Google Loosing Fan Base?
"Nothing last forever but the Earth and sky." - from Dust in the Wind by Kansas.
Google has spent the last year evolving from a search engine to a giant media corporation. At birth Google was worried about only one thing, search - and that focus is why it became so successful. As Google spreads out many are wondering, are they doing it too fast? Are they letting quality slip? As any company evolves it will make mistakes, but has Google lost sight of its goals?
Google gained large distribution when Yahoo switched to it to drive down Inktomi stock price, only later to buy Inktomi. Google then came to power stealing traffic from Yahoo by providing clean, relevant results, and good search tools for surfers and webmasters alike. Many estimate that Google controls in excess of 75% of the search market.
Microsoft is still working on its search engine. Yahoo recently acquired Overture and is working behind closed doors in much the same way as MSN is. LookSmart has not updated Wise Nut in a long time, is hated by a large portion of the internet community, and is soon set to loose most of its distribution. And Ask Jeeves (owner of Teoma) has its top results powered by Google AdWords. With Google powering Yahoo, AOL and many other sites Google lacks a clear competitor today.
Right now Google can take its huge lead and extend it, or let it slip. No system is perfect and there will always be complaints, but I have to wonder if Google has forgotten why or how it became such an icon.
Many people have reported their Google Toolbar has been failing to return PageRank 90% of the time. While the hysteria around PageRank is somewhat overrated, it would be more assuring if the feature worked often.
One of the biggest problems search engines face today is a lack of quality content on the web. Earlier this year Google introduced a program called AdSense which displays its pay per click AdWords ads on many mid sized web sites. AdSense was designed to help pay to produce better content sites. Soon after Google introduced AdSense they included a related searches link set underneath the ads which made webmasters angry. This technique was siphoning off traffic from websites back to Google with no payment of any kind. Quickly Google had to repeal this move.
Google has also signed its AdSense members to a gagging clause. Beyond that gagging clause many have complained about getting kicked out for reasons they could not even challenge. Then for these same members to see how much money Google had owed them up to that point they had to agree to another set of terms that prevented them from criticizing the AdSense program. But the ads get worse.
Google was in a race with Overture to be the first to provide broad matching on its search terms. Google got there first. The idea behind broad matching is that it will allow Google to sell more of its ad space by providing ads on similar terms that were not yet sold. Overture allows different bid prices on different levels of matching. Google sets a single price on the ads, and this causes a huge problem for those who do not know how to use the system.
First the broad matching ads are less relevant. The term broad indicates far reaching and is self explanatory to its end effect on relevancy - which is in the exact opposite direction of Google's roots. This new type of broad matching matches many remotely close search phrases to those paid for by the advertiser. Couple near matching with the fact that ad sites and pages are scanned for relevancy (which is frequently inaccurate) and a big problem starts to come about with how to provide relevant ads on the syndicated results.
While many of the SEO experts know how to use negative keywords, tracking, and other advanced features, the smaller advertisers do not always have the resources or understanding to effectively use this new, more complex medium.
Now instead of rewarding businesses for hunting out the phrases that exactly match them (and thus providing higher quality search results), Google is rewarding the largest companies by allowing them to be lazy. Google is shooting itself in the foot by degrading relevancy for short term profits.
Large companies bid on generic cover all terms at prices where they loose money on every transaction until the competition goes under. Not only do these name brands enjoy higher click through rates (due to brand recognition), but those with stockpiles of cash can afford to burn through thousands without a blink. Many small sites can not, thus the sad state of internet media is that it is now consolidating much the same way as offline media is.
It gets even worse for the small website now though. These same ads which they are using may now appear on pages that sometimes do not even remotely fit the ads. I was looking at the GMT clock time zones to ensure my clock was set at the right time today (so I missed daylight saving time). The page which had the different time zones listed a few cities and a group of AdWords. Most of these AdWords were targeting Las Vegas (most likely the most expensive US city). Las Vegas was not even one of the cities mentioned on the list. Not a relevant ad set. Bad for all parties involved.
What is the result of this change to AdWords? Lower quality ads at a higher price. Nick Denton predicted that the expansion of these ads across the web (especially coupled with decreased relevancy) that users will start to ignore them. Much the same way as banners have faded, only a few years may be left before this advertising medium chips away and destroys itself.
What about the regular Google search results? At least they are strong, right? Sometimes they are rather week. Some clients have had search results dominated by the same sets of interlinking sites. Aiming to fight spam, Google is acknowledging this fact by incorporating a new major algorithmic change on the web live. My site went from #17 to #7 to not in the top 1000 websites for "search engine marketing". While I still have customers that need work done on their sites, this sporadic re mixing is not refreshing in my mind, as well as in the minds of many of my customers.
I have already had concerned emails arrive from friends worried about loosing thousands of dollars a month as their top listing evaporated. All I can tell them is wait and see.
Much of what people have feared would happen to Google after it goes public has already happened. It is clear that competitive open source alternative search engines such as Nutch are not desired so much as required.
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