The news that the US government has hired an outside prosecutor to represent it in an antitrust inquiry against Google is ratcheting up the discussion of whether and how much Google abuses its power. Google has 66% market share for search and is the largest traffic-driving source for most online marketers. The heart of the issue is whether or not Google is giving preferential placement on the SERP to Google-owned properties, ranking them above their competitors. This action by the government indicates as serious a commitment to investigate as it did with Microsoft 14 years ago, and there has not been as high profile an antitrust case since.
What the government is focusing on is worthy of looking deeper at; however, there are other issues with Google that we all know about that are questionable, too. While we may have become accustomed to them, they remain egregious. In our own dealings with the myriad of people we work with at Google, we regularly express our dissatisfaction in some or all of these areas. Our agency’s feedback to Google has helped create some significant changes over the years. As such, we continue to push where we can.
1. Black box pricing in AdWords – Nobody knows how the starting price of the auction is determined. There is much cynicism in the industry about Google giving themselves a raise, when needed, by systematically increasing bids by a penny or so.
2. Black box ad placement with AdWords – Search marketers understand the pillars of Quality Score (bid, relevancy and CTR) and how Quality Score affects placement of paid ads. However, there isn’t an empirical formula that maps it out, not to mention that determining “relevancy” is completely subjective.
3. Continual changes in the natural search algorithm that often catch marketers off guard – Panda caused a significant drop in traffic to many websites. Lots of website owners were unprepared since the content guideline with Panda was different than we’d seen with other algorithm changes in the past (focusing more on quality of content vs. spam). The SEOs benefited the most from this since many had to seek professional help to undo the damage.
4. Random determination of what is considered spam – Overstock lost visibility on the SERP last year for soliciting students to link to Overstock’s site on .edu sites. It is arguably a gray area, but Google considered it spam, anyway, and manually delisted them. Overstock saw its natural search traffic disappear for a period of time. Now we are hearing that “over optimized” sites, another subjective determination, may soon be considered spam, too. There have been others in the past and will be more in the future. Brands need to remain particularly vigilant over who and how their SEO is being managed. On Google’s end, they should not just take down a site that they feel is spamming. Rather, they should give the webmaster a warning, and the time needed to fix the issue. E-commerce is very big business now. A month, a week or even one day down for a retailer can create very big losses.
5. Enabling anyone to bid on any brand’s trademark – Advertisers must bid on their own trademark or risk losing traffic to a competitor. Even if the brand already has top placement in natural search, with the paid ad being higher on the page and shaded, competitors can siphon off a good chunk of traffic if they run on someone else’s brand term if the true brand owner itself is not in Position 1 in paid search. Interestingly, the only trademark term Google does not let anyone bid on is “Google” itself.