Thursday, October 11, 2007

Has Google lost its way?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

When Google launched in 1998, it was a breath of fresh air.  In a world increasingly cluttered with pop-ups, here was a site that couldn’t have been simpler. 

Other sites had done simple search interfaces before – Altavista had pioneered search in this way – but the competition had lost sight of consumers’ needs and a battle to create portals was under way.  The bulk of investment in online publishing was going to create vast multi-dimensional sites, the objective being to capture as much of the online consumer’s media time as possible. 

Google ignored this received wisdom, focusing on stripped-down design combined with an uncompromising drive for relevance – to give consumers what they wanted; relevant results, fast.

For the first few years, Google carried only natural listings.  In 2000, when they started carrying paid-for listings, the market anticipated push-back from users.  But the company cleverly built relevance into the paid-for listings, making the ranking dependent on both the price bid for that keyword and the clickthrough rate it attracted – preventing bidders degrading the quality of the results by pushing irrelevant results up the rankings.

The result has been a surge in growth in both audience supply and advertiser demand that’s unmatched in media history. 

But have Google lost the focus for which they were famed?  Googlewatchers across the world are starting to question whether the company has started to compromise its zeal for relevance, as investors press for returns on the gargantuan share price.

There are two pillars to Google’s results – the ‘natural’ listings on the left hand side, and the ‘paid-for’ at the top and on the right – and both have been subject to recent speculation in the relevance debate.

The contribution of relevance in determining the ranking of paid-for results has recently been reduced for the top listing – in other words, it’s easier to bid your way to the top without having to be what the consumer was looking for.

Google expect this to yield greater revenue from the search results, and they may be right.  But many observers see it as the thin end of the wedge – the notion that Google would compromise relevance for short-term cash would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

But it’s in the heart of Google’s customer proposition, the natural listings, that the greatest debate is taking place. 

The Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) business is a rather strange and subterranean one.  Practitioners are engaged in a quiet battle of wits with Google – striving to understand the inner workings of the algorithm that determines the rankings, in order to lift their clients’ sites to greater prominence.  Meanwhile Google constantly tweaks their methodology to defeat these attempts, setting rules on what they deem legitimate practice.

But recently, Google have stopped enforcing these rules so rigorously – and there’s even been the suggestion that they’re turning a blind eye when offenders are also big spenders on paid-for listings.

A site’s ranking is based partly on its ‘link foundation’ – the number and quality of sites linking to it.  Link Networks have thrived, paying often irrelevant sites to link to their clients to boost this, and there are plenty of examples of major UK car insurers appearing on US-based NASCAR sites that prove it – none of their customers are likely to be there.  These advertisers run the risk of being downgraded by Google, but their SEOs clearly believe it’s worth the danger.

Similarly one UK national newspaper carries a paid-for link on every page of its site to one insurer, putting at risk its own position in Google but presumably believing it’ll remain untouched.

So whilst Google has been making a lot of noise recently about SEO, there’s a feeling that they lack the resources and perhaps the will to take action.  Wise advertisers are circumspect about breaching guidelines and ensure their SEOs stay in line – but when some are openly talking about their strategies to circumvent Google’s rules, the search engine gambles its credibility if it doesn’t take action.

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