Jul 72011

Smacking the SEO Hornets’ Nest

Conspiracy theories abound as to whether Google gives an artificial organic boost to its big advertisers. Anecdotal evidence is advanced, outrage is expressed, the FTC launches an investigation...the whole nine yards.

I say: Why shouldn't they get a boost?

Argument #1: It's Google's Index

I've heard web developers rail against Google to wit: "Why should Google get to decide how we design pages?!? I like Flash and prefer visual navigation to text links...who are they to tell me I'm wrong?" But Google isn't telling anyone what to do. Webmasters are free to do whatever they want with their site, it's just that their site might not show up on Google's SERPs.

Similarly, if Google wants to rank results based on the market capitalization of the domain owners rather than complex algorithms, they should be allowed to do that. If user's don't like the results, they'll go to a different engine. There is no right to rank in the Constitution.

An argument could be made that benefiting the listings of big advertisers effectively turns organic links into paid advertisements, and Google therefore needs to list them as ads.

Okay, but this wouldn't be the only type of advertising that is veiled.

Argument #2: Many Other Types of Ads are Veiled.

Listings in the Yellow Pages come in many different shapes, sizes and font bolding based entirely on how much the company is willing to pay. Granted companies are listed alphabetically, but a consumer's eyes are drawn to the more prominent listings anyway, which is pretty analogous to ranking well in a search engine.

Product placements in movies, video games, etc are certainly paid advertisements and they are certainly not labeled as such.

Argument #3: People Don't Care About the Distinction btw Ads and Organic.

Even with the ads clearly marked as ads on the SERP, few people seem to understand the difference between the ads and the organic listings. Moreover, few people really care. People want results that are relevant to their search query. Google could essentially blow up the distinction, put "ads" in the top right corner of their homepage and no one would notice or care if they did.

Indeed, a decent argument could be made that when Google determines that a query expresses high commercial intent, Google could very well list nothing BUT ads, and that might actually be a better user experience.

Argument #4: Favoring the Big Advertisers Might Be Exactly What Users Want

If a user does a search for 'Office Supplies' and Staples, Office Depot and/or Office Max don't show up, but Bob's Office Supply does that's a lousy user experience. Nothing against Bob's, mind you, but the big boxes got to be big boxes by giving people what they want. Why should Bob's be favored just because they have a cracker-jack SEO team working on their behalf? (Please see Conclusion point #2)

From Google's perspective user preferences are the ultimate measure of quality, and user preferences are measurable and -- perhaps more importantly -- testable. Google tested 'Universal Search Result', mixing links, images and videos in response to user searches, and found that it increased interaction with the organic listings. They rolled out Product Extensions and PLAs to mirror that success in the ad landscape.

In all likelihood, Click-Through-Rate is a major ranking factor for SEO listings, just as it is the dominant component of Quality Score in the ads. Many speculate that bounce rate and time on site (or off Google.com) are other significant indicators that users got what they wanted. Big companies that have what people want likely have tremendous advantage over mom and pop in all these signals.

The objection might be made that those are "natural advantages" where biasing the results based on ad spend would not be, but let's think that through.

Why are people more likely to click on Staples' link than Bob's? Maybe because of past customer experience, but for many many folks the reason is: They've heard of Staples because Staples does a ton of advertising online and off. That advantage is not organic, it's bought.

Furthermore, why is Staples able to spend more on AdWords than Bob does? In all likelihood, it's because they have a wider selection appealing to the mass market, more product categories, and better prices. These lead to wider keyword coverage, higher conversion rates and the ability to spend more on advertising profitably.

If it turned out that advertising spend on Google was a good predictor of click-through-rates on organic listings, lower bounce-rates, and users not returning to the same SERP to bang through other listings, why shouldn't Google use that as an SEO signal?


It is important to point out two facts:

  1. We don't believe Google actually does this. Given the scrutiny they've been under for years from the FTC, and their opposition to paid inclusion, it wouldn't make sense for them to do this. Given that the FTC is currently looking under the hood Google's public statements like this one: "we maintain a strict separation between our search business and our advertising business and we do not give any special treatment to Google advertisers" would be pretty foolish.; and
  2. RKG firmly believes in the value of doing SEO well. This is not intended as a slam on SEO, nor do we suggest that WalMart and Target deserve to rank first and second for any product or product category they carry. Specialty stores that carry deeper/higher-end selections will often be much more in line with what the user wants depending on the category and the phrasing of the search. The best results from a user's perspective will vary with the search phrase, the user's past behavior, and their geography, and quality providers of goods, services, and content will always do well in search both paid and organic.

We're just arguing that Google should be free to use whatever they want to use as a ranking signal, and that there may be some justification in ranking the big players over the small players on more general search phrases.

Let the stinging commence :-)


8 Responses to "Smacking the SEO Hornets’ Nest"
Ryan Pryor says:
George, As usual, very insightful. No stinging here. I always appreciate a good reality check on the "what we want, what we expect, why Google WHY?!" thinking. or any thinking really. How do you then read the Google statements of "we generally see a 12% lift in organic CTR when both organic and paid are present" and similar? I've always assumed that's valid as it indicates user behavior based on reinforced brand awareness and page real estate grab. Any other thoughts there, though, in light of the article. Or just on their own thoughts are fine :-) Hope you're well, sir. Ryan
Thanks Ryan, you raise a very interesting point. Gut instinct tells me that this is likely true for most with respect to competitive search phrases, and not true with respect to brand searches for most folks. We haven't done the research on this ourselves and tend not to trust other people's research as they tend to find cases that support a desired outcome rather than carefully qualifying their findings. We're launching a brand ad test soon, so we plan a big and careful write up. To your point, though, if the ads produce a 'natural' boost to organic listings, then one could argue that even without baking advertising spend into the algorithm, it's in there. Great point!
Ryan Pryor says:
Hmmm... I can sorta see how you might think that the CTR wouldn't change for branded searches... because the intent of a branded search is so likely to be undeterred by organic vs paid, so the collective CTR of the two should remain at a stasis. That about right? But that's not to say "don't bid on brand" either. That's something I'm pretty sure I've heard RKG preach as a "must bid" in the past, yes? I know I recommend it to all of my clients regardless of their pushiness. It just makes sense, even if it's just for the usual reinforcement and real estate reasons. At the least it gives the user less reason to look elsewhere on the page, and with the ever-increasing AdWords flexibility / options (site extensions, etc) it's certainly worth improving the user experience as much as possible. Sorry a little unnecessary pontificating there...
Yes, we agree. There are plenty of good reasons to do it regardless of demonstrable incremental value.
Ironshef says:
I'm interested to hear the thoughts of SEOs who start stinging, George. All of us who practice SEO are attempting to manipulate Google's results, in one way or another. It think it's rather presumptuous to assert that Google doesn't have the same right. Their engine. Their rules. If you don't like them, take your ball and go home. Of course, as you point out, for various reasons it is unlikely that Google is manipulating their organic results based on ad spend. The correlation is much more likely due to the fact that big spenders typically offer a ton of interesting content (while not necessarily organized as well as some smaller sites with "cracker-jack SEOs"), which is what users want. Google is in the business of giving it's users what they want so that those users will be repeat users and take those actions that ultimately make Google money. If you are a big spender, fantastic. Keep spending. And at the same time do your best to produce and organize awesome content so that sites will link to it and won't complain about your rankings. If you aren't a big spender, become one. Which means, build your business to the point where you have something worth advertising extensively. Until you get there, figure out what you are good at and become exceptional at it. Then, build your content around your exceptional something and promote the hell out of it. After all, not every spot is occupied by a big spender. There's room for you too. -- Shef
Bryon...wow...exceptionally well said! Too often marketers of all stripes lose sight of the central importance of merchandising, pricing, promotions, fulfillment and service. Our job as marketers is so much easier when we have something compelling to pitch! It also jibes with what Matt Cutts has always argued: the algorithms are trying to figure out what people like most -- if you have a site that people are excited about the SEO challenges will be much easier to overcome. I've been surprised that this didn't generate stinging rebukes. Maybe the subset of SEOs who read RKG blog are a special breed :-)
Jun says:
Hi George, Great article again here. I used to work for a big(?) spender, if you consider spending 100k+/month big, but I never felt the spending influenced their rankings at all. I would know since I handled both the SEO and PPC teams. Cheers! Jun
David Chung says:
I'm glad you bring SEO up George, because there's a huge (and gaining more traction every day) section of "paid search" or "PPC" marketing - display - that really *needs* to be integrated with SEO in order to provide transparency into its true value. We've seen over and over again in our campaigns that an effective display campaign (whether DR or Awareness focused) creates a lift on search, and paid search ads, even if they got 100% CTRs, would make up for about 25-35% market share of search clicks. Organic is going to get all the long tail clicks from the interest that display drives, not to mention the predisposition or bias of users to avoid PPC altogether. Display on its own always provides such low ROIs or marginal effectiveness that having SEO addressed is almost necessary for Google to succeed in its push on GDN, YouTube, etc. Hence, functionality such as the "Multi-Channel Conversion Funnels" provided to advertisers right now in beta... Google is encouraging Adwords / paid search advertisers to actually start looking beyond paid clicks, and into multi channel user behavior. I warrant it's the best way for Google to get more vested interest in GDN.

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