Nov 282006

Google's "Store" Tag: The Role of Paid Vs. Free Search

Once during a visit to Google, I heard a senior exec describe Google's take on the relationship between paid and natural search. This was some time ago, so I'm paraphrasing from memory, but he said something to the effect that the left side of the screen (organic, unpaid search results) was for the non-commercial content -- blogs, reviews, rants, articles, information -- whereas the right rail (paid search) was for commerce. "If you're a commerce site, you need to pay for your space on the page," he said.

His comment popped into my mind while reading an interesting post by John Biundo and Eric Enge about advanced tricks for building Google Custom Search Engines (CSEs). In passing, Biundo and Enge describe Google's hand-tagging of sites:

A surprisingly little-known fact is that Google, and some trusted partners, have quietly annotated a large number of web sites with standard labels.... in addition to the medical domain, Google (and an impressive list of partners) have annotated many other "Topics", including: destinations, autos, computers and video games, and other areas. It's reasonable to expect that this annotation will continue – in fact, Google has a program that encourages users to help with the massive task of annotating the web.... After playing with this test CSE for a bit, it seems clear that Google has made a good start at labeling commercial sites.

Yes, online retailers should make all reasonable ethical efforts to win appropriate free traffic from the Google. But realize that your site is probably tagged "store" deep within a Google database somewhere, and the algorithm may hold that against you when computing organic results.


6 Responses to "Google's "Store" Tag: The Role of Paid Vs. Free Search"
Charles Knight says:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it... Imagine you work for a large retailer of consumer electronics with a strong Internet presence. When someone searches Google for "car stereos", your site comes up on the first page of results in the free/organic results, and also in the paid/sponsored ads. You get a lot of business from the organic listing because a) it's on the first page, and b) people tend to trust the organic results more than the sponsored links. So you've just read the blog associated with this post, and the article by John Biundo and Eric Enge on Google Custom Search Engines (Google CSEs) ( I'll wait while you read them; this commentary won't make any sense until you have. OK, welcome back. Now imagine you work in the marketing department for this retailer as a Search Engine Marketer (SEM). You should be feeling a little nervous about your valuable organic search traffic, after all, you just read that there are three big strikes against your company. Strike #1 - Google may want commercial sites like yours out of the free results altogether, and only in the sponsored results where you pay (a lot) for every click. Also, Google has been quietly annotating commercial sites like yours and the Google algorithm may then dock your site for having that label. Strike #2 - Search Matter Experts (SMEs) are now creating Custom Search Engines (CSEs) on various topics - such as consumer electronics - and the "purists" among them may be demoting your "dirty", i.e. commercial, website as we speak. Here's a quote from Enge and Biundo's article: "The challenge for people who are defining CSEs will be to walk the line between adding deep editorial value...and serving their own commercial interests. We believe that the best CSEs will be those that are built with pure editorial goals in mind. BUT (emphasis mine) we will probably see many different variants across the market." (read: commercial interests) Strike #3 - Your commercial consumer electronics site may be further demoted if the data from these CSEs is incorporated into the general Google results. Here's a quote from Mike Valentine at (11-01-06): "It will be extremely interesting to see whether Google will favor trusted sites from these CSE's in (their) results. How Google makes use of the long list of trusted sites and traffic and popularity figures of these custom search engines could produce huge gains in the trusted sites portion of their search algorithm." Remember, if the combined effect of these factors pushes your site down off of the first page of results, expect a significant drop in your online sales! So, what's a SEM to do? Can you: Dissuade Google from purifying their organic results? Or stop them from negatively annotating or labeling your site? Not a chance. Prevent SMEs from demoting your site in their own CSEs? No; and if they catch you giving your site positive weighting, they can simply uninvite you with a couple of keystrokes. So, is there anything you can do? Yes, there is. Your marketing department should immediately begin constructing multiple CSEs of your own. One called "Consumer Electronics", and another "Car Stereos"; "LCD vs. Plasma TVs"; "Blu-Ray Discs vs. HD-DVD"; "Home Entertainment Systems" and so on. For each one, include your website and give it the maximum positive weighting level of +1.0. Then include all of the best informational websites related to that CSE's topic, and demote each one by a factor of -1.0. Completely exclude the websites of all of your major competitors. The result: when a potential customer searches via one of your CSEs, the odds are good that in the results they will find valuable information about those products, but only one place to BUY them - your website. Is that unethical? Absolutely not! Keep this in mind: People hire CPAs to do their taxes because they expect them to use every (legal) means to reduce their tax liability. We've all heard this one before; that's not tax evasion - it's tax avoidance; it's just plain smart. So, you should use your marketing budget to promote your CSEs on your website - on the Home page and on each appropriate interior/landing page. Next, you should place your CSEs on all willing third party sites. There are also CSE directory sites springing up - most notably And here's the kicker - if there comes a time when Google incorporates the data from these CSEs into their general index and results pages, your CSEs could possibly cancel out the effect of competing/alternative CSEs, and, conceivably, move your website UP in the organic rankings. Mission accomplished!
Alan says:
Thanks for your comment, Charles. However, I respectfully disagree. Flooding the CSE space w/ spam engines won't help retailers, consumers, or Google. Folks will only use a CSE that adds value. Retailers should work on gaining relevant organic traffic through the fundamentals: quality content, inbound links, word-of-mouth, great service, fair pricing, etc. Cheers!
Charles Knight says:
Alan- Thank you for reading my blog. In my own defense I'd like to say that I am as much against Spam as anyone. I consider myself a "white hat" SEO. A retailer that aggregates the very best informational content on a given product line is adding the same value as the SME doing exactly, literally, the same project - with one exception. The retailer spending the time and effort to create the CSE should not, IMHO, be reluctant to toss their own website into the mix. In a sense, they are simply "sponsoring" the CSE, having gone to the expense of creating it. Omitting their competition from the CSE seems fair to me. In a sense, a CSE is a high-tech version of a no-tech catalogue - lots and lots of helpful, informational content and one place to buy it from - the maker of the catalogue. Giving their own site a +1.0 weighting and equally, uniformly, demoting the informational sites may sound 'spammy', but why shouldn't their site appear towards the top of the results? Granted, some SEOs will stop at nothing to get their clients sites to rank high in the SERPs, but in their own CSE? I don't feel that this strategy crosses the line. As for the non-CSE fundamentals that you mention, quality content, excellent service, competitive pricing, etc., I couldn't agree more. For when the consumer (hopefully) clicks on that link or that ad, all of those factors will come into play and influence the decision to buy or not to buy.
Charles Knight says:
Mr. Rimm-Kaufamn, I stand corrected! Given our disagreement, I sought a "second opinion" of My Plan (not yours-just mine)from a highly regarded expert in SEO circles: Jill Whalen ( This is what an expert moderator said: Welcome, Charles Knight! Your suggestion did sound a bit spammy...Maybe you're just a little inexperienced or misinformed in that particular area of SEO. Do your best to keep learning. Jonathan Hochman
Charles Knight says:
Sorry, I meant "Mr. Rimm-Kaufman" - my bad. -CSK


Check out what others are saying...
[...] had always planned that the sponsored links would be for retailers and the organic links for information. By penalizing retailers in organic rankings in favor of “information sites” we would [...]

Leave A Comment