Should the Government Decide Where You Rank at Google?

google-good-evilIn December 2003, a very angry conference attendee at SES Chicago ranted to the panel on stage that he had lost his top 10 ranking following Google’s quake-like Florida update the previous month. He claimed to be losing some thousands of dollars a month in revenue since the drop and attempted to rally the assembled (and also disgruntled) crowd to join him for something like a class action suit against Google.

I was on that panel and asked the guy: Had he really developed a business model based on a third-party organization, which he had no control over, sending him free leads as his primary source of revenue? And now he wanted to sue this organization because his free leads had dried up? He answered yes to both.

So, I gave him some advice.

“Here’s what you should do. Go to Google HQ in Mountain View and wait in the lobby until Sergey Brin arrives. When he does, go over to him, bend him over … and give his ass a huge kiss! The guy’s been sending you free money for years!”

The audience thought that was pretty funny, but at the same time knew there was a lot of truth in it. And duly, the conversation changed to one simple, basic principle: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of companies and online entrepreneurs who just don’t get it. You have no more right to rank at Google than the billions of other pages on the web. And yet some people possess a bet-the-farm mentality when they secure a top rank on Google’s search results page and then whine when they lose it.

History repeated itself at SES New York this year following Google’s Panda update in February. Once again, I found myself talking to a crowd of people who had relied heavily on Google sending traffic to support their business. Many never thought about what would happen to their business if that stream of traffic ceased.

In business, nobody typically wants to rely on one customer for the majority of their revenue. It makes sense to nurture various streams of revenue to be prepared for the day that you lose a customer. And relying on Google to provide the main source of revenue for your business, for free, is exactly the same thing.

Of the companies that I talked to that were affected by the Panda update, most were small and, perhaps, less experienced businesses.

With that in mind, I was surprised to learn that established companies such as Nextag and Yelp were basically crying foul for very similar reasons. Surely international companies such as these, which boast of attracting millions of site visitors, didn’t build their entire businesses model around one, effectively, benefactor?

Problem is, they’re accusing Google of promoting Google’s content above theirs in the organic listings. And federal lawmakers are investigating those claims.

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?

Consider this scenario in the offline world: During a visit to my local supermarket over the weekend, I noticed it has its own branded products prominently displayed on the shelves at eye-level, right there amongst all of the big-name branded products (and by-and-large they’re also cheaper). Sound familiar?

Nextag CEO Jeffrey Katz, in his remarks at the recent senate hearing, states: “But about 30 million shoppers a month use our site and we send over $1 billion of sales to our merchant partners.” This doesn’t suggest a company being driven out of business. Unless, of course, it’s all based on getting organic traffic from Google and the assumption that they have a right to be permanently and prominently listed there.

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.

If you want to be seen on the first page at Google for any given keyword guaranteed, it’s easy. Just pay for it.

Search has long since moved past the stale “10 blue links” designed for the 28k modem user they used to cater to. End users in the always-on, broadband age of today simply demand a much richer experience. And search engines have responded by returning a variety of different types of results in one place, such as news, local results, images, video, blog posts and yes, even comparison shopping results.

Critics of Google also point to its massive market share and the ability to collect behavioral data about consumers. Yet it would come as no surprise to me to discover that those very same critics have a Google Analytics tag tucked nicely into their own websites.

Google is the 800-pound gorilla in the search space and that’s an extraordinary power to wield. But they’re not doing anything that, apparently, competitors such as Microsoft and Yahoo are not doing also.

For the end user, as with other search services, not just Google: it’s free. Are they paying for it with their data? Yes, they probably are. But we’ve been followed around in shopping malls and stores by closed circuit cameras studying our buying behavior for as long as they’ve been around. Credit card companies and banks have built up profiles on us since long before the world wide web. And that cell phone you’ve been carrying around for years may as well be called a homing device.

As consumers, in some way, shape, or form, we’ve been under the marketing microscope being studied for decades. Why is anyone so surprised that the same end user data is also the fuel for commerce online?

For sure, Google’s halo slipped a long time ago. It has a global rap sheet that could be printed on a toilet roll. But to say that they’re a competitive threat I think is largely misconstrued (and certainly not according to this little sample).

Is Google taking a slice of their own cake in the organic listings? Like I say, possibly. But they’re not trying to eat the whole cake (in the competitive sense). The world wide web is a big place and there’s plenty of cake to go around.

As a marketer, I see Google as a “must do” in the mix. But I certainly don’t see it as the “only do”. It would be nuts to rely on them to power my entire business. So I’m happy to take the extra traffic I get from them from the organic listings along with the traffic I generate elsewhere.

And I’d far rather they were working on the ranking algorithm with the vastly superior knowledge they have of information retrieval on the web. Far more than I’d have some government senator who has no idea what a meta tag is, let alone a hyperlink based algorithm, sticking his nose in where, to be honest, it’s not really wanted and not really necessary.

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