The Google search engine has been close to all our hearts since it started; it won us over with its speed, the relevancy of its results and its uncluttered, no-nonsense approach. So the world flocked to it to the point that doing a search has become synonymous with the brand: we ‘google’ it.
This clean and pure Google with the buy line ‘Do no evil’ didn’t last, however. The purity of the information democracy started to be eroded by the necessities of our commercial world, something which none of us should be surprised about. Please excuse me now whilst I present a very very truncated history of what happened.
First came Google Adwords, Google’s pay per click advertising platform. The most notable difference on Google’s results pages was that suddenly there were all these extra links down the side and sometimes above the “real” search engine results. Ever since then, website owners and SEO specialists starting coming up against Google manipulating its algorithm progressively to ‘influence’ people to use Adwords. Also, on the results pages Google started adding up to three PPC entries above the search engine results, and also started an inexorable move of the PPC ads on the right towards the left to make them even more obvious, and divert user’s attention away from the organic listings.
Aside from the visible moves, Google has also been manipulating the search results to make it more and more difficult for the website owners to achieve results through optimising their sites. This is probably where Google actually did break its own motto and indeed started doing evil!
Next it introduced the Google Base links after the first couple of organic search results, again, interrupting the search engine listings with non-search engine content. And so on and so on until last years’ Caffeine update which then introduced a load of other search options which forcibly segments the results on Google and again has the effect of making SEO more difficult, expensive and less attractive to website owners, again influencing them to use more Adwords.
So, leading up to the latest Google Panda/Farmer update, we had the actual search results interfered with by Adwords, Google Places, Google Base, Video links, Blog links, etc., as well as a whole range of search filters and options on the left which have the effect of segmenting markets.
Then came Google Panda. The most obvious change was the increase in emphasis on Google Places, which is a directory and not part of Google’s search engine. Instead of just having 2-3 small Places links, now there are usually 5-10, and the number of organic listings above them is reduced sometimes to none, other times to between one and three, pushing the rest of the top 10 search engine results well below the screen cut off. Google is, therefore, making it more difficult for businesses who sell beyond the town it is located in, and giving precedence to businesses with a location in the town over those who are best at what they do or potentially even those who have a website! Behind the scenes, even if you don’t want it, Google will manipulate the results to show you the local ones even if you don’t want it to, based upon the location of the IP address through which you are accessing the internet. You can also now specify the location you want to use, but even if you don’t, Google will make a decision for you.
Google also is seemingly arbitrarily deciding that some search phrases implicitly imply you want local suppliers, even if you don’t, and this sometimes happens for major generic search phrases. For example, right now when I type in ‘garage doors’, I get 3 Adwords links, one organic, 4 links to Google Base products, 2 organic, and 9 Google Places links, before I get to the next 7 organic results representing the top 10 search engine listings. Now I’ve typed in ‘garage doors’ because I’m looking for the best sites and potentially to buy online, and yet, 70% of the results are at the bottom of the page, and above them are other listing that are not part of the search engine and which I have not asked to see! Now maybe I could understand giving some precedence to Places when I am specifically searching for a local provider, but then I would expect to ask for that in the phrase that I’m using to search, ie by typing ‘garage doors in Northampton’, but I do not want these results when I am searching for the top websites for Garage Doors, which I anticipate are mostly going to include businesses which sell beyond the location of their domicile. If I’m looking for the best sites from the best companies with the best prices that’s what I think I should expect to see in the search engine results for any pan-location search. Competitive advantage should favour these successful businesses who have managed to extend themselves beyond a single location, yet Google is giving emphasis to those which have not achieved this, and therefore by definition are not as successful or good for me, the consumer. Effectively this represents Google manipulating the search engine results to favour its interests and not the interests of the market or society as a whole.
The effect is a reduction in the usefulness of Google, as a search engine. Instead, we get the emphasis on paid for advertising, and other directory related information, which I would not at all be surprised will someday cost businesses to use (ie, we’re being set up!).
So what do you think? Has Google, this time, gone too far? Clearly there is progressively a more brazen use of what I see as monopoly power by Google, to forcibly segment markets in its interests and against the interests of consumers, the market and society at large. It also directly restricts the consolidation process speeded up by the internet and globalisation, again, directly against the purported interests of the world’s market economy. For me, I think something needs to be done and Google needs to be tackled to limit its anti-competitive actions so the world evolves as it should and not in a way heavily skewed in Google’s interests.
The remaining iota of idealism in me also tells me that others will see this, notice the decrease in quality of the Google search engine, and move to use a competitor that provides a real search engine, not a purported and bastardised version of one. Then again, most of me is now a realist or pragmatist, and I am sceptical!
But we can always hope...