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Nextag’s Fatal Sense of Google Entitlement

Danny Goodwin
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The Kernal yesterday published an interesting piece titled “A Fatal Sense of Entitlement.” While their article focused on the current culture among London startups, it should also offer a bit of a reality check for outspoken Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz.

Now, the comparison shopping website Nextag is no startup. However, much like the entrepreneurial wannabes (a.k.a., “whiners”) mentioned in the Kernal piece, bemoaning the lack of funding from venture capitalists, Katz is seemingly crying, “Why aren’t we getting top Google rankings?”

To paraphrase the article’s lesson Katz should learn: the reality of creating a compelling website that will rank atop Google’s search results is “gritty, at times miserable, and above all bloody hard work.”

Katz is in the spotlight for authoring a rather weak anti-Google rant, “Google’s Monopoly and Internet Freedom”, using the Wall Street Journal as his platform as we get closer to the July 2 deadline the European Union has set for Google to adjust its business practices to avoid going to court and possible fines. Specifically, Google is under antitrust scrutiny for the way it displays links to its own vertical search services (e.g., shopping, travel, news), how it copies content from competitors for its own sites, having exclusive deals with AdSense publishers, and not allowing portability from its advertising product, Google AdWords, to competitors.

Google’s Senior VP Amit Singhal has already hit back with a blog post of his own to set the record straight – from Google’s perspective anyway.

On Google Bending the Rules

Katz wrote:

“The company has used its position to bend the rules to help maintain its online supremacy, including the use of sophisticated algorithms weighted in favor of its own products and services at the expense of search results that are truly most relevant. … Google often uses its prime real estate to promote its own (often less relevant and inferior) products and services, prohibiting companies from buying its best advertisements.”

I’ll let Mike Grehan, Vice President & Global Content Director for Search Engine Watch, ClickZ and Search Engine Strategies, tackle this one. From his October 2011 post:

“Let's just ponder that accusation for a second. Google promotes its own products, on its own website more prominently. Whether there is any truth to the accusation, why would any third party think they deserve more prominence on another company's website, particularly when they're not paying for such privilege?”

And as Singhal pointed out in his rebuttal, Bing and other search engines are also guilty of sending users to their other properties. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for users, although it doesn’t seem to be turning off users, considering Google’s share of the U.S. search market reached the second highest point ever (66.5 percent) last month.

Oddly, Google’s results are considered too good, if you believe the RIAA and others representing Hollywood.

As for competitors buying advertising on Google, yeah, they do actually. For instance, rival search engine Bing pays to advertise when you search for [search engines], while Android competitor Apple pays to appear on searches for [cell phone].

(Note to Katz: A more compelling argument could be made about so-called search engine whitelists. This is easily provable, considering Google and Bing reps admitted to their existence in public. It's also quite doubtful Nextag is on this list. Either that or the new Google Shopping, which no doubt will pose a significant threat to Nextag and many others.)

On Google Punishing Competitors

Katz wrote:

“It's easy to see when Google makes changes to its algorithms that effectively punish its competitors, including us. Our data, which we shared with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 21, 2011, shows without a doubt that Google has stacked the deck.”

This is the same Nextag that claimed “about 30 million shoppers a month use our site and we send over $1 billion of sales to our merchant partners" at the Google Senate hearing last year. Does it sound like Google has truly killed the Nextag brand?

Google responded to Katz’s attack with its familiar defense, that all of its search changes are to help users, not particular websites. Indeed, search will always be a zero sum game – whenever one site gains rankings, another loses.

Katz’s sentiment echoes those of SEOs and webmasters who have also been hurt by the recent Penguin update, and in the past Panda and Florida. But what Google is punishing is a self-inflicted Google-only marketing strategy. Back to Grehan for a rebuttal:

“Marketing isn’t a one-prong effort. A good integrated marketing strategy takes advantage of multi-channel opportunities and avoids the pitfall of a faith-based initiative dependent on a third-party marketing benefactor keeping your business afloat for free. Top rankings at Google should be seen as a bonus in your overall strategy not an inherent right.”

(Note to Katz: A more compelling argument could be made that Google is hurting other businesses by giving away a similar product for free, such as Google Analytics.)

On Irrelevant Search Results

Katz wrote:

“Most people believe that when they type "convection microwave oven" or "biking shorts" into Google, they will receive a list of the most relevant sites. Not true. That's how Google used to work. Now, when someone searches for these items, the most prominent results are displayed because companies paid Google for that privilege.”

Odd, there’s that idea again of paying to receive prominence on someone else’s website. Almost sounds like…advertising? Which are also clearly listed as “Ads” (though, to be fair, the pale yellow background color in Google's ad blocks is nearly indistinguishable from regular results on some screens).

Is this a Google-only information retrieval problem, that relevant sites aren’t showing up (ignoring the fact that it's nearly impossible for an algorithm to discern intent from two keywords)? Let’s take a look.

Google

convection-over-google

Pretty much what you'd expect to find on Google: Ads, related searches, your standard Wikipedia organic result, links to shopping results, then the remainder of Google's organic results. 

Bing

convection-oven-bing

Good news: Nextag is the fourth organic result. Bad news: Like Google, Bing has ads and links to its own shopping results. Nowhere near above the fold. 

Yahoo

convection-oven-yahoo

OK, Bing powers Yahoo's organic result, so naturally Nextag is the fourth result. However, Yahoo's search results are even more cluttered up with ads, shopping results, and even local results and a map. Nextag is just about as buried on Page 1 of Yahoo as you can be.

Ask

convection-oven-ask

Well, here goes Ask pushing Shopping results that don’t include Nextag, more of those pesky ads, and not to mention some inferior “Answers” that feature Ask.com. But then again Ask.com’s search results are powered by Google, so no surprise.

AOL

convection-oven-aol

AOL’s organic results are powered by Google, so don’t expect to find Nextag here. But AOL also pushes those organic results well below the fold thanks to a large stack of ads, as well as AOL shopping results.

Blekko

convection-ove-blekko

No paid search advertisements or links to a Blekko-powered vertical search product? This must make them the most relevant results of all, right? Well, there's no Nextag, so Katz will likely also slash Blekko off his list of search engines.

DuckDuckGo

convection-oven-duckduckgo

So why isn’t Google serving relevant search results? Well, Nextag doesn’t appear for this search on Google or Google-powered organic results (AOL/Ask), but it does on Bing/Yahoo – though it’s hardly prominent on any of these search engines, being pushed down by ads and links to shopping options.

Essentially, it seems, his argument “If I don’t rank, Google’s search results are wrong.”

(Note to Katz: A more compelling argument could be made that Google is punishing websites that place too many ads “above the fold” with its page layout update, while obviously doing what it is preaching against within its own search results.)

How to Fix Google

Katz demands are simple:

First, Google needs to be transparent about how its search engine operates. Today Google hides behind forked-tongued gobbledygook that is meant to obfuscate. Google should disclose, clearly and in plain English, when advertisers receive better placement in search results and when a result is a Google-owned property. And when a competitor's service is the best response for the user, Google should highlight it instead of its own service.

Well, there’s this: “We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank.” Seems pretty clear.

As for highlighting a competitor, who gets to vote? Or do sites fight it out battle royal style? What if Google picks another competitor that isn’t Nextag? Will Katz still cry foul?

"Second, Google should provide consumers with access to the unbiased search results it was once known for—regardless of which company or organization owns the service. It should also allow users to reduce the number of ads shown or incorporate a user's preferred services in search results."

So…Google should make less money so Katz’s site can make more money? Now that's a winning business model, sign me up!

Also, some people tend to remember the past as being a lot rosier than it actually was – Google has been accused of destroying the quality and relevance of its search results and killing websites on almost a yearly basis since about 2002.

Also, if a user has a preferred service, they could maybe bookmark it with their web browser, navigate directly, or follow it socially (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) or via email updates. Google isn’t the gateway to every other website. It is one popular website – one that accounts for an estimated 6.4 percent of global traffic (as of 2010).

"And third, Google should grant all companies equal access to advertising opportunities regardless of whether they are considered a competitor. Given its market share and public commitment to providing users with the most relevant, helpful information, Google has an obligation to provide a level playing field."

Does Google not have the right to editorial standards? Should they have to run ads for illegal products, child porn, malware, phishing, and other ads that are currently outlawed (yes, a few bad ads get through – even some allegedly approved by CEO Larry Page).

Oddly, a “level-playing field” was one of the stated goals of Google’s last algorithmic update, Penguin.

Bottom Line

What’s the takeaway for Katz or any website that has been burned by Google search? Eric Ward offered some smart strategic advice for marketers in “Non-Google Link Strategy: An Example of Stealth Link Marketing”, showing one example of how forgetting about Google can help you actually end up ranking higher on Google:

“Yes, Google is important, and no, you shouldn’t ignore them. Rather, get into a mindset where your strategic [marketing] thoughts are by nature non-Google related. Nothing is better than doing a significant amount of business knowing that it will come your way no matter which way the Google winds blow.”

Not having Google as the entire foundation of your online business marketing strategy lessens the risk that your site will sink into quicksand next time Google lets out a black and white animal from its zoo. Always remember: Google traffic is a bonus, not a guarantee.


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