Google’s Ever-creeping Tide

While the world is shocked – shocked I tells ya! – to learn that not all the countless people who have been datamining Facebook for the last decade have been using it for good, Google have once more turned their screw on ownership of the ‘open, free internet.’

As is usual with Google, it is presented as a benign, friendly move designed to help others. Nothing Google ever does is anything else, right? This time it is the “Google News Initiative.

It begins as all these things do, with a reminder of just how positive Google has been for the news industry:


AMP (which I loathed on instinct) was always a move to force proprietary markup onto publishers for Google’s own purpose. In fact, it purposefully stripped the methods used by publishers to generate revenue or gain insight – ostensibly for ‘speed’, but really just to hack competitor networks off at the knees. It didn’t take long, in fact, for Google just to start hosting AMP pages altogether – making a trip to the publisher’s own website completely redundant.

YouTube? Well, we don’t need to delve too deeply into the horror that is YouTube, but even just taken as a news delivery platform it ties organisations to a Google property, and thus at the mercy of Google policies and processes and the secret methods they deploy in their decision about what to surface and what to bury.

Having forced people onto platforms it owns, Google is now looking to control the purchase funnel.


Again: to engage with this ecosphere is to put yourself at the mercy of Google’s terms and conditions. There can be little doubt that “Subscribe with Google” buttons will start to appear alongside titles which join the service, and thus they will get a little extra juice in the rankings, probably improved clickthrough rates (weird that anything with an extra visual clue would do better than plain text huh? See: AdWords’ ever-increasing feature set).

So when you’re effectively publishing on Google rather than the free internet, what is the next logical step? To capture the data, and provide it to you as a ‘service’ without ever mentioning that all this data must necessarily flow through Google’s own infrastructure and therefore give them industry-wide insight that they can use to whatever means they see fit (better monetising their display network, selling insight directly, or gaining intelligence to make acquisition decisions).


So there you are: Google’s offer is to host your content. To monetise it for you. To give you loads of tools that make you feel that you’re in control. And all they ask in return is your soul.

Meanwhile in the background, Google relentlessly lobbies Governments and supranational bodies for its own commercial benefit (which, of course, it is completely free to do) while getting ever closer to the seats of power.

In that environment, with all the control that Google has, and with Google’s own interests at stake, do you really believe that they would not interfere with the free flow of information if it conflicted with their own aims? Given the relentless nature with which they have pursued the destruction of business models they happen not to like (link building, affiliate sites, competing products, browers etc etc etc) then I wouldn’t count on it, personally.

Is it really 7 years since I wrote this?

20 years ago, Bill Gates thought the world wide web was too open and free and beyond his control. That his vision of an alternative, closed-system “Microsoft web” failed still rises alternative chuckles at his naivety and contempt for his anti-competitive ideas. And yet here we are, supine to Google as they blithely buy the internet – blinded by the whole “do no evil” thing, which is about as deep as the copywriting on Innocent smoothies, when you think about it.

7 years might have passed, but there is still no answer to the riddle of what to do with Google, and how the world responds to the increasing threat it poses to the internet as envisaged.


What Will Amazon’s Search Engine Look Like?

They’d be mad not to build a search engine, right?

I’m going to start with the assumption that I’m horribly late to the realisation that Amazon’s voice-powered Alexa device took its name from – which Amazon bought in for $$$$ in 1999 (I don’t really follow industry news, or even read blogs much these days. I’m also a little bit dim. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa).

But, while chatting to a colleague, my synapses pinged as the realisation hit me (likewise probably 188 years after everyone else) just how fully Amazon are going after Google. had a slightly jokey place in the firmament of internet marketing prior to its retreat behind a paywall a couple of years back. If you’ve ever worked at an SEO agency you probably had a call from an anxious business owner because she looked at her “traffic ranking” on Alexa and it had gone down.

Now’s methodology was always a little bit opaque. It was a kind of freebie version of Hitwise, which gave you some degree of insight into relative traffic numbers and back links based on various proxy sources of data (if you didn’t have an Alexa toolbar at one point did you ever internet marketing, bro?) but it was never really considered to be a serious tool. Now that it’s a paid service, I assume that it’s much sharper and I’m sure plenty of people would speak in its defence today.

But, relative metric uncertainty or not, Alexa has a loooooot of data from a loooong period of time. In fact, its launch was almost contemporaneous with that of Google. That’s pretty much two decades of continual data collection across pretty much all of the internet – which is a hell of an index with which to start. In fact, if this data was as rubbish as we all used to say back in the day, they certainly wouldn’t be pitching it as an SEO and link research tool at $150 per month (admittedly a lot cheaper than ahrefs etc).

But that’s by the by. The point of Alexa’s data hoard and spidering capability isn’t really the minimal gain to be had from selling SEO audits for agencies to white label at a profit, but that it has a pretty reasonable map of the internet onto which to project a search engine.

And what is it hawking every time you turn on your telly, pass a billboard, or order inflatable sex dolls from Amazon? If you said “Alexa” then award yourself 5 points and proceed to page 2 of your workbooks.

Yes, with much forehead-slapping, I now see the natural synergy of the two. Google are frantically trying to convince you that voice is the future of search, and whether you or I believe this is moot: Amazon are fighting for that same bit of turf.

Now, if you’re buying an every day sort of product online – particularly bits and pieces like charging leads… desk tidies… sellotape… a DVD… I guess your journey is either confined to Google, Amazon or eBay – with the latter two holding an advantage, in that you can search specifically on price or delivery options etc.

Google’s preferred vision of an exploratory conversation with their device is, in my opinion, a foolish pipe dream in the short to medium term at least. The variables in any purchase decision are so potentially vast as to render the technological leaps necessary almost insurmountable as things stand. But simple product ordering? Well if Amazon managed to ship a load of weird buttons you could stick on the side of your toilet to order bog roll in an emergency, then that’s something you could apply to voice search tomorrow (“Alexa order me 12… no, 24, bog rolls.”)

This gives Alexa a greater immediate utility than Google’s sort-of crappy what’s-the-weather-like-outside-now feature set, and thus I reckon Amazon calculate they can shift more devices to people in the wild and get them using them more frequently than Google can.

Again – I’m extemporising here (not even looking up the figures) so this could all be twaddle, but if Amazon succeed in getting Alexa (the device) into a lot of homes and in relatively frequent use, then this is where Alexa (the dotcom) suddenly becomes relevant – because now you can deploy a true search engine with real time over-the-air updates to a bunch of people who are already accustomed to using your core product as part of their daily lives.

And there, of course, is where Amazon face a different order of question – for as yet the technology to get meaningful answers through voice is a mixed bag. In fact, ‘voice search’ is still really more akin to ‘transcribing spoken search queries and dropping them into the search box’ than anything else IMO.

Is this really their play? And even if it is would it actually pay off? Well I don’t know: I am bit a simple lad of Yorkshire birth, with a suitably simple view of what the titans of the internet ecosphere might be planning. But there we are: some random thoughts pumped into the idiot box on a Friday so I can still claim to be a blogger.


What’s Google’s End-game for Voice Search

I touched lightly on this last week, but I’ve had some more thoughts over the weekend about the future of voice. I have to tell you – I remain sceptical of the technology (I’ve seen too many false dawns by this point to get hot under the collar about another sun peeking over another new horizon) – but if you squint, you can see the outlines of Google’s imagined future.

The paradigm of the last 20 years has been the search box and the SERPs. You want to buy a cheap flight to Alicante? Hop onto Google, search “cheap flights to Alicante” and take it from there. Sounds simple, yes?

But no. It isn’t. Because there’s actually a long decision making process. Which airport will you fly from? What time of day do you want to fly? Do you want reserved seating? Are you taking the kids? What’s the luggage allowance like?

That simple starting point spreads like a fractal into a thousand subsidiary questions that, eventually, lead to you clicking a ‘book now’ button.

Currently, the job of the internet marketer is to be everywhere in that journey. You want to be in the paid results if you can afford to be. You want to build vast ramparts of supporting content, enlivened with memorable marketing fizz. You want an optimised UX experience, and the biggest, brightest banners you can host. All of that is in your control and lets you take part in the journey and – hopefully – profit from it.

But now, let’s picture what I imagine Google’s ideal scenario is: you simply talking to Google Home.

Google? I’d like to go to Alicante.
OK. Which airport would you like to fly from?
Whichever’s cheapest.
OK. The cheapest flights to Alicante are from London Gatwick
That’s too far to travel. How much expensive to fly from East Midlands?
What date are you travelling? I see in your calendar 13th of August.
Yes. That’s right.
OK. The cheapest flight from East Midlands is with FlyBe and costs £320 per person. Flights from Gatwick start at £260.
What are the flight times from East Midlands?
There are three flights. 10am, 12:45pm and 4:40pm
How long is the flight?
The flight takes approximately 3 hours….

This is actually a verbal schematic of what your search journey looks like now. Only at the moment you have to type in a lot of stuff, and visit several websites to get this sort of info. And you’ll do it in all kinds of random order depending on the context of your last search.

Plugged into a voice interface like the one I imagine Google is shooting for and you get a very different experience.

You also miss one very big part of the journey: websites.

Facts are facts, and data is data. Any question that can be reduced to data is ripe for voice – which is going to make the marketer’s job that much more difficult, and possibly even hammers another nail in the coffin of the humble website.

Imagine the future I’ve just sketched out comes to pass, and that you sell flights. Where do you sit in that journey now? If Gatwick is too far for this particular lady to travel to catch a flight, then arguably you’ve saved £umpteen on an AdWords click for “cheap flights alicante” (or corresponding SEO investment over several years). But you’ve also got zero influence in the journey now, because already this lady is buying a flight from an airport from which you don’t fly.

I guess this is actually the ultimate in market efficiency – a truly transparent customer journey, unimpeded by commercial blandishments, remarketing tags and 34 different UX experiences.

So if – and to mind it is still a huge ‘if’ – Google’s slow-burn home invasion takes off in this direction? We might all be reduced to publishing data in Google friendly formats for our living, and letting the sentient, cloud-based deity they are building do whatever seems best to it, and Multivac will have been born.

Addendum: clearly I’m not the only person thinking this, and it transpires that exactly this train of thought was not only touched on by your man Dan Callis, but he did it with pictures and that. I recommend reading it for a better level of insight – and some actual tests!

ODI Cricket Scores Presage a Sci-Fi Dystopia

I bobbled into the office today and was reminded (by my Belgian colleague, for shame!) that England are currently playing Australia in the second O.D.I. She was only telling me because we’re doing badly (145/5 at last count) and wanted the chance to chortle at yet more national humiliation – which is all we deserve, frankly.

Anyway, I Googled for the score is our modern wont… and now Google is hosting not just the cricket scores, but the commentary. Here are some screenshots, and here is a link if you want to actually view it (i.e. if you’re Australian).


I’ve done a bit of searching around and can’t find the source of the commentary (Google have deigned not to credit anyone) which means that either Google are scraping something without credit, or have employed a cricket commentator – which would be the most amazing thing and part of me secretly wishes that’s true.

So. Another day, another market Google is making a play in. I don’t fancy that Test Match Special need to fear it in particular any time soon, but I think it’s yet another waypoint towards Google’s inexorable march to becoming a sneaky host for other people’s content (see: rest of this blog, passim).

Why do I chuck Google Home into this equation though? Well while I am sceptical about voice search as a thing, I know enough people with voice devices installed at home (I will be cold in the grave before I have one in my house) to get a sense of how it is being used.

“OK Google – what’s the England cricket score?” is exactly the type of thing I can imagine someone saying to their baleful little robot snitch. And of course, Google has the answer: (“England are doing terribly”). But now, with voice to speech they can make ancillary offer:

“England are 145 for 5. Would you like to hear the commentary?”
“OK. Buttler plays it off his pads for no run.” etc etc

This is, for me, what Google’s end game looks like. The “send some traffic to a selection of billions of websites” was always so much flannel – and this proves it. Google doesn’t give a single shiny shit about your website, or how good your markup is: they want to serve people information that is correct and timely. End of.

All those people shilling you how to optimise for voice search in the hope of maybe getting some branding out of it are kidding themselves, and they are kidding you. Google has no interest in you, your brand or your content – other than as a thing to monetise.

Asimov got this nailed down in 1956 in ‘The Last Question‘: a world where we talk to an invisible omniscient entity that surrounds us and accesses all human knowledge in real time to augment – and eventually supplant – human intelligence.

Anyway, we are slipping into a sci-fi dystopia. Enjoy.

Post credits scene:

England actually win the match, God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.


SEOs are Like Lawyers…


Corporate law is a minefield for business. There are hundreds – possibly thousands – of ways in which they can fall foul of environmental, health and safety, employment, fiscal and competition laws that have accrued to the ship of state like barnacles over the last 100 years or so. While all these acts have occurred under the auspices of one entity we call ‘the Government’ they have actually been driven by innumerable circumstances of history that often have been long forgotten. Trade union campaigns… infamous public incidents… scientific evidence… pan-international agreements… even the needs of war… all of these reasons can spark new legislation into life.

And this is basically a Good Thing. Businesses might occasionally chafe about ‘red type’ and ‘bureaucratic madness’ (both of which certainly exist) but in the main it means we can buy and consume products and services from companies (and work for them) with much greater certainty and protection than at any time in history. It’s boring, occasionally strange, but mostly effective.

At the same time, falling foul of any of this legislation can wreck a business. Compensation payouts, fines, restrictive covenants, bans and so on are part and parcel of business life, and you don’t have to look very far to find examples of fines and censures being handed out – JD Sports and Uber might grab the headlines, but your local courts, employment and industrial tribunals, and small claims courts are overflowing with companies learning the letter of the law the hard way and being forced to up their games.

Anyway, I draw this to your attention, because I think it makes a reasonable analogy for the state of play of SEO today – maybe even a way to sell SEO to a still-sceptical management.

Instead of thinking of Google as being a search engine, imagine that it is instead the de-facto regulator of access to the internet. And instead of thinking of The Algorithm as  software, think of it as the legislative code of the internet.* Now we can imagine that – as events unfold – Google responds to various imperatives to add to existing legislation. These we call ‘updates’ of the major and minor varieties. We also see ‘show trials’ when Google very publicly punishes huge companies pour encourager les autres (albeit generally for a matter of days until the message has been received).

Now, in business life, most companies keep a company solicitor on hand – either on a monthly retainer or on rate card according to usage. Their fees are high, but with good reason: screw up your internal policies on race or sexual discrimination, for example, and you could face considerable fines, adverse publicity and potentially the loss of your business altogether. So, before making decisions about certain categories your business it makes sense to consult for legal advice.

If we think of Google as effectively extra-governmental legislators, maybe think of SEO as  acting like a company solicitor in this field. It would behoove you to liaise with them about things you want to do. Introducing new product categories… content drives… changes in site architecture… picking a new platform. A well-informed SEO, with their finger on the pulse should be worth just as much as a company solicitor. Maybe it’s time for SEOs to present themselves as such, rather than clinging on to any semblance of edgy web iconoclasts.

* This is, arguably, why a company such as Google really requires proper legislation itself, as it operates what is effectively a quasi-legal framework that genuinely holds life-or-death over businesses, their customers and employees, yet it’s framework is entirely impenetrable, and in direct conflict with its own business imperatives.

YouTube is a Toilet

I watched it. Well, actually I watched a ‘reaction’ video, in which a thumbnail of the video was playing in the corner while the camera was focussed on the guy watching it. So in this hall-of-mirrors existence we lead, I’m blogging about my reaction to a reaction video to a video. Got that? Good.

So, do you know what *that* video was? It was a video posted by YouTube celebrity (don’t look at me like that – I had to Google him too) Logan Paul. The setup was that he was going to spend a day in Japan’s “haunted forest” of Aokigahara, but his plans ran adrift when he found the body of a recent suicide, and took the decision to film both the body and his own reaction. Uploading it to YouTube, his 15,000,000 subscribers had ‘liked’ the video 500,000 times until the media got a hold of the story, he removed it and issued an apology (of sorts) via his Twitter account.

Firstly, it’s worth a quick exploration of why he was there in the first place before we come to ponder briefly on what this episode tells us about a certain strand of internet life.

The forest has gained its infamy largely due to the phenomenal number of people who have taken their own lives there. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, it has acquired some kind of magnetic power in the minds of those looking to end their own lives, and they are drawn to the woods in the last extremities of their desperation. In a bid to dampen the dark allure of the place, the number of suicides is no longer publicised – although in 2003 no fewer than 105 bodies were found there, to give you some perspective.

Even before it became a mecca for suicides, Aokigahara was known as a ‘haunted forest’. It is alleged to have been used for ‘ubasute‘ in the 19th century: the practice of leaving elderly or infirm relatives in a remote location to die, which – as remarkable as it seems to modern sensibilities – is weakly documented as having been an actual practice. As with our own culture, the spirits of the dead are believed by some to continue to reside in the place of their deaths and so the combination of ancient legend and the general creepiness of forests makes for an eerie, sombre place that certainly would tickle the interest of anyone with a taste for the morbid.

Quite a few YouTubers have made videos of themselves spending a night in the woods, ending the night with a few minutes of guffawing sub-Blair Witch night-vision footage of them saying “Shit! Did you hear that?” and running around in the dark as part of their exploration of Japanese culture, or in search of clicks (depending on your general attitude towards this kind of stunt). It’s almost a sub genre of video in itself – along with “holy shit! I’m eating a live octopus, guys!” and “our hotel room is crazy, yo!”

And so we reach Logan Paul. Entering the woods, he and his team had walked just a hundred yards from the car park before finding a body hanging, dressed in a purple, double-breasted woollen coat, dangling lifelessly against a tree trunk. To he and his crew’s credit, their initial response was actually within the bounds of how you might expect humans to react. They called to the person from some distance (“Hello..? Are you OK?”), proceeded closer, noticed the facts of the situation (noose, discoloured skin) and shouted at each other to phone the police. Presumably – hopefully, even – one of them actually made that call.

But it’s what happened next that is instructive. Firstly, they kept the camera rolling and focussed on the body. Their concession to taste ended at blurring his face out, but that pretty distinctive coat I mentioned earlier would surely give away the identity of that poor soul to anyone who knew him. Then Paul and a couple of his crew made some stumbling statements along the lines of “don’t do this” and “suicide is not an answer, guys” as well as incoherently documenting how they feel about finding a body – which we can imagine was as genuinely shocking to them as it would be to anyone else.

Already we’ve reached the point where human decency would demand that nobody should be filming this, but true to the modern idiom of endless narcissistic voyeurism it takes them a couple of short minutes to come to terms with what they’re seeing and pass into the “we’d better get some more footage of this!” mode. And so, Logan Paul – with his audience of 15,000,000, mainly young, subscribers – decides to get into frame with the body, wearing his dorky Pokémon hat and veering from shock to a kind of “holy shit, bro!” tone.

And now this person – dead for only a handful of hours – became a grotesque prop for one man’s ego.

So. They go into a wood that is a notorious suicide hotspot. They find the body of man, hanging in those woods. They keep the camera rolling. They decide it’s fine to get into the frame with him. They laugh (and seriously, his two companions cannot stop smirking and openly laughing throughout). They then take that video, edit it, film a disingenuous introduction (“I’m not monetising this video”), and upload it to YouTube with this thumbnail.


In one day, 6 million people watch the video before it comes to the attention of the ‘normie’ world and a “monsoon of negativity” forces the berk to take it down. He issues the following apology on Twitter.


Note the following aspects of his apology.

  • “I didn’t do it for views… I thought I could make a positive ripple on the internet.”
  • “I’ve made a 15 minute TV show EVERY SINGLE DAY for the past 460+ days.”
  • “‘…it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.”
  • “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As is now commonplace with these kinds of public displays of contrition, it is sickeningly mealy-mouthed, and as much a denial as it is an apology.

Remember I said I watched this sort-of second hand via a reaction video? Well the guy in the reaction video stopped halfway through, because his own sister had taken her life by hanging. No surprise then that he broke down in tears for several minutes during his own video. But then he himself continued to watch… in search of…. what? Closure? Answers? Or his own little slice of the clickbait money?

I don’t know what’s wrong with us any more. I don’t know why I’m writing this. But YouTube is another Google property that is a toilet, and a perfect little microcosm of how social media connectivity is often a conduit for our worst, rather than our better sides.

The Brand’s the Thing

It sometimes feel as though the writing has been on the wall for aggregators for as long as there’s been a wall. Philosophically, this is because they are perceived to be (or painted as) taking value from both ends of the chain:

  • Retailers must pay them for sales/leads/traffic (think: affiliate fees)
  • Advertising channels lose revenue to them as they offer a competing model (think: every use of the app costs Google lost advertising opportunity)

As such, neither end of the chain likes them. Retailers want to squeeze aggregators to ensure they’re getting maximum value – hence the increasing importance of the role of analyst for retailers, desperate to know what they’re getting for their money and/or to chip their fees. In turn, the mechanisms designed to reward aggregators (affiliate/referral fees) are constantly downgraded

And meanwhile, advertising channels want to crush them altogether. Google finds ways to de-rank aggregators all the time on spurious grounds like “thin content” and “no added value” all of which is intended to push retailers back towards the deathly embrace of AdWords account managers selling the use of broad match keyphrases and high bids based on smoke-n-mirrors ‘quality scores.’

The counterpart to all this is that aggregators do have genuine utility – and thus value – to the ironically least-valued part of the chain: consumers.

Confused and GoCompare etc are mere aggregators in the technical sense, but where else, realistically, would you head to get an insurance quote? From a consumer perspective, the experience is near perfect: put in what you want, get transparent market prices and utility, and act accordingly.

But even here, you can see how their role as honest brokers is under attack at both ends of the chain.

It might have came to nothing, but Google bought comparison engines and promoted them ahead of organic listings for these sites. Meanwhile, the quotes you see on the site are increasingly just starting prices onto which the retailers ladle extra options – forcing you to phone them to navigate your way through an extended sales pitch to a higher price than the one you were shown.

So, although aggregators are often depicted as agents of bad faith (Google: “they offer nothing to the customer experience!” Retailers: “why should I pay extra for a sale I would have made anyway?”) more often than not they are at the mercy of attacks from these two directions. In most cases, it’s not a battle they can sustain. In the end, most fold and the retailers’ advertising money goes straight to Google (where, lest we need reminding, profit has to be found in a system designed to drive margins to zero).

Now, it is true that I work at an aggregator, so you can see my personal slant on this is coming from: we’re effectively locked out of the SERPs by Google whitelisting three or four major aggregators and splitting the remaining long tail traffic between retailers’ own sites and non-competitors such as review sites.

It’s also true that I’ve sat through a lot of pitches over the last couple of years where SEO salesman have said that an aggregator site like ours can link build their way into this space with relatively trivial budgets and some technical tweaks.

Well, a few years ago I was on that side of the desk making that pitch myself, but sitting at this side of the desk you see how pressure from people who advertise with you turn your notional budget into a zero sum game: to develop a strong SEO position means taking cash from a budget that is constantly hammered for Results! Today! and thus finds its way into AdWords instead. It is, simply put, a circle that cannot be squared. Growth takes time, and time is money and this is why aggregators are trying to bypass the online game by going through TV.

Trivago advertise all the time to human eyeballs in human houses in the hope that I’ll remember them next time I’m booking a hotel (incidentally, this is why things like rebranding to… whatever it is now – and I genuinely can’t remember – is the height of stupidity) and why? Because they are building a brand.

People have been talking about ‘brand’ forever now (shit, I was writing about this 8 years ago!) but it remains the single most pertinent thing: in a cacophony of 24/7 advertising, viral spoofs, news jacking, PR shills, social media puff and manufactured conspiracy, who retains market share? Brands.

So when you look out of the window into your competitive space in 2018 that should be your starting point: brand. Do you have one, and if not – how will you get one?