The following post was written by a well known executive at one of the largest sites on the Internet. The author has requested to remain anonymous – not for dramatic effect, but because of the backlash he would receive from the SEO industry and possibly Google itself. He also doesn’t want his company associated with the post.
He is starting a discussion on the need for government regulation of the organic and paid search policies of Google, which maintains a commanding lead in search market share today. Or at least transparency in how search results are determined. There is clearly growing frustration on the constantly changing “border policies” that are created and enforced by Google and other search engines. It is a fascinating read.
Imagine, if you will, that the entire Internet is contained within a single continent. That continent is filled with countries, states and cities. Each jurisdiction is autonomous, relying on visitors to cross on to their turf to engage in commerce. Now, imagine if the only way to get into this continent involved just two methods: SEO and SEM. Let’s further imagine that the borders to this continent were controlled by a single company. Let’s also hold that the rules for search engine optimization listings and search engine marketing were not only defined but were completely controlled at the whim of this single company. Of course, we all realize that word-of-mouth marketing and viral marketing also contribute to traffic to individual websites. That said, the primary methodology for all users to reach any individual website destination is still search, of either paid or organic listings.
Or suppose the paradigm is the streets of Los Angeles. Let’s imagine that in order to enter the city you had to pass through a single gate. And once you entered that gate, the streets you were or were not allowed to go down — and thus the businesses you were or were not allowed to visit — could be randomly blocked from your access. Blocked to a point where you might not even know they exist; whatever streets were available for you to traverse were in essence the only streets you knew where business could be transacted.
Whatever the scenario, it’s unsettlingly close to the situation that prevails today in search. It’s now conventional wisdom that search engine optimization, representing the organic result sets on any search query, is more voodoo than science. Through an uncontrolled set of factors search engines determine which listings appear at the top and bottom of any individual query. In addition, consumer behavior dictates the top three results on any search page are all that matter. If you happen to own an online business, unless you exist within those top three, the amount of individual traffic you will obtain from organic listings is very, very low. As the proprietor of that business you may hire search engine optimization companies to assist in increasing your rankings on organic results, with or without success. And at any one time, the controller of these borders (that is, the search engine itself) can change and manipulate those rules – and that can substantially decrease or destroy all organic traffic coming to your website, without notice and without your knowledge.
Search engine marketing now faces a similar challenge. Although anyone can open an account to buy paid search listings, the rules on each account are arbitrary. Accounts can be shut down at any time, without notice to the website owner. In other words, if you haven’t successfully obtained enough traffic to your site from organic listings and you decide to rely on paid search, you still face a situation where regardless of how much you bid per click you may or may not show up at the top of the paid results. That’s because paid results that are displayed on any query are not only determined based on the price the buyer is willing to pay. Unlike other auctions that are completely priced-based, these results are determined and sequenced not only on price but also on quality of advertising and click-through volume. For example, if company A was willing to pay $1 per click on a certain term and company B was willing to pay 10 cents but company B’s ad generated ten times as many clicks as company A’s, the yield to the search engine would be identical between the two.
The second factor is that the search engine can, at any time, determine that either company A or company B may or may not buy traffic within its index. And without notifying the company and with no path toward recourse and statement, the search engine can disable the paid search account from either business. Returning to the continent metaphor, this ends up looking quite a bit like free trade. Various businesses (call them sellers), operating within this continent, wish to conduct business with the rest of the world (that is, the population of buyers). The border — which in this case is the search engine — thus has complete control of who can transact and how often. And at its discretion, the search engine can decide to increase, decrease or completely disable access between buyers and sellers. Because search is the dominant methodology for consumers to find what they are looking for, whether a product or a service, the unilateral control that search engines wield enables them to control billions upon billions of dollars of consumer spend every year. It also gives them the ability to completely determine which companies become more successful — or less so.
The situation we face today is unique. Due to Google’s dominance — and the fact that it controls such an enormous amount of consumer behavior through paid and organic search listings – the company in essence governs commerce on the web. And any company that falls out of favor with Google, whether for reasons of bad practice or simple disagreement, can find itself at risk of going out of business.
This system also benefits the few in a host of other ways. Because the rules of organic and paid search change frequently – and remain undefined — agencies and other traffic brokers can win big; through their experience, they’re capable of reverse-engineering these rules. This means that, as this market matures, individual businesses have a diminishing chance to actually compete and gain search market share. That, in turn, puts them in a position of not only needing to hire an agency in order to find any traffic, but also making it more expensive overall to build businesses on the web.
I’ve worked with many businesses who feel they are playing in Google’s world — behaviors from product decisions to marketing strategies rely completely on appeasing these undocumented and often mystical Google desires. I’ve seen companies choose to not work with Google’s competitors for fear that by building those relationships, they’re damaging the ability to be indexed properly on Google and are anxious that result sets will be compromised. Many likewise believe that by having a monetization relationship through Google, they will somehow achieve higher quality listings through organic search. I’ve also witnessed companies who, in addition to using Google for monetization, have preferred relationships with purchasing traffic through Google Adwords. By supporting this dual relationship, they appear to want to live by two sets of rules – those that exist within the Adwords marketplace and those that apply to the Adsense product. And because they’re walking on both sides of the (Google) street, they feel they have a strategic advantage — as though the Adwords product will enable them to acquire traffic at both a lower cost and with a looser rule set than their competitors.
Here’s where the parallel to free trade breaks down. There are no perfect paradigms looking at free trade and import/export laws that exactly define or address this challenge. Neither would a secret relationship between the government and the search engines solve the problem. The only real solution is disclosure. Transparency. Those traffic generators that use rule-based algorithms to determine result sets must publicly disclose their methodologies. That is the means by which all businesses can compete freely in the organic and paid search marketplaces. If we lived in a world where Google didn’t hold sway over such a significant portion of consumer behavior, this kind of regulation wouldn’t be necessary. The market would be self-correcting, and we could trust the individual decisions of a healthy and competitive search industry. Regrettably, due to search dominance, the industry can’t be left to its own devices.