Friday, November 2, 2007

Google and paid links - why Google is wrong

I wrote recently that, at least in my informed opinion, Google has become a monopoly. I base a lot of my editorial opinions in this post on the information I provided in that article. You can read it here:

Google has become a monopoly

Google's Stance
From Google's point of view, paying for links to gain Pagerank skews their ranking system, which as we all know is based in part on backlinks. The greater the rank of the page with the backlink, the more rank "juice" is passed on. Google has stated often that they want to return the most relevant results to their users, and I believe them, at least partially. If Google truly believed in that philosophy 100%, then they would return results without any advertising (ie - Google Adwords). Then, Google's stated goals of returning the most natural results would truly be achieved.

A Challenge To Google
I'm challenging Google to give users the options of turning off all advertising through their networks. This would mean that Google would have to put its money where its mouth is and truly give users the ability to have a completely 100% organic search experience. Not only that, but it would require users wanting to turn off advertising to sign up for a Google account. Those users that chose to do so could also give permission to Google to track their browsing behaviors.

This would give Google one more important variable to use in its ranking algorithm. That variable probably wouldn't play much of a part in the whole process, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, this could become an important metric in choosing which sites have the most authority simply by the traffic they have, how long visitors stay on a site, and what sites are clicked on the most when certain keywords are entered by the user.

For the privacy folks: this would be an entirely opt-in system, but I believe Google has the smarts to give users enough incentive to opt-in to the program.

As a positive for Google, they could use the new variable to decrease the value of all links, and implement user behavior as part of the Pagerank algorithm. For example if a website is visited a lot, but the bounce rate is 95%, then Google knows that the users are not finding what they're looking for. They can then track that back to the keyword and lower that sites' SERP for the keyword.

While this wouldn't entirely remove the paid link black market, it would devalue links enough that it would become far less cost effective to simply buy your way to a high Pagerank because part of the PR algorithm would be the actual effectiveness of the website. If users have a good experience and browse a certain website for 20 minutes, return to it often, and visit many of its pages, then the Pagerank would no longer be entirely based on the "backrub" system.

I know that there are a lot of holes in my proposition, but Google is staffed by hundreds of the smartest people in the world. I'm sure they could figure out a way to make it work.

Leveling the Playing Field
I've read many times that Google aims to "level the playing field" for websites, meaning that even the little mom and pop shop's website could compete with the "big boys" (large corporations) for business on the web. The idea is grand and noble and just, but it's a utopia that will never be reached, for several reasons:

  • Large companies can spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on a website that has a pile of pages (whether useful or not), includes cool gimmicks such as mini Flash games, and has tens of thousands of their own dealers' websites linking back to them.
  • The big boys can drop a six figure budget into a Google Adwords campaign and get instant top page placement. This point by itself shows that the Google mantra of "leveling the playing field" is one that died about the same time as the Y2K scare.
  • Smaller companies, for the most part, don't have the technical savvy or budget to create, manage, grow, and optimize their websites. I'm not saying that those websites aren't valuable to the companies that own them, just that there are very few ways to compete on the web.
  • Smaller companies get suffocated out by the big boys when running Adwords campaigns. It's not hard for a larger company to push up their bids when a smaller player comes on the scene. It's not hard for the big boys to simply wait out the smaller company's budget and time frame. Speaking from experience, there are some nasty things happening in the background of the entire Adwords system. I've run Adwords campaigns with varying degrees of success, but I stopped recommending them to my clients 6 months ago. I can't prove it but some of the larger advertisers have systems in place to click through the smaller guys' entire budget every day. For example, I was running ads in a competitive market with a budget of $200 per day. I went an entire month with about 2,500 clicks without a single conversion. The exact same group of landing pages, when users found them organically, had a 1-2% conversion rate. Cheating is rampant in the system - I can't prove it, but I know it's happening.
  • Since Google uses domain age as part of the algorithm, established small businesses that may have a 50 year real-world track record of great service and stable operations start their website with an almost certain chance of short term failure.
Why Paid Links Help Actually Help Level the Playing Field
Faced with the notion of spending scarce advertising dollars on a website that will take years to show a return, a small business owner can take 2 or 3 hundred dollars and instantly level the playing field. With even a small link-buying budget, a business owner can purchase links that get their website ranked for local keywords. For most businesses, this is where they want to be - ranked on the first page for keywords using their local area name is part of the keyword.

For example, a piano tuner in Anchorage, Alaska might want to be ranked in the top ten for the keyword "Anchorage piano tuning". Even with a great on-page optimization plan, without the backlinks the website will probably take a long time to become ranked in the top ten. A couple hundred of dollars in link sales, and the website is ranked.

Google should recognize that their system is often what holds the little guy back when trying to develop a successful online presence. Purchasing links helps the little guy fight the inherent problems with the system. In addition, it actually provides MORE useful results for users. Using the example from above, if 6 or 7 of the top positions for "Anchorage piano tuning" are for national distributors, yellowpage/directory junk sites, or Wikipedia entries about pianos, then the user is not getting relevant results returned to them. Were the small business owner to purchase a sufficient amount of link "juice" to get into the first page of results, it provides one more relevant result. And that brings me to my last point:

Paid Links Actually Make the Index MORE Relevant
Let's say I start a website selling kitty litter at discount prices, and want to optimize for the keyword "cheap kitty litter". Purchasing links that increased the site's Pagerank and SERP values would provide the user with an excellent result that is nearly 100% relevant to the phrase they were searching on. Very few sites that purchase links for Pagerank and to increase their SERPs are optimizing on keywords that aren't relevant to their sites. And why should they? It becomes a huge waste of time, money, and energy to buy links that drive non-targeted traffic to their site. If the site is relevant to the keywords being optimized, then Google is getting half of their job done for them.

Google Is Shooting Itself In the Foot
The simple fact is that Google has created a system that encourages buying links for Pagerank, and now they want to stop those small businesses that buy or sell links.

Again, I'll make the challenge to Google - if they truly believe that purchasing links to get ranked above other sites is against the rules, then they should put their money where their mouth is and allow users to opt out of viewing all the advertising Google throws at them. After all, an Adwords ad is simply a paid link that the website owner spent money on to get pushed above other websites on the results page. The lines between the two methods are pretty blurry, and a judge in an anti-trust battle may see it for what it is: Google using brutal monopolistic powers to break up competitors' ability to make money.

Should the political environment change in the U.S. over the next 24 months, Google could be in real trouble, and putting a stop to link buying/selling could be the oven that cooks Google's goose in an anti-trust action. It's a blatant use of a monopoly to remove smaller businesses from the online advertising equation.

Google is the largest seller of links on the internet, and now is discouraging other websites from doing the same thing. Ain't it ironic?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Google designers screw the pooch. Oops!

I was browsing a little while ago, and noticed something strange on the Google home page:

It seems that the Google designers fat fingered an image tag in their HTML. So much for having a happy halloween - Google's ruined it for me!

How embarrassing for them...

(btw, sorry about the crappy resolution of the image, but I'm at home where my image software is limited to the that timeless Microsoft treasure: Paint)

On Edit: they've already fixed it, but I've still got the screen cap to prove it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Google PR Update hits with a bang

Google finally decided to throw webmasters a bone and updated the toolbar pagerank. After six months without it, the masses were growing restless. But what does it all mean?


That being said, I'm glad it's here because I rely on the toolbar pagerank as one of the criteria used with SEO clients. While SERPs are more important to me (and my clients), if the clients don't see increased pagerank, they start to wonder about my abilities.

Just thought I'd share some of the success stories in my SEO journey, which only began six months ago (about the time of the previous toolbar update).
  • My primary web design site is now a pagerank of 5. I only started serious SEO on it in May, so that's pretty good. What's even better is that I'm ranking in the top ten for about 15 good keywords.
  • I have over 20 clients with sites that have a pagerank of 4. All of them rank in the top ten for their primary keywords (some less competitive than others).
  • Over 100 of my clients have sites with pageranks of 3. Nearly all of them rank in the top ten for their keywords (some are still works in progress).
Considering that I'm a self-taught SEO guy who only even heard about SEO about a year ago, and that I only seriously starting performing SEO for pay about 6 months ago, that's pretty good. Yeah, I'm braggin' a little.

I've even started my own SEO website for beginners. I'm sharing some of what I've learned for beginners on the site, and even though it's still in it's infancy, I would love for anyone who wants to contribute articles to the site to do so. You can contact me through the site itself.