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:

news

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.

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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).

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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.

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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 Alexa.com – 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.

Alexa.com 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 Alexa.com’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?”
“Yes.”
“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…

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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.

Google’s Declining CPCs

Google’s CPCs have declined yet again. 9% year on year, 15% quarter on quarter. They still trousered enormous profits, and once again the market responded by catapulting their share price even higher.

But that decline in CPCs is quite an important little niggle. I’ve remarked before that the profit margin for fungible goods trends to zero, meaning that at some point advertising using the pay per click model becomes unsustainable. Ultimately only a handful of big retailers have enough play in their margins to afford to fund advertising with a sub 5% conversion rate on desktop, and an even lower conversion rate on mobile.

This is why Google are scrambling to sell bigger ads and looking for ways to crank up mobile CPCs, with the same ultimately self-defeating logic. If Google take more money out of the market, then fewer retailers can compete. And if fewer retailers can compete, CPCs have to come down. Economics 101.

In a normally functioning market, falling CPCs should entice other retailers back in, but a lot of retailers have been so burnt that they’ve either gone out of business, or would rather just suck up transactional fees on eBay or Amazon – which they only accrue on an actual sale, rather than spending lots of money getting people to a website that might not even convert.

By shifting to Amazon or eBay, all the usability work is done and they effectively get brand protection, because people will think “I bought this from Amazon” and not “I bought this from Company X through Amazon.” Another reason then for businesses wonder why they should subsidise a brand and a website when there’s a whole ecosystem to sell through with a captive audience and where agencies can’t intervene with fees and advice that might turn out to be wrong.

Average CPC itself is a fairly useless metric to look at, but it does point to the bind Google now finds itself in. To increase revenue in a time of decreasing CPCs, they can only increase the number of ads or the eyeballs they serve – hence their ever-increasing cycle of acquisitions and search for revenue streams outside paid search. When you look at Google Play, Android Store and the various automotive initiatives, you can see what they’re gunning for: alternative revenue streams and a way to stay inside the customer journey in a way that appeals to advertisers with sufficiently deep pockets.

Case in point: the rolling out of the “store visits” metric. Google want to show that people who searched on Google then turned up in store – presumably with the intention of buying. Android users or people logged into the Google app can physically be traced. If I search for toasters on Google today, then turn up in John Lewis or Argos within a couple of weeks, that is a demonstration of Google’s value to a retailer. It’s a high tech version of a coupon in the local paper.

There’s a hint of desperation to that, in my mind. Almost any purchase with a research cycle is going to involve Google today, so the unique attribution (and therefore value) is pretty thin. Consequently, there’s not much value to the retailer to warrant spending more on Google.

Google is now so much of an infrastructure it’s almost like the Highways Agency saying you should advertise on billboard because people drove to your shop on a road they built. It’s true, but doesn’t quite add up.

And, irony within irony, Google’s conscious strategy of favouring big brands means that SEO and PPC alike make it almost inevitable that anyone searching on Google will encounter a big brand, even if the big brand spends a relatively minimal amount on either of these approaches.

In effect, Google are increasingly selling AdWords to a smaller subset of customers who actually don’t rely on Google in the first place. If you are a small business, you cannot compete on price in an auction based system if you sell physical goods. And the sort of proof-of-attribution model Google are working to is useless if you are a single site who sell nationally through the internet as your footfall is effectively zero. You’re also locked out of the SEO sphere by the big brands who can afford massive marketing pushes, and who escape penalties that would literally finish you because Google has to show them for the sake of their own credibility.

What’s that all mean? Well I’ll be damned if I know. If the last year has shown me anything it’s that I’m a terrible prognosticator. But, if I were a betting man, I’d say that Google is going to continue its trend towards being a playground for big brands and that small business in physical goods will continue to migrate to the Amazon/eBay model. The service industries will hang on to their local/personal diversity for longer, but in the end the same logic will apply: for a small local business, is there any point at all on spending money on a website when it’s primary function is actually to be a line at the bottom of your business card.

Or in short: will the “free internet” be reduced to a wasteland of useless, expensive advertising hoardings?

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Sidebar: search Google for “Google declining CPCs” and the first page is horrible. Apparently that’s a query that deserves neither quality nor freshness. That no fewer than 3 of the top 10 results for that query don’t mention “CPC” or “decline” at all is further evidence (if you’re so-minded) that Google’s focus on search quality is less than stellar.

No: Google doesn’t index your meta description

I was asked recently whether Google actually indexed your meta description and I was about to say “of course!” when I had one of those rare flashes of caution and decided to check.

Our company’s home page has the natty meta description of:

“Trusted Dealers is THE SAFEST place to find and buy a second hand car online, with 10 points of difference to ensure you are happy with your deal.”

I know, I know – it could probably do with a refresh. Anyway, when you search Google for ‘trusted dealers’ it is this that displays in the SERPs.

meta1

Perfect, eh? Yet when you use the site: command to check whether it has been indexed, Google wags its finger and says no.

meta3

So that’s that cleared up and if anyone asks you, you can tell them ‘no’ and that I told you so.

But! The phrase does appear all over the internet. Remove the site: command from the query and no fewer than 129,000 matches are returned. Such as…. meta2

This happened because our blog was hacked for a brief while and a funnel page to a network of gambling affiliates was placed on the site. Someone then built a few hundred thousands links to this page – presumably using XRumer – and these links remain floating round the internet (incidentally: our massively expensive SEO agency didn’t notice this – I did, through a desultory check via ahrefs.com).

I don’t suppose there are many lessons from this except:

  • Don’t rely on an SEO agency to do everything for you
  • Update your WordPress often
  • Despite Google’s claims that it expunges bad content and links from its index, that’s clearly nonsense: three months after the hack, all those XRumer-built links and hacked blog posts, connected to an empty affiliate scheme in the gambling sector remain in Google’s index.

I don’t imagine there’s much margin any more in doing this sort of thing, but if people are still making something of a living by auto-creating hundreds of thousands of pages at once and hacking WordPress, then I guess my musing the other week about the status of black hat SEO might be out of date in itself.

If you have the energy, you can probably do something with this collection of bits and bats. Sadly, I don’t.