Is the unwritten contract between Google and Webmasters broken?

I’m writing this on a phone so forgive the formatting and lack of links and screenshots, i’ll tidy up later.

There’s a lot of change on Google these days, a lot of activity in spaces that Google were once content to monetize with ads.The clear separation that once existed between Googles organic results and its paid ads inventory is becoming increasingly blurred as it pushes on into query spaces that were once the preserve of a diverse bunch of web publishers.

Unwritten Contract? WTF – Explain Yourself Man


Defining the contract is important, it went a little like this. Google would spider and index webmaster content and show the outputs to user queries in its web results. It would overlay these with ads and monetize through clicks from people interested. It wouldn’t participate in the SERPS directly unless there was a clear deficit in the marketplace. The distinction was clear and plain for all to see. Organic and paid were separate, Google wasn’t in the business of ranking its ad supported services over competing services. It was not an abuser of its monopoly position.

So, let’s look at a very recent change and ask the question, “Has the unwritten contract between Webmasters and Google been broken?”

For this query http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=distance+from+rome+to+geneva I’m seeing that Google now displays a map, with the distance and a link to directions above its organic results.

This reduces the likelihood of a click through to an organic result and helps drive traffic to Googles map product. You can see it in action in the graphic below.

 

 

In a week where the search giant announced a change to it’s tos regarding the map api, what are your thoughts on what appears to be yet another step of many encroachments into the organic space? If you were Google, you might well say, ‘Encroachments’ wtf, how very dare you but read on, as it’s a little more sophisticated than that and Google well knows it.

It’s our dinner plate and we are going to eat it

Last week or so it was ‘what’s my ip‘ and their learn more hyperlink.Providing users with both an answer to their query and a link to a Google page explaining. Net effect, other tools and publishers all lose as google pushes its own content.

Whilst some might “say no big deal move along”, others might see the wider implications of things like this and note how Google continues to eat at the table of organic.

What may seem like innocuous moves, the reality is that they often reduce people’s need to leave Google (take dictionary queries or date/time/currency/math based queries) taking traffic away from publishers that build content and thus increasing queries and ad clicks on Google. If the user finds what they need, then why even leave Google. Net impact, happy user, blissfully unaware of the slow death of content creators.

The logical extension of much of the above is that ultimately, Google finds ways of replicating what others do to a point of Google becomes a super affiliate feed of products and suppliers. Organic traffic becomes marginalised and joe public is hoodwinked under the guise of a better search experience. Meanwhile publishers become poorer dying a slow death and Google grows richer.

If you’re a brand then you might be safe or erm, maybe not as this post about yelp describes.

Before anyone shouts deal with it, or that’s business, or go build a search engine and do it yourself, please, let’s try and be intelligent here and react from the perspective of a publisher. Many of the “Google deserves it all” type debates have been done to death so I doubt anyone want’s those back and forths rehashed. My view is that with great power comes great responsibility. Google has a responsibility to behave in ways that aren’t anti competitive or that stifle creativity.

Publishers built the web but it’s ok as we’ll just replace them

I’m more concerned with what if anything publishers can do about it. Sure, the answer of build a fabulous product that everyone wants and loves and needs rings true, but that doesn’t do much about the fact that for many people, a chrome browser or a search box on Google is their default way of finding things. If Google keeps chipping away like it does, then one day it might very well be your cool ecommerce/travel/hobby/science/news/art site that gets marginalised.

Without traffic, publishers on the web can’t survive. The unwritten contract that once existed between Google and webmaster is effectively broken.

What say you?

Meantime, here’s a nice track by the O’Jays

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6 thoughts on “Is the unwritten contract between Google and Webmasters broken?

  1. James Harding

    Hi Rob,

    Nice article.

    I’ve been working with Google Places for a while now in-house with Juan Ortiz and the reduction of pure organic results is a real concern for us.

    Not only does it take ages to get listings approved by the Places team, there’s the whole ‘postcard’ fiasco which takes another 2 weeks and is normally considered ‘junk mail’ from the stakeholders and usually gets thrown out! Places is so restrictive for the owner (no keywords in title etc) and it get’s confused between multiple accounts and separate business units for one overall company! I only see this situation becoming a greater problem where more users are performing local search and SEOs resort to the directory listings to fight for top positions.

    I just did the same search – http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=distance+from+rome+to+geneva. I was going to say ‘there’s no Ads in place here yet’, then I just scrolled to the bottom of the directions – Hotels in Geneva! *astards!

    Best regards,
    James

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hi James, thanks for the comment!

      I guess it really does depend on the niche. Local is another one of those areas that they’ve gone big on probably because it’s broad and relatively easy to scale as a product. They take the best of what others do and blend it in to their product for subsequent monetisation via a long game. Today, local is touted as free. The reality is that at some point it won’t be and of course when your local result is shown it’ll often be overlain with ads.

      I really don’t have a problem with them earning money ( we all need the stuff) , or adding value, it’s the hypocrisy that rankles me. It’s fine to say that you want to show the best results for your users but another to then steer them away from the 1000′s of perfectly usable results towards those of your own.

      When viewed from that perspective then the organic serps can no longer be said to be independent or impartial. The line is crossed, and the distinction between paid and unpaid is no longer applicable. You can’t claim to that something is algorithmically impartial whilst skewing it all so that your properties rank above all others! Well you can, but if you do then you rightly expose yourself to calls of hypocrisy and self promotion. If you’re a monopoly with the power and influence that they have then it’s doubly important, especially if you are acting as a block to innovation or market competitors.

      Google have played the whole paid/unpaid card for good reason for a long time. It’s one of the main reasons people liked them because they believed that the results were really based on what was most relevant from what Google had found on the web. People like to find things, hunter gathering is as old as the caveman era, I think the notion of people using Google and getting responses based on the way they formulated their query was a real plus that helped foster a view that here was a platform that whilst supported by ads, was also a clear window into other not so blatantly commercial stuff displayed on the basis of merit through virtue of relevancy.

      Anyways, it’s easy to get into semantic ding dongs with this stuff and a pro Google viewpoint would probably have little trouble talking about the evolution of search and their right to choose what they believe is best for their users. :)

  2. Dean Cruddace

    You already have a good idea of my feelings towards the Google chameleon Rob, right now we are in a catch 22 with G as the dominant go to here in the UK. That said if they continue to eat their young it is just a matter of time.

    It is a big old beast that is still on the upwards curve buying up or replicating those refusing to sell on, a seemingly unstoppable monster. We are at their mercy, their beck and call, we continue to feed the monster our web properties to gobble up.

    All dominant cultures have a turning point and that is probably what I am trying to say and you quite eloquently put it, we’re watching their every evolutionary step and the lines are being blurred everytime G steps into a new or established vertical “How can we monetize this” makes perfect business sense but never to the detriment of organic which made them a success in the beginning.

    I could probably spend the entirety of today whinging at them, about them. It won’t do me any good as they are still mine and my clients measuring stick (with some of the numbers recently removed).

    1. robwatts Post author

      Hi Dean thx for the comment!

      It’s a definite shift. Maybe the CEO change has driven it all. Maybe it’s just a general push to make hay against a backdrop of inevitable government intervention.

      The world needs a competitor for sure. If people aren’t going to use others in numbers then we need legislation that keeps the market open. The trouble is that govnt and lawmakers aren’t the best to oversee it. (as the recent cookie farce showed)

      I think Google knows that the tech governance space is as weak as gnats piss and is content to do what it likes.

      It’s all a bit of a shame really.

  3. Terry Van Horne

    Mate… ummm Google saved the same publishers when PR created the link economy. AdCents is the essense of many profits for publishers. I think what you just said is publishers will die without Google. Yeah some… the smart ones are already looking for other alternatives.

    Like the stripped data… some see the obvious being taken away… I see a way to finally know the extent personlized and Social are affecting my results… glass is always half full … or half empty. I use what they give me and figure someday people will just buy everything from Google… everyone says it’s inevitable so…. gotta be true… I read it on a blog… ;-)

    1. robwatts Post author

      T!

      True, it’s a complex picture. Winners and losers all around. All I’m saying is that the ground is shifting, people need to be a little more aware and peer through the PR screen a little more.

      Great power, great responsibility etc blah :)

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