Google has asserted a pretty well-known "church and state" division of not letting its advertisers influence its editorial results. Nevertheless, that hasn't prevented the company from offering some advertisers custom support on how to be better included within those editorial listings. While offering this support isn't new, the amount of support offered appears to have ramped up to the point now where search marketers are raising concerns about it.
The Ad Side End Run
Many have long known that being a top advertiser can be an end run around the Google's failure to offer a dedicated support service. I wrote about this back in 2002 and the problems that allowing this end run potentially would cause Google:
It's far from optimal to have your ad staff almost co-opted as editorial listing troubleshooters. Instead, Google might ideally have a service where site owners could get their web sites reviewed for potential problems, such as the one that caused Roddick's issues. Users would benefit from this, as well.
But how to cover the cost of creating such a service, especially given the demand that clearly will be placed on it? Google might have to charge, and that's a route it wants to avoid....
Ironically, this means that in order to keep its hands clean on the paid inclusion front, Google's ad reps will likely continue to be some of the key players used to get editorial problems rectified.
Substantial Support Alleged
In February, I heard about a new twist to the long-standing support that the ad side can give regarding editorial listings. A search marketer I know and trust alleged that:
- Google had a dedicated team assigned to help tutor top advertisers about editorial listing issues.
- They knew of another search marketer who lost a potential client for SEO work because "they got so much support from Google."
- Google would take people in to talk about listing support issues as part of a pitch to gain the advertisers for a large paid listing buy.
- The support was nothing special. It covered basic SEO tips and provided NO "inside" knowledge that would help someone magically rank better on Google. "It's just easy stuff, the comprehensive first step side of optimization," said the marketer.
- As the information came from Google, the marketer worried that clients might treat the information as being better than if it came from a third-party search marketer.
- Despite the above, several other large SEM firms this person talked with about the issue felt the Google "SEO" service was so basic that it posed no threat to growing their SEM businesses, as they offered value far beyond the basics.
Who is this marketer? I hate using anonymous sources, but the person simply didn't want to be named out of fear of any possible repercussions. They have to work with Google on paid campaigns that they don't want jeopardized. Client confidentiality issues are also involved.
Violation Of Guidelines Given The OK
I talked with Google about the allegations after they were raised, then went back to the marketer, then decided to work on the story more when I got back from our recent SES New York show. But when I returned from the show, more information came in from a completely different search marketer out of the blue. For the same reasons as above, this person wanted to be kept anonymous. But also as above, it's someone I know and trust. They alleged:
- Google was taking in feeds of content for web search -- not for payment -- but feed capability not offered to ordinary sites in the way that say Froogle allows anyone to participate in.
- Google gave an OK to a company that wanted to do something that I'd say (after reviewing what was involved) clearly violates its guidelines against "Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content."
- Google also gave an OK to another company that would have violated its guidelines to "avoid 'doorway' pages created just for search engines." Another search engine that reviewed what was planned rejected the idea as spam for its own service.
Google: Basic Advice Offered, No Secrets
Though I said this earlier, let's make clear again that neither marketer suggested that Google in any way manipulated results to improve rankings for advertisers. No special ranking boosts were given. No "insider" ranking tips were provided.
So what's the deal? I talked with Google immediately after the first report came in. Its responses to the first set of allegations were:
- Google acknowledged that it has provided an educational service for some direct advertisers, if they asked for advice.
- Google also acknowledged that some educational information might be offered as part of an initial sales call, if the potential client had suggested they had questions on editorial listings.
- It stressed the information didn't go beyond anything you could find on its own web site, or from talking with someone at a conference, or through a online forum dialog.
- The people involved were from Google's advertising side who had some technical expertise and knowledge of editorial listing issues. They were not engineers or others from the editorial side.
Google didn't provide direct responses to the later allegations. However, it's already been reported that feed content, special spidering situations and exceptions to Google's content guidelines have been allowed in the past, as my Working With Google Scholar -- And More Approved Cloaking article covers.
Main Issues Raised
So what are the major issues in all this? Here's what I see
- Blurring Church & State: I started off with a quote from 2002 that Google's failure to provide a dedicated editorial listing support service was a bad thing, because it was forcing the ad side to fulfill this demand. Not only has that continued, but having people go in on ad calls and providing custom support that "ordinary" site owners couldn't dream of simply sounds bad. It would be far, far better if Google had a paid support service that anyone could use, independent of their ad spend -- or potential ad spend -- with the company.
- Mistrust With Search Marketers: We've already known that Google (and Yahoo) will try to "bigfoot" or steal advertising clients from search marketers. Bigfoot is a term that interns and lower-ranking reporters during my LA Times newspaper reporting days used for when a more established reporter decided a story was on their beat and took it away from you.
Search marketers already fear being bigfooted on the ad front. Heck, see this SEW forum post for a recent example of someone certified as a Google AdWords Professional who was nevertheless told by Google that he wasn't big enough to handle a large client -- instead, they would take care of "their" client directly.
So we already have issues on the paid side. Having Google come in and provide "free" SEO support means some marketers may fear being bigfooted all around. Given these are the same people Google also depends on to service all the clients it doesn't want or can't deal with directly, that's not a good thing.
- Special Arrangements Confusing & Unfair: Telling people not to do things against your guidelines publicly, then making exceptions privately, is confusing to everyone and not fair.
Qualifications To Consider
Things are never purely black-and-white, so here are some qualifications everyone should keep in mind:
- Non-Advertisers Also Get Support: Need some advice from Google? They speak at a variety of conferences, including our own SES events. Come to one, and you might also get support. Don't want to pay for a conference ticket? Google takes part in several online forums, offering advice for free -- as well as commenting in blogs and elsewhere. Google also provide support for free to people through its own web site as well. So the issue isn't support but rather the fact that big advertisers seemingly can get more of it, more quickly.
- Special Arrangements Are Needed: Crawlers have problems getting content. That's a fact. There are good reasons why it is in the interest of searchers for Google to make exceptions to its stated guidelines. Nor is it unfair if Google does this, because it ultimately decides what is in the best interest of those searching on its service. But what is unfair is that relatively few are even aware there's any option of getting into Google other than following the published rules and guidelines.
- Responding To Anonymous Accusations Sucks: I've already said that I hate using anonymous sources. It's even worse to have to respond to accusations without being able to directly hear from your accusers and better understand what they've heard or seen. For the reasons I've explained, that's not possible. But that still doesn't make the situation easier for Google to respond to.
- Others Do Things Too: Google is hardly alone in having been accused of doing special things in its editorial results. Kevin Ryan talks about this in his For Whom the Search Bell Tolls piece briefly that came out yesterday, and it's one reason I've not been out with this story earlier.
I originally wanted to talk with each search engine about whether they are sending support people out to help advertisers do better on the editorial side. But since the new Google allegations are out there now with Ryan's piece, I decided to push ahead with what I'd compiled to date to cover that aspect.
I also sent out quick email messages to the other major search engines to see what they'd say on any such practices, which I'll cover next. All had a full day to respond.
Situation At Yahoo
I sent these questions over to Yahoo:
- Does Yahoo have people who go into advertisers to provide support on editorial listings?
- If so, who gets this type of assistance and how?
- What type of information is offered?
Yahoo said they couldn't respond to the questions right now, so I'll be following up to talk further about the situation with the company in the near future. But it's fair to say some type of support is happening, given that Yahoo's SiteMatch Xchange paid inclusion program is pitched at advertisers and hints at this:
Get hands-on assistance
A dedicated account manager is available to answer any questions, provide technical support, and help you manage your Site Match Xchange program.
Of course, Site Match is just the paid side of the Yahoo Content Acquisition Program that rolled out last year. Non-profits are also supposed to be taking part in CAP, getting assistance with better indexing. I've looked through the Yahoo site for formal information about that but couldn't find it, nor did Yahoo send any URL about it when I asked. So that's also down on my list for following up on.
Situation At Ask Jeeves
Below are questions I sent to Ask Jeeves, along with responses that came back from Jim Lanzone, senior vice president of search properties at the company:
Q. Does Ask have people who go into advertisers to provide support on editorial listings?
No we do not send employees to advertisers to help them with their editorial rankings.
Q. If people need some type of special listing support, such as providing a feed, needing content indexed you couldn't ordinarily crawl, what's the best way to contact you or how do you deal with them?
Since we eliminated paid inclusion [last year”, we do not work directly with sites to take feeds for our editorial index. Of course, we do that in spades for Smart Answers. If an important site has certain issues and it would be valuable for our users to access their information (e.g., the New York Times, though that's just an example and not true), then perhaps we would look at it. Given our resources, we don't really have the ability to make a lot of one-off exceptions to our processes, however.
Q. I remember a somewhat minor flap last year about MaxOnline being owned by Ask Jeeves. Are they still offering any type of search marketing services?
MaxOnline offered some SEO services as a small part of their offering a long time ago. Max is focused on selling their network, not optimizing listings. Moreover, they are completely separate from our Search Properties division, and have no interaction with the search technology group.
Lanzone added that Ask Jeeves has a free submission system in the works. Ask is the only major search engine not to currently provide a free Add URL page. Until this emerges, anyone encountering crawl issues can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, he said. Ask is also working on something similar to Yahoo's CAP program (see below), to ensure it's best collecting content for free by partnering and working with others. No paid inclusion component is planned for that, he said.
Situation At MSN
Over at MSN, I also asked if it had people who go into advertisers to provide support on editorial listings. This statement came back:
MSN does not have a formal program for advertisers to advise them on optimization beyond the tips that are available via the website.
Informally, of course, it could be that this may be happening. But the above statement also answers the other key question I asked -- what should people do if they need some type of special listing support? Basically, there's nothing in place to help for the moment -- or perhaps nothing formal that people can be pointed at.
Paid Support, Please -- And Not PPC-Based
In the end, I see nothing wrong with any of the search engines providing support for editorial problems. In fact, it's long overdue for them to provide this in a guaranteed way, such as through a paid support system. It would help in-house search marketers directly get answers. It would aid SEM firms to better assist clients.
I also don't believe paid support would somehow "taint" results, which in particular has been Google's consistent reason why it wouldn't want to offer such a service. It needs to finally move past that. Paid support isn't the same as paid inclusion. In addition, the ad side end-run for support has already been creating a taint, one that these latest concerns just make it worse.
Doesn't Yahoo paid support already, in the form of paid inclusion. Sort of -- but support needs to be divorced from cost-per-click payment. Why? When it's based that way, you ultimately can't trust that the search engine won't skew things to its advantage. It's something that Greg Boser in particular has raised as an issue from way back in 2002.
So for all the major players -- Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves -- we need a support system that is guaranteed but which isn't CPC/PPC based. It can't be that hard to create a clean-cut service to ensure people can get into the index in a way that helps everyone. It's also something that can be used to help subsidize better unpaid support for those who can't afford to pay.
What does Google think? The idea's not something on the books:
"Historically, Google tries to provide information in a free and open way via our resource pages for webmasters and online support pages, postings on the Google Blog, answering questions through our user support team, and engaging in dialog on webmaster forums. We are open to ways that we can improve communication with site owners, but have no current plans to offer a paid support system," said Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer who work works closely on webmaster-related issues.
How about Yahoo? It said generally:
Yahoo recognizes a need in the marketplace and is exploring ways to address them at the moment.
So perhaps there's hope that some change along these lines may happen over at Yahoo. As said earlier, I'll be following up with them more about these issue generally in the near future.