takes a lot of effort & most people are probably too lazy to do it, but if you look at the arch of Google's patents related to search quality, many of the early ones revolved around links. Then many focused on engagement related signals. Chrome & Android changed the pool of signals Google had access to. Things like Project Fi, Gogle Fiber, Nest, and Google's new OnHub router give them more of that juicy user data. Many of their recently approved patents revolve around expanding the knowledge graph so that they may outright displace the idea of having a neutral third party result set for an increasing share of the overall search pie.

Searchers can instead get bits of "knowledge" dressed in various flavors of ads.

This sort of displacement is having a significant impact on a variety of sites. But for most it is a slow bleed rather than an overnight sudden shift. In that sort of environment, even volunteer run sites will eventually atrophy. They will have fewer new users, and as some of the senior people leave, eventually fewer will rise through the ranks. Or perhaps a greater share of the overall ranks will be driven by money.

Jimmy Wales stated: “It is also false that ‘Wikipedia thrives on clicks,’ at least as compared to ad-revenue driven sites… The relationship between ‘clicks’ and the things we care about: community health and encyclopedia quality is not nothing, but it’s not as direct as some think.”

Most likely the relationship *is* quite direct, but there is a lagging impact. Today's major editors didn't join the site yesterday & take time to rise through the ranks.

As the big sites become more closed off the independent voices are pushed aside or outright disappear.

If Google works hard enough at prioritizing "deny people money" as a primary goal, then they will eventually get an index quality that reflects that lack of payment. Plenty of good looking & well-formatted content, but a mix of content which:

  • is monetized indirectly & in ways which are not clearly disclosed
  • has interstitial ads and slideshows where the ads look like the "next" button & the "next" button is colored the same color as the site's background
  • is done as "me too" micro-reporting with no incremental analysis
  • is algorithmically generated

Celebrating Search "Innovation"

There has been a general pattern in search innovation. Google introduces a new feature, pitches it as being the next big thing, gets people to adopt it, collects data on the impact of the feature, clamps down on selectively allowing it, perhaps removes the feature outright from organic search results, permanently adds the feature to their ad units.

This sort of pattern has happened so many times it is hard to count.

Google puts faces in search results for authorship & to promote Google+, Google realizes Google+ is a total loser & disconnects it, new ad units for local services show faces in the search results. What was distracting noise was removed, then it was re-introduced as part of an ad unit.

The same sort of deal exists elsewhere. Google acquires YouTube, launches universal search, offers video snippets, increases size of video snippets. Then video snippets get removed from most listings "because noise." YouTube gets enlarged video snippets. And, after removing the "noise" of video stills in the search results Google is exploring testing video ads in the search results.

Some sites which bundle software got penalized in organic search and are not even allowed to buy AdWords ads. At an extreme degree, sites which bundled no software, but simply didn't link to an End User Agreement (EULA) from the download page were penalized. Which leads to uncomfortable conversations like this one:

Google Support: I looked through this, and it seemed that one of the issues was a lack of an End User Agreement (EULA)

Simtec: An EULA is displayed by the setup program before installing starts. Also, the end user license agreements are linked to from here http://www.httpwatch.com/buy/orderingfaq.aspx#licensetypes

Google Support: Hmm, They do want it on the download page itself

Simtec: How come there isn’t one here? google.co.uk/chrome/browser/desktop/

Google Support: LOL

Simtec: No really?

Google Support: That’s a great question

Of course, it goes without saying that much of the Google Chrome install base came from negative option software bundling on Adobe Flash security updates.

Google claimed helpful hotel affiliate sites should be rated as spam, then they put their own affiliate ads in hotel search results & even recommended hotel searches in the knowledge graph on city name searches.

Google created a penalty for sites which have an ad heavy interface. Many of Google's search results are nothing but ads for the entire first screen.

Google search engineers have recently started complaining about interstitial ads & suggested they might create a "relevancy" signal based on users not liking those. At the same time, an increasing number of YouTube videos have unskippable pre-roll ads. And the volume of YouTube ad views is so large that it is heavily driving down Google's aggregate ad click price. On top of this, Google also offers a survey tool which publishers can lock content behind & requires users to answer a question before they can see the full article they just saw ranking in the search results.

"Everything is possible, but nothing is real." - Living Colour

Blue Ocean Opportunity

Amid the growing ecosystem instability & increasing hypocrisy, there have perhaps been only a couple "blue ocean" areas left in organic search: local search & brand.

And it appears Google might be well on their way in trying to take those away.

For years brand has been the solution to almost any SEO problem.

But Google has been increasing the cost of owning a brand. They are testing other ad formats to drive branded search clicks through more expensive ad formats like PLAs & they have been drastically increasing brand CPCs on text ads. And while that second topic has recently gained broader awareness, it has been a trend for years now: "Over the last 12 months, Brand CPCs on Google have increased 80%" - George Michie, July 30, 2013.

There are other subtle ways Google has attacked brand, including:

  • penalties on many of the affiliates of those brands
  • launching their own vertical search ad offerings in key big-money verticals
  • investing billions in "disruptive" start ups which are exempt from the algorithmic risks other players must deal with
  • allowing competitors to target competing brands not only within the search results, but also as custom affinity audiences
  • linking to competing businesses in the knowledge graph

Google has recently dialed up monetization of local search quite aggressively as well. I've long highlighted how mobile search results are ad heavy & have grown increasingly so over time. Google has recently announced call only ad formats, a buy button for mobile ads, local service provider ads, appointment scheduling in the SERPs, direct hotel booking, etc.

And, in addition to all the above new ad formats, recently it was noticed Google is now showing 3 ads on mobile devices even for terms without much commercial intent, like [craft beer].

Now that the mobile search interface is literally nothing but ads above the fold, early data shows a significant increase in mobile ad clicks. Of course it doesn't matter if there are 2 or 3 ads, if Google shows ad extensions on SERPs with only 2 ads to ensure they drive the organic results "out of sight, out of mind."

Earlier this month it was also noticed Google replaced 7-pack local results with 3-pack local results for many more search queries, even on desktop search results. On some of these results they only show a call button, on others they show links to sites. It is a stark contrast to the vast array of arbitrary (and even automated) ad extensions in AdWords.

Why would they determine users want to see links to the websites & the phone numbers, then decide overnight users don't want those?

Why would Google determine for many years that 7 is a good number of results to show, and then overnight shift to showing 3?

If Google listed 7 ads in a row people might notice the absurdity of it and complain. But if Google only shows 3 results, then they can quickly convert it into an ad unit with little blowback.

You don't have to be a country music fan to know the Austin SEO limits in a search result where the local results are now payola.

Try not to hurt your back while looking down for the organic search results!

Here are two tips to ensure any SEO success isn't ethereal: don't be nearby, and don't be a business. :D

Published: August 21, 2015 by Aaron Wall in google

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Comments

August 29, 2015 - 1:43pm

Google is getting to be like Microsoft was in 1998.

If Google sincerely wanted to improve search results they have the limit; both Bing and Google score around 0.7 on the P1 score that they use, and the root cause is ambiguity in the queries. To get P1 up is impossible the way that they've been trying because Google's approach requires "big data"; it takes as much search data to build a relevance model for you as it does for the world, and they can't get anywhere near enough data for you.

The people working on personalization at Google and Bing both quit in disgust because they realized neither Google or Microsoft could solve the problems, and I had a good argument with some minion Googlers a few years ago who thought Google Now would be a hit who didn't know anything that I heard from the ex-executives.

The Google Now failure could be more a failure of the user interface and the Android ecosystem than that of A.I. and relevance. However, Google is now sucking up a big chunk of the crop of Phd CS graduates who are indoctrinated in the current "deep network" approaches to learning -- these have been successful at "pattern recognition" problems such as vision and speech recognition, just as the symbolic AI of the 70's and 80's was successful for playing chess, medical diagnosis, system configuration and such. Like symbolic AI there is going to be a "trough of disillusionment" when the easy problems are solved, but the bubble is in full effect.

Since deep learning was pioneered by a small group of academics, there aren't critical patents that control the technology so everything around deep learning is going to be competitive and a commodity. Deep learning can give a boost to relevance, but I think that commercially useful text understanding will be the place where it dies, just as symbolic AI couldn't tackle vision. (The fact that it is so easy to make systems that "almost work", however, will waste a few 100k man*years of effort) It is really good for the "alphabet" technologies, however, and most of those will involve complex products that will be covered with patents in all the other domains, and at best Google will become something like Bell labs that will be able to develop products of a complexity that takes 10-20 years of research.

Competition *will* arrive for Google and Bing search, because, unlike internet access, competition is possible. If the eurozone really wants to deal with the uncompetitive situation it will promote champions on its own turf. European A.I. has been shaped by the multilingual requirements of that area (this is even more true for African A.I.) and this may lead to a radically different approach to "search". "Big Data" technology is diffusing widely, also critical patents from the early years are just about to expire (and I am not talking about PageRank.) Somebody is going to buck VC biases and build something amazing in search, become a unicorn, and then the VCs will race to pile in. (Right now it is like the 90's when VCs would not fund anybody who competes with Microsoft. Today they won't fund anyone in search. Funny enough, tell VCs that you're planning to eat IBM's lunch and they will have lunch with you tomorrow. )

Same with advertising. Back in the day Madision Avenue was a small and insular community of "Mad Men", now those people are geeks, both men and women. Read Adtech blogs and you realize they have a vocabulary that is almost impossible to understand unless you are talking every day with other people in that area. Google's bias towards B2C marketing and against B2B and the advance of data science means that sharks in suits teamed up with data jockeys are going win ad dollars back from Google from big advertisers, who spend the lion's share of the spend.

Exciting times!

August 30, 2015 - 12:20pm

Also interesting you mentioned the failure of Google Now. 5 days ago there was an article which highlighted many of the founding executives behind Now left shortly after that service was folded into the search team because Amit Singhal requested ownership. I did not hear about the other engineers working on personalization quitting though.

Also the timing on the above post & reiterating Google eating the mobile search interface was once more further proven by Google's actions. Even firms known for their paid search research are covering the alarming rate of clicks shifting from organics to ads & Google's other vertical search offerings.

September 10, 2015 - 4:46pm

Thanks for the interesting and informative reading

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