Editor's Note: Richard Kirk, Head of SEO at Performics Worldwide, took issue with Gareth Owen's (Head of SEO at Steak) recent column on Search Engine Watch and asked if he could post a rebuttal. Given this is a thorny issue that really has divided the industry, SEW agreed to run the story with Gareth's permission. After all, isn't it time everyone just calm down?
If you want to post a rebuttal to a hot button topic on SEW, just get in touch - but remember kids, play nice!
It’s been a turbulent couple of weeks for SEO. We all feel as if we have a special affinity with Google; yet it’s always been a one way relationship. Google doesn’t care about the SEO industry. Google cares about its users.
Its clear SEOs are being forced to re-evaluate their view on Google over the SSL issue and this is bringing out the best & worst in our industry.
For instance, its great Martin Macdonald has started a petition on the SSL issue to try and force some answers from Google which will deal with the SEO industry’s legitimate questions. Whilst I don’t agree with all of his points on the future of Google, it is good that someone is trying to force Google’s hand over the hypocrisy of referral data only being given to brands paying Google directly for traffic.
On the flipside, I felt that the article “Should SEOs Prepare for the End of Google as We Know It?” encapsulated all the worst parts of our response to last week’s changes. Now I have nothing but respect for the work Gareth and Steak do; their agency has a lot of happy clients, but I felt this article did little more than feed the group of conspiracy theorists that want to believe Google has a secret masterplan to kill SEO. These people need to grow up.
I took particular issue with the following points:
“The question remains: is Google’s master plan to abolish the natural algorithm, which is what made it so popular in the first place?"
Let me answer that one for you; No. No it’s not. Look at the history of the web; it’s littered with the sites whose glory days are long gone, all because they alienated their user base by ignoring what made them popular. Anyone been on Digg recently? Thought not.
Google knows not to alienate its user base. Look at the testimony Eric Schmidt gave to a sub-committee hearing in Washington earlier this year;
“in 2010 we conducted 13,311 precision evaluations to see whether proposed algorithm changes improved the quality of its search results, 8,157 side-by-side experiments where it presented two sets of search results to a panel of human testers and had the evaluators rank which set of results was better, and 2,800 click evaluations to see how a small sample of real-life Google users responded to the change... changes are ... implemented only if we believe the change will benefit our users.”
Put simply; the only way Google will get rid of natural results is if user testing proves that whatever is going to replace natural search is more helpful. You can’t say fairer than that. Is this test or result ever likely to happen?
“...although notionally only 10 percent of search traffic will be affected by this, we all know the value of robust data and 10 percent “unknown” is not robust.”
This is pretty lazy. Instead of just reeling off the maximum figure Cutts gave, why not present some hard data? I have access to GA for plenty of sites with over 100000 visits a week and I can tell you that for all of them it affects less than 1% of natural search traffic. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating data is missing, but it doesn’t really impact on my ability to communicate whether SEO is driving an increase in ROI. Think about this; what’s more important to Google; increased security for users, or your monthly report?
“...many seem to suggest that 50 percent (CTR) is the very best we can expect, especially for searches with commercial intent or searches where the cost per click for PPC ads is highest... most natural search results are now way below the fold.”
Again, lazy assumptions; this is a second hand account of someone else’s findings based on a small number of click mapping tests. If you want to contribute to the debate on Google’s changing SERPs, do a similar piece of research on how users interpret search results. Get some click-mapping software, sit a group of people down in front of some SERPs and then tell us what people click on. Tell us if what you find corroborates or counters the original study. That’s a useful contribution.
"...they can't create an algorithm clever enough to determine user intent and therefore, are willing to let big companies pay their way to the top of all listings."
This had me facepalming. Google’s strategy is to simply give up on R&D because they haven’t cracked the semantic web?! People use natural search because the most visible sites have invested time and effort in creating something that satisfies the users need for an answer. Of course Google aren’t just going to say highest bid wins. That’s why a) quality score was invented and b) why you can’t pay to rank well in natural listings.
If you really believe Google is trying to kill natural search go out and speak to real, non-web-marketing people. Ask them how many times a day they click on a paid search ad. From my experience, around 70% will tell you that they avoid them as that they don't trust them. Google knows its entire history is founded on an algorithmic search engine that people trust, and it isn't going to ditch that to dial up its revenue. Sure Google will show more paid search ads for commercial queries, but it will never get rid of its natural results.
My message is simple; stop panicking and take off your tin foil hat. What the industry needs if it wants to back up all this anti-Google feeling is people doing real research and producing genuine insights that show the changes aren’t working for users and brands. Rallying a mob and telling them what they want to hear contributes nothing to an important debate.
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