Last night, I was searching for wellies for my sister’s Christmas present. Despite all the grumbling I do about Google, it was still the place I began my search (although I eventually ended up back on eBay.)
The first page of results had one organic search result above the fold on a 1366 x 768 monitor resolution. And that was Amazon, who were also taking multiple paid slots. In fact, increase the screen height to 1000 pixels and there was still only 1 organic result, with no fewer than 18 paid slots (if you include Google Shopping).
Congratulations to Amazon there for taking the sole organic slot (as well as 4 of the paid slots).
Now, I am not suggesting that every Google result looks like this, but treatments like this for commercial niches are becoming increasingly commonplace, and there is no compelling reason for Google to roll them back. Commercially speaking, filling the page with paid ads is simple logic: after all, Google gets nothing from the sites it shows for free. From a technological perspective too, why plunge billions into fighting spam and ranking an index when you go can whitelist a bunch of sites for most of the big money terms and leave the long tail to random chance?
Seen in this context, domain clustering is no mere mistake. That ‘used ford focus’ today returns a mere 11 domains for the first 3 pages of results makes eminent sense. Google are simply saying to everyone: “you can’t compete in this space unless we think you’re a brand and have whitelisted you as such”.
Of course, when you’ve arrived at that point you’re a whisker away from being a paid directory with an ancillary web search.
Ironically, of course, Google have long proclaimed war on paid directories and have been busily purging them from the rankings for years. Equally ironic is their war on sites that they judge to be “too commercial” by carrying many banner ads or even Google’s own AdWords ads.
For SEO as an industry and a standalone activity, that leaves us expending our resources chasing an ever-decreasing pool of eyeballs. It’s not that you can’t still succeed in driving traffic through organic channels – you can and always will be able to – but we have to be close to the endgame of the idea that you can pitch into a truly competitive space with SEO as your central/only strategy.
While SEOs will continue to do the best they can to make sites friendly to Google and (hopefully) admit defeat and turn off the blog networks and comment spam robots, it doesn’t leave much for anyone to actually do. “Link building” is a philosophical dead end – a mere adjunct to PR, banner advertising and partnership building either through commercial relationships or social outreach.
People will still report success for their efforts and doubtless correlations will continue to be drawn between link building and sporadic SEO success, but if you’re truly looking to the long term: Google isn’t the sandpit it used to be.