Think of the Internet economy as a farmer’s field full of little green plants. Each plant represents a business, and the stuff that makes them grow is traffic (just like rain makes real plants grow).
Now, imagine that in between the rain clouds and our fledgling plants, there is a huge funnel that collects the rain and pours it over the field. Let’s call this funnel Google.
Google’s job is to make sure that all the sprouts get a fair share of water (provided they are of good quality), and that any weeds that are harmful to the ecosystem aren’t watered. All day long Google funnels rain onto various different plants in order to help them grow.
That picture is a fairly good analogy of how the Internet ecosystem operates - with Google acting as the arbiter of what is worthy and unworthy. And, by and large, they do a good job. If they didn’t people would start switching to a different search engine.
Why Google doesn't always work
There’s a problem with our otherwise idyllic system. In fact, there are several problems:
- The system isn’t perfect, and Google is constantly pouring water on weeds disguised as crops, or not pouring water on crops because it thinks they’re weeds
- Google has no accountability. If it decides to tinker with its search algorithms to improve its results, it may wipe out entire niche industries without so much as a notification, comment, or warning
- Google has a strong financial incentive to funnel traffic away (to paying customers)
Taking these three points together, it's easy to show how far Google has strayed from its mantra, “Don’t be evil”. We can start with the most obvious example...
Do as they say, not as they do
Take a look at a short quote from the webmaster guidelines (taken from the Webmaster Central Blog) prescribed by Google in order to ensure a good browsing experience for readers:
… we’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away.
So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.
Sounds reasonable, right? After all, none of us want to have to fight our way through a sea of ads just to find the content we’re looking for. But wait; have you seen what a typical search result looks like these days?
Take a look at the following search result, bearing in mind their guidelines for a good browsing experience:
Clearly Google is above the law in this case because any website that attempted to crowd their own content with above-the-fold ads like this would be penalized and lose their organic search traffic.
It’s a case of,
Everyone is equal. But some are more equal than others.
How bad is Google really?
Ok well, it is Google so we can forgive them for not wanting to stick to their own rules, can’t we? Although, what happens when they start favoring other big sites in the same way?
In a previous article I talked about Yahoo's curated content (read: copy and republish content with permission). Showing how they do a bad job of making those articles relevant to the reader but still outrank the original content in search results.
Losing traffic to Google – who freely uses anyone’s content in their search results in order to generate ad revenue, and losing it to preferred, big brand domains, would still allow enough leg room for most decent companies to subsist, if not thrive, online.
But, there’s one final aspect to Google’s modus operandi that delivers a real knockout punch for small sites – uncertainty.
Google perpetuates an unstable online environment
At any time, day or night, they can flip a switch and change the rules. They don’t have to notify anyone, they don’t have to warn anyone, and they don’t have to explain their actions, or help anyone recover as a result of the changes.
A good point in case, is the recent round of Hummingbird updates (August 20th – September 4th) that have attracted plenty of attention from webmasters who have seen devastating losses to their organic search traffic – some in the order of 95%.
Imagine your company losing 95% of its revenue overnight with no explanation, and no indication of if or when it will return.
It’s impossible to operate successfully under these conditions.
The Google one-two: Instability & lack of transparency
Google refuses to provide any meaningful information to help webmasters recover because they say that it helps spammers ‘game the system’. This is a strategy akin to cutting off your army’s supply lines in order to prevent those supplies falling into enemy hands.
Now, many people would simply state that you can’t build anything that relies on the Internet – or more specifically on organic search traffic. But why not? Why can’t we demand a stable online environment, where everyone plays by the same rules?
Are we all content to let one organization maintain a monopoly that can harm thousands of fledgling enterprises at the flick of a switch, without answering to anyone?
So what's the solution?
Even if they had no direct financial interest in delivering the search results, I would still argue that there has to be some sort of accountability and transparency.
I'm not saying they don't have a right to tinker with their algorithms and improve their search. But, there must be a mechanism in place to help genuine companies survive.
At the very least there should be some transparency so that people might understand what they need to do to ensure they meet with the very guidelines Google exempts itself from (in the process of making money off the content provided by the organizations it has the power to penalize).
For now, Google gets away with this debilitating lack of transparency because no-one can do without the vast amounts of organic search traffic they control.
Yes, I accept there are monumental challenges, but they also earn the big bucks to handle those challenges. It should at least be accountable in some small way to the publishers that produce the content it uses to make profits.
It should also be accountable because there is currently no mechanism to tell if Google is introducing bias into its search results to boost its own revenue – I’m not saying it does this, but there’s no way to tell.
Perhaps it is time for all online SMBs to unite into a "Webmasters' Union" that ensures fair and equitable treatment from Google.
What are your thoughts on Google and how it affects small businesses and the Internet economy?