Well, you finally did it. You created an email list for your blog. That means you’re now converting casual visitors into something far more valuable – subscribers. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it? It should. You’re building a loyal audience who actively wants to hear from you. An audience you can reach at will, instead of(...)Read More »
It’s a Monday morning, and you’re sitting down with your first cup of coffee. You open up your blog, and you’re excited to see that someone commented on your latest post. “Fantastic!” you think. “I’m finally starting to get some traction with my site!” Then you look closer, and you slam your coffee mug down(...)Read More »
Back in 2009 Google executives were scared of not being able to retain talent with stock options after Google's stock price cratered with the rest of the market & Google's ad revenue growth rate slid to zero. That led them to reprice employee stock options. That is as close as Google has come to a "near death" experience since their IPO. They've consistently grown & become more dominant.
In November of 2009 I cringed when I saw the future of SEO in Google SERPs where the organic results were outright displaced & even some of the featured map listings had their phone numbers removed.
Investing in Search
In 2012 a Googler named Jon Rockway was more candid than Googlers are typically known for being: "SEO isn't good for users or the Internet at large. ... It's a bug that you could rank highly in Google without buying ads, and Google is trying to fix the bug."
It isn't surprising Google greatly devalued keyword domain names & hit sites like eHow hard. And it isn't surprising Demand Media is laying off staff and is rumored to be exploring selling their sites. If deleting millions of articles from eHow doesn't drive a recovery, how much money can they lose on the rehab project before they should just let it go?
"If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits." - Matt Cutts
Through a constant ex-post-facto redefinition of "what is spam" to include most anything which is profitable, predictable & accessible, Google engineers work hard to "deny people money."
Over time SEO became harder & less predictable. The exception being Google investments like Thumbtack, in which case other's headwind became your tailwind & a list of techniques declared off limits became a strategy guidebook.
Communications got worse, Google stopped even pretending to help the ecosystem, and they went so far as claiming that even asking for a link was spam. All the while, as they were curbing third party investment into the ecosystem ("deny them money"), they work on PR for their various investments & renamed the company from Google to Alphabet so they can expand their scope of investments.
"We also like that it means alpha‑bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!" - Larry Page
From Do/Know/Go to Scrape/Displace/Monetize
It takes a lot of effort & most people are probably too lazy to do it, but if you look at the arch of Google's patents related to search quality, many of the early ones revolved around links. Then many focused on engagement related signals. Chrome & Android changed the pool of signals Google had access to. Things like Project Fi, Gogle Fiber, Nest, and Google's new OnHub router give them more of that juicy user data. Many of their recently approved patents revolve around expanding the knowledge graph so that they may outright displace the idea of having a neutral third party result set for an increasing share of the overall search pie.
Searchers can instead get bits of "knowledge" dressed in various flavors of ads.
This sort of displacement is having a significant impact on a variety of sites. But for most it is a slow bleed rather than an overnight sudden shift. In that sort of environment, even volunteer run sites will eventually atrophy. They will have fewer new users, and as some of the senior people leave, eventually fewer will rise through the ranks. Or perhaps a greater share of the overall ranks will be driven by money.
Jimmy Wales stated: “It is also false that ‘Wikipedia thrives on clicks,’ at least as compared to ad-revenue driven sites… The relationship between ‘clicks’ and the things we care about: community health and encyclopedia quality is not nothing, but it’s not as direct as some think.”
Most likely the relationship *is* quite direct, but there is a lagging impact. Today's major editors didn't join the site yesterday & take time to rise through the ranks.
If Google works hard enough at prioritizing "deny people money" as a primary goal, then they will eventually get an index quality that reflects that lack of payment. Plenty of good looking & well-formatted content, but a mix of content which:
- is monetized indirectly & in ways which are not clearly disclosed
- has interstitial ads and slideshows where the ads look like the "next" button & the "next" button is colored the same color as the site's background
- is done as "me too" micro-reporting with no incremental analysis
- is algorithmically generated
Celebrating Search "Innovation"
There has been a general pattern in search innovation. Google introduces a new feature, pitches it as being the next big thing, gets people to adopt it, collects data on the impact of the feature, clamps down on selectively allowing it, perhaps removes the feature outright from organic search results, permanently adds the feature to their ad units.
This sort of pattern has happened so many times it is hard to count.
Google puts faces in search results for authorship & to promote Google+, Google realizes Google+ is a total loser & disconnects it, new ad units for local services show faces in the search results. What was distracting noise was removed, then it was re-introduced as part of an ad unit.
The same sort of deal exists elsewhere. Google acquires YouTube, launches universal search, offers video snippets, increases size of video snippets. Then video snippets get removed from most listings "because noise." YouTube gets enlarged video snippets. And, after removing the "noise" of video stills in the search results Google is exploring testing video ads in the search results.
Some sites which bundle software got penalized in organic search and are not even allowed to buy AdWords ads. At an extreme degree, sites which bundled no software, but simply didn't link to an End User Agreement (EULA) from the download page were penalized. Which leads to uncomfortable conversations like this one:
Google Support: I looked through this, and it seemed that one of the issues was a lack of an End User Agreement (EULA)
Simtec: An EULA is displayed by the setup program before installing starts. Also, the end user license agreements are linked to from here http://www.httpwatch.com/buy/orderingfaq.aspx#licensetypes
Google Support: Hmm, They do want it on the download page itself
Simtec: How come there isn’t one here? google.co.uk/chrome/browser/desktop/
Google Support: LOL
Simtec: No really?
Google Support: That’s a great question
Of course, it goes without saying that much of the Google Chrome install base came from negative option software bundling on Adobe Flash security updates.
Google claimed helpful hotel affiliate sites should be rated as spam, then they put their own affiliate ads in hotel search results & even recommended hotel searches in the knowledge graph on city name searches.
Google created a penalty for sites which have an ad heavy interface. Many of Google's search results are nothing but ads for the entire first screen.
Google search engineers have recently started complaining about interstitial ads & suggested they might create a "relevancy" signal based on users not liking those. At the same time, an increasing number of YouTube videos have unskippable pre-roll ads. And the volume of YouTube ad views is so large that it is heavily driving down Google's aggregate ad click price. On top of this, Google also offers a survey tool which publishers can lock content behind & requires users to answer a question before they can see the full article they just saw ranking in the search results.
"Everything is possible, but nothing is real." - Living Colour
Blue Ocean Opportunity
Amid the growing ecosystem instability & increasing hypocrisy, there have perhaps been only a couple "blue ocean" areas left in organic search: local search & brand.
And it appears Google might be well on their way in trying to take those away.
For years brand has been the solution to almost any SEO problem.
I wonder how many SEOs working for big brands have done absolutely nothing of value since 2012 yet still look like geniuses to executives.— Ross Hudgens (@RossHudgens) August 7, 2015
But Google has been increasing the cost of owning a brand. They are testing other ad formats to drive branded search clicks through more expensive ad formats like PLAs & they have been drastically increasing brand CPCs on text ads. And while that second topic has recently gained broader awareness, it has been a trend for years now: "Over the last 12 months, Brand CPCs on Google have increased 80%" - George Michie, July 30, 2013.
There are other subtle ways Google has attacked brand, including:
- penalties on many of the affiliates of those brands
- launching their own vertical search ad offerings in key big-money verticals
- investing billions in "disruptive" start ups which are exempt from the algorithmic risks other players must deal with
- allowing competitors to target competing brands not only within the search results, but also as custom affinity audiences
- linking to competing businesses in the knowledge graph
Google has recently dialed up monetization of local search quite aggressively as well. I've long highlighted how mobile search results are ad heavy & have grown increasingly so over time. Google has recently announced call only ad formats, a buy button for mobile ads, local service provider ads, appointment scheduling in the SERPs, direct hotel booking, etc.
And, in addition to all the above new ad formats, recently it was noticed Google is now showing 3 ads on mobile devices even for terms without much commercial intent, like [craft beer].
Now that the mobile search interface is literally nothing but ads above the fold, early data shows a significant increase in mobile ad clicks. Of course it doesn't matter if there are 2 or 3 ads, if Google shows ad extensions on SERPs with only 2 ads to ensure they drive the organic results "out of sight, out of mind."
Earlier this month it was also noticed Google replaced 7-pack local results with 3-pack local results for many more search queries, even on desktop search results. On some of these results they only show a call button, on others they show links to sites. It is a stark contrast to the vast array of arbitrary (and even automated) ad extensions in AdWords.
Why would they determine users want to see links to the websites & the phone numbers, then decide overnight users don't want those?
Why would Google determine for many years that 7 is a good number of results to show, and then overnight shift to showing 3?
If Google listed 7 ads in a row people might notice the absurdity of it and complain. But if Google only shows 3 results, then they can quickly convert it into an ad unit with little blowback.
You don't have to be a country music fan to know the Austin SEO limits in a search result where the local results are now payola.
Try not to hurt your back while looking down for the organic search results!
Here are two tips to ensure any SEO success isn't ethereal: don't be nearby, and don't be a business. :D
A couple days ago Microsoft announced a deal with AOL to have AOL sell Microsoft display ads & for Bing to power AOL's organic search results and paid search ads for a decade starting in January.
The search landscape is still undergoing changes.
I am uncertain to what degree they are testing search results from Google, but on some web browsers I am seeing Yahoo! organics and ads powered by Bing & in other browsers I am seeing Yahoo! organics and ads powered by Google. Here are a couple screenshots.
Comparing The SERPs
Notable differences between the versions:
|top ad color||purple||blue|
|top ad favicon||yes||no|
|clickable ad area||all||headline|
|ad label||right of each ad near URL||once in gray above all ads|
|ad URL redirect||r.msn.com||google.com|
|ad units above organics||5||4|
|ad star rating color||blue||yellow|
|Yahoo! verticals like Tumblr & Answers||mixed into organic results||not mixed in|
|footer "powered by Bing" message||shown||missing|
When the Google ads run on the Yahoo! SERPs for many keywords I am seeing many of the search arbitrage players in the top ads. Typically these ads are more commonly relegated to Google.com's right rail ad positions.
The Google Yahoo! Search Backstory
Back in 2008 when Yahoo! was fighting to not get acquired they signed an ad agreement with Google, but it was blocked by the DOJ due to antitrust concerns. Unless Google loses Apple as a search partner, they are arguably more dominant today in general web search than they were back in 2008. Some have argued apps drastically change the way people search, but Google has went to great lengths to depreciate the roll of apps & suck people back into their search ecosystem with features baked into Google Now on tap & in-app keyword highlighting that can push a user from an app into a Google search result.
In Q4 last year Yahoo! replaced Google as the default search provider in Firefox in the United States.
And Yahoo! recently signed a deal with Oracle to bundle default Yahoo! Search settings on Java updates. Almost all the Bing network gains of late have been driven by Yahoo!.
A little over a year ago Yahoo! launched Gemini to begin rebuilding their own search ad network, starting with mobile. In their Q1 report, RKG stated "Among advertisers adopting Gemini, 36% of combined Bing and Yahoo mobile traffic was served by Yahoo in March 2015."
When Yahoo! recently renewed their search deal with Microsoft, Yahoo! was once again allowed to sell their own desktop search ads & they are only required to give 51% of the search volume to Bing. There has been significant speculation as to what Yahoo! would do with the carve out. Would they build their own search technology? Would they outsource to Google to increase search ad revenues? It appears they are doing a bit of everything - some Bing ads, some Yahoo! ads, some Google ads.
Bing reports the relative share of Yahoo! search ad volume they deliver on a rolling basis: "data covers all device-types. The relative volume (y-axis) is an index based on average traffic in April, therefore it is possible for the volume to go above 1.0. The chart is updated on a weekly basis."
If Yahoo! gives Google significant share it could create issues where users who switch between the different algorithms might get frustrated by the results being significantly different. Or if users don't care it could prove general web search is so highly commoditized the average searcher is totally unaware of the changes. The latter is more likely, given most searchers can't even distinguish between search ads and organic search results.
The FTC was lenient toward Google in spite of Google's clearly articulated intent to abuse their dominant market position. Google has until August 17th to respond to EU antitrust charges. I am a bit surprised Google would be willing to run this type of test while still undergoing antitrust scrutiny in Europe.
Choosing to Choose Choice
When Mozilla signed the deal with Yahoo! & dumped Google they pushed it as "promoting choice."
A cynic might question how much actual choice there is if on many searches the logo is different but the underlying ads & organic results are powered by Google, and an ex-Google executive runs Yahoo!.
"Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." - Henry Ford
Most of you are too busy monitoring Google's latest algorithm updates, examining web analytics, and building links and content to stay up to date on the design world.
Usually, creative people who excel at design aren't very good at the left-brain thinking required to succeed in the highly-technical search engine optimization industry. Likewise, very few people with the analytical mindset required for search engine optimization would do well in the free-spirited design industry.
Unfortunately, in the real world, you're often expected to do exactly that. And while most people understand that it would be ludicrous to expect their doctor to also troubleshoot their plumbing, they don't seem to understand why they shouldn't expect the person responsible for their SEO to also handle their design needs from time to time.
So you're often forced to design things for your clients from time to time. Or sometimes, you just need to whip up something for yourself instead of trying to find someone who can deliver what you need on Fiverr.
Since you probably won't start sporting a black turtleneck and talking about crop marks, press checks, or CMYK colors anytime soon, it seems silly to shell out thousands of dollars on software you'll only use occasionally, so I've compiled a list of design resources for non-designers.
The resources in this list are every bit as powerful as any of the professional-grade software, but they are free. (Some do offer premium versions with more options.) The only downside is that it might be a little bit tougher to find tutorials for some of these programs compared to the industry standard software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.
We all need to edit and create images from time to time, but if you only do it occasionally, software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator works out to be pretty expensive. Fortunately, there are several feature-rich image editing programs available.
- Gimp - Anything you can do with Photoshop can be done with Gimp, and it runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The learning curve can be steep, but it's worth the time.
- Pixlr - If you're used to Photoshop, this program has a very similar interface, and it even opens native .psd files with the original layers intact.
- Canva - The drag-and-drop interface of this web-based design program make graphic design quick and simple, plus it comes with a library of over one million professional stock images.
- Inkscape - Easily create illustrations, logos, technical drawings, and vector images with this free alternative to Illustrator.
- SVG Editor - If you're obsessed about website speed, you probably love SVGs (scalable vector graphics) and this handy tool from Google make it easy to create and edit them.
OK, so you're not going to compete with Pixar anytime soon, but 3D capabilities do come in handy for designing mockups of books and DVDs, creating characters, and even complete photorealistic animations.
- Online 3d Package - This tool lets you quickly and easily create photorealistic mockups of books, boxes, DVDs, and CDs.
- Blender - If you occasionally need to create 3D renderings but can't justify spending big bucks for professional-grade software that you'll only use a few times, Blender is the perfect (and free) alternative.
Designing a website requires a blend of creative and technical skills. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools available to efficiently complete both. From the pretty parts, to the nuts and bolts, to the little details, here is everything you'll need:
Palette generator - Upload an image and this tool will generate the perfect color palette to compliment it that you can download as a CSS file.
Subtle Paterns - Creating seamless backgrounds can be a pain, so instead of starting from scratch, just download from over 400 high-quality seamless background images, including textures and patterns.
Web page editors
Whether you're building a website from scratch with a WYSIWYG editor or fine-tuning the code on an existing website with an HTML editor, web design software will probably get a lot of use in your hands. If you have the technical chops to hand code your websites, that's ideal, but if not, or if you just don't want to, here are several options:
- Kompozer - With a WYSIWYG editor in one tab and raw HTML in the other, on-the-fly editing with built-in FTP, Kompozer will make creating and editing web page a breeze.
- Google Webdesigner - Build HTML5-based designs and motion graphics that can run on any device without writing any code! (If you want to get your hands dirty, you can edit all HTML and CSS by hand.
- Expression Web - Microsoft offers another free web page editor which has made significant improvements since that abomination called Frontpage.
Favicon Generator - A truly polished website needs consistent branding throughout, and that means all the little details, including a favicon—that tiny little image that sits in the tab or bookmarks. Just upload an image file, such as your logo, and this handy tool will spit out the .ico files you need.
Infographics are still an effective method to earn social shares and links, and they are a great way to present a lot of data-rich information, but they can be a pain to create. Here are several tools to simplify the process that might even be better (and easier) than traditional design software.
- Infogram - Build beautiful data-driven infographics in just three steps with this free tool.
- Piktochart - With a simple point and click editor and over 4,000 graphics, icons, and template files, Piktochart makes it easy to create infographics that look exactly the way you want.
- Easel.ly - Loaded with tons of creative templates and an east-to-use interface, this is another powerful tool to create your own stunning infographics.
- Venngage - This drag and drop interface provides all the charts, maps, icons and templates you'll need to design attention-grabbing infographics.
- Vizualize.me - Turn your boring resume into a unique visual expression of your skills and experience to stand out from the crowd.
If you are in a saturated market or have a great idea you are certain will be a success then it may make sense to splash out for a custom designed graphic, but in less competitive market some of the above quick-n-easy tools can still be remarkably effective.
Google Charts is a great way to create all sorts of charts, and the best part is that you can create them on the fly by passing variables in the URL.
Today you have plenty of options when it comes to font choices, so please stop using Arial, and for the love of all that is good, never use Comic Sans or I will hunt you down. You can choose from thousands of free fonts, so it's easy to pick one that fits your project perfectly.
- Typegenius - Choosing the perfect font combo can be tough, but Typegenious makes it easy. Just pick a starter font from the drop down list and the site will recommend fonts that pair well with it.
- Google Fonts - I recommend embedding Google fonts instead hosting them on your own server because they load more quickly and there is a chance they're already cached on visitors' computers.
- Font Awesome - This is an awesome (hence the name) way to add all sorts of scalable icons without a load of extra http requests. Simply load one font for access to 519 icons that colored, scaled, and styled with CSS.
- DaFont - Download and instal these fonts (.ttf or .otf formats) for designing documents or images on your computer.
- What the Font - If you've ever experienced the rage-inducing task of figuring out what font was used when your client only has a 72dpi jpg and no idea how to track down their previous designer, then this is the tool for you. Just upload your image and it goes to work figuring what font it is.
Social media can multiply your website's exposure exponentially, but it takes a lot of work. From branding profiles on each network to crafting engaging visual content your fans will share, you'll have to create a lot of graphics to feed the beast. Doing that manually, the old-fashioned way is tedious and slow, so I recommend these tools to speed up your workflow.
Easy Cover Maker - Stop wasting time trying to position your cover and profile photo for your Facebook and Google+ page. This tool lets you drag everything into position in one handy interactive window, then download the image files.
- Quotes Cover - Just select a quote or enter your own text, apply various effects for your own unique style, and download eye catching pictures perfect for social media. It even creates the perfect dimensions based on how you intend to use it.
- Chisel - This tool has the most user-friendly interface and tons of great images and fonts to create the exact message you want to share.
- Recite This - There are plenty of images and fonts available, but the downside is you have to scroll through images one at a time, and fonts are selected randomly.
Jing - From the makers of Camtasia, this free program gives you the ability to capture images or video (up to 5 minutes long) of your computer screen, then share it with the click of a button.
Social Kit - Create cover images, profile pictures, and ad banners for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube with this free, up-to-date Photoshop plugin.
Social media image size guide - The folks over at Sprout Social created (and maintain) this handy and comprehensive Google doc listing the image sizes for all major social media networks, and since it's a shared document, you can have Google notify you anytime it's updated!
Instead of wasting time searching for the perfect meme, why not just create your own?
Powerful photos can mean the difference between a dry post that visitors ignore and one that entices them to read more. The good news is you don't have to take your own spend a fortune on stock photos because there are several free and low-cost options available.
- Unsplash - These are not your typical cheesy stock photos; they lean more towards the artistic side. New photos are uploaded every day and they're all 100% free.
- StockVault - With over 54 thousand free images available, both artistic and corporate-style, you should be able to find the perfect photo for just about any project.
- Dreamstime & iStockPhoto - Both of these sites give you the option of a subscription model or a pay-as-you-go credits. Many images on one are available on the other, but I've found great images that were only on one of the two sites, so it's worthwhile to check both.
Even the best designers hit a wall, creatively speaking, so it helps to look for inspiration. These sites curate the best designs around and are updated regularly, so you'll find plenty of fresh ideas for your project.
Since you're days are filled with keyword research, content development, link building, and other SEO-related tasks, you probably don't have time to stay up-to-date on the latest design trends and techniques. No worries—with these websites, you'll be able to find a tutorial to walk you through just about any design challenge.
- CSS-Tricks - Whenever I have a CSS question, I always slap “css tricks” on the end of my search because Chris Coyer has the most detailed, yet easy-to-understand tutorials on damn near every scenario you could imagine.
- Tuts+ - Learn everything about graphic design, web design, programming, and more with a growing library of articles and tutorials.
- Smashing Magazine - This is probably one of the most comprehensive web design resources you'll find anywhere, going wide and deep on every aspect of web design.
About the Author
Jeremy Knauff is the founder of Spartan Media, a proud father, husband, and US Marine Corps veteran. He has spent over 15 years helping small business up to Fortune 500 companies make their mark online, and now he's busy building his own media empire. You can follow Spartan Media on Twitter and Facebook.
Yesterday Google shared they see greater mobile than desktop search volumes in 10 countries including Japan and the United States.
3 years ago RKG shared CTR data which highlighted how mobile search ads were getting over double the CTR as desktop search ads.
The basic formula: less screen real estate = higher proportion of user clicks on ads.
Google made a big deal of their "mobilepocalypse" update to scare other webmasters into making their sites mobile friendly. Part of the goal of making sites "mobile friendly" is to ensure it isn't too ad dense (which in turn lowers accidental ad clicks & lowers monetization). Not only does Google have an "ad heavy" relevancy algorithm which demotes ad heavy sites, but they also explicitly claim even using a moderate sized ad unit on mobile devices above the fold is against their policy guidelines:
Is placing a 300x250 ad unit on top of a high-end mobile optimized page considered a policy violation?
Yes, this would be considered a policy violation as it falls under our ad placement policies for site layout that pushes content below the fold. This implementation would take up too much space on a mobile optimized site's first view screen with ads and provides a poor experience to users. Always try to think of the users experience on your site - this will help ensure that users continue to visit.
So if you make your site mobile friendly you can't run Google ads above the fold unless you are a large enough publisher that the guidelines don't actually matter.
If you spend the extra money to make your site mobile friendly, you then must also go out of your way to lower your income.
What is the goal of the above sort of scenario? Defunding content publishers to ensure most the ad revenues flow to Google.
If you think otherwise, consider the layout of the auto ads & hotel ads Google announced yesterday. Top of the search results, larger than 300x250.
If you do X, you are a spammer. If Google does X, they are improving the user experience.
The above sort of contrast is something noticed by non-SEOs. The WSJ article about Google's new ad units had a user response stating:
With this strategy, Google has made the mistake of an egregious use of precious mobile screen space in search results. This entails much extra fingering/scrolling to acquire useful results and bypass often not-needed coincident advertising. Perhaps a moneymaker by brute force; not a good idea for utility’s sake.
That content displacement with ads is both against Google's guidelines and algorithmically targeted for demotion - unless you are Google.
How is that working for Google partners?
According to eMarketer, by 2019 mobile will account for 72% of US digital ad spend. Almost all that growth in ad spend flows into the big ad networks while other online publishers struggle to monetize their audiences:
Facebook and Google accounted for a majority of mobile ad market growth worldwide last year. Combined, the two companies saw net mobile ad revenues increase by $6.92 billion, claiming 75.2% of the additional $9.2 billion that went toward mobile in 2013.
Back to the data RKG shared. Mobile is where the growth is...
...and the smaller the screen size the more partners are squeezed out of the ecosystem...
The high-intent, high-value search traffic is siphoned off by ads.
What does that leave for the rest of the ecosystem?
It is hard to build a sustainable business when you have to rely almost exclusively on traffic with no commercial intent.
One of the few areas that works well is perhaps with evergreen content which has little cost of maintenance, but even many of those pockets of opportunity are disappearing due to the combination of the Panda algorithm and Google's scrape-n-displace knowledge graph.
Even companies with direct ad sales teams struggle to monetize mobile:
At The New York Times, for instance, more than half its digital audience comes from mobile, yet just 10% of its digital-ad revenue is attributed to these devices.
Other news websites also get the majority of their search traffic from mobile.
Why do news sites get so much mobile search traffic? A lot of it is navigational & beyond that most of it is on informational search queries which are hard to monetize (and thus have few search ads) and hard to structure into the knowledge graph (because they are about news items which only just recently happened).
If you look at the organic search traffic breakdown in your analytics account & you run a site which isn't a news site you will likely see a far lower share of search traffic from mobile. Websites outside of the news vertical typically see far less mobile traffic. This goes back to Google dominating the mobile search interface with ads.
Mobile search ecosystem breakdown
- traffic with commercial intent = heavy ads
- limited commercial intent but easy answer = knowledge graph
- limited commercial intent & hard to answer = traffic flows to news sites
Not only is Google monetizing a far higher share of mobile search traffic, but they are also aggressively increasing minimum bids.
As Google continues to gut the broader web publishing ecosystem, they can afford to throw a few hundred million in "innovation" bribery kickback slush funds. That will earn them some praise in the short term with some of the bigger publishers, but it will make those publishers more beholden to Google. And it is even worse for smaller publishers. It means the smaller publishers are not only competing against algorithmic brand bias, confirmation bias expressed in the remote rater documents, & wholesale result set displacement, but some of their bigger publishing competitors are also subsidized directly by Google.
Ignore the broader ecosystem shifts.
Ignore the hypocrisy.
Focus on the user.
Until you are eating cat food.
A day after the alleged major update, I thought it would make sense to highlight where we are at in the cycle.
Yesterday Google suggested their fear messaging caused 4.7% of webmasters to move over to mobile friendly design since the update was originally announced a few months ago.
The 4.7% of the websites Google pushed to go mobile friendly likely include some sites which would have been mobile friendly anyhow by virtue of being new sites on hosted platforms with responsive designs. But for the rest of the sites, was the shift worth it?
That is a tough question.
It is too early to tell.
- Google still hasn't put much weight on it in the rankings yet.
- Mobile traffic is typically worth far less than desktop traffic for most websites.
- Time which was spent on mobile friendly conversion could have been spent on other forms of marketing.
- Some sites which became mobile friendly took a significant revenue hit in doing so by switching out long running effective ad placements with mobile responsive units which may not have performed as well.
The problem with going early is you eat the expense upfront, while the rewards are still unknown.
- Many people who jumped on the "secured everywhere" bandwagon last year saw broken security certificate issues and broken plugins which were hard to fix. And the upfront cost wasn't the only expense, as many AdSense publishers saw less relevant ads, lower ad CTR, and a sharp drop in AdSense earnings after going secured.
- Those who spent the money to integrate Google Checkout to get AdWords discounts had to spend again to remove it when Google stopped supporting it.
- TV makers who were early to integrate Google's YouTube API (which allowed ad free streaming) will now have to deal with a rash of customer complaints as Google sunsets the old API to make way to be able to sell an ad free subscription service.
If you are spending your own time & money and you believe in what you are doing and the longevity of a project then it doesn't matter too much if the rewards come slowly or never come. A sense of purpose & a sense of pride in your work is a form of payment.
However, if you are spending a client's money & you ring a 5 alarm fire to rush to make some technical change & then see no upside after the much hyped announcement, that erodes client trust. If there is no upside and a huge drop in revenue, then the consultant looks like a clueless idiot burning money for the sake of it doing various make work projects.
A few years ago a Google rep stated Panda would be folded into the regular algorithms. Then recently we were told it was a near realtime. Then we were told it was something where updates needed to be manually pushed out & it is something Google hasn't done in 4 months. If we trusted Google & conveyed any of these messages to clients, once again we looked like idiots. If we choose to invest client money based on the cycles and advice we are given, quite often that is a money incinerator.
Imagine dropping $30,000 on a link cleanup project where you remove links which were helping your Bing rankings but the Google update "coming soon" takes over a year to show up.
Invest money to lower your current income while you're waiting for Godat.
So after Google made a big show of this pending mobile update by pre-announcing it, speaking about it at multiple conferences, comparing it to Panda and Penguin & stating it would have a bigger impact, sending out millions of warning messages via Webmaster Tools, etc etc etc .. when the big day came, did Google make the people who trusted them & invested in their advice look good?
Not so much.
Ayima recently launched a SERP flux pulse tracker tool which shows desktop and mobile flux side-by-side.
As you can see, nothing happened.
So far, no rewards. Maybe they will come. Though here is a hypothetical example where it could be very much NOT worth it for some publishers to go mobile friendly...
- a webmaster managing an affiliate site converts it to a mobile responsive design
- but user conversions on mobile devices in some verticals are unlikely, due to it being a pain in the ass to enter credit card info and so on ...
- well ... person makes their site mobile friendly
- that leads their mobile version of their site to rank better in Google
- that leads to a greater share of their overall organic Google search traffic coming from mobile devices
- their engagement metrics on mobile are somewhat weak, particularly when compared against desktop users, as is the case for many websites
- their lower aggregate engagement metrics could create a signal which lead an edge case site into a false positive panda penalty
- that then lowers their desktop search rankings
- which lowers their desktop search traffic
- which lowers their desktop search revenues
- ...worse yet, ...
- those affiliate cookies they dropped on mobile devices don't count for them when the user later converts on a desktop device
Any form of penalty (even a false positive) can become self-reinforcing. And many of the things which seem like they might help could cause harm.
Did you jump the gun or wait and see?
The Truth About Subjective Truths
- You can't copyright facts, which means that if this were a primary ranking signal & people focused on it then they would be optimizing their site to be scraped-n-displaced into the knowledge graph. Some people may sugar coat the knowledge graph and rich answers as opportunity, but it is Google outsourcing the cost of editorial labor while reaping the rewards.
- If Google is going to scrape, displace & monetize data sets, then the only ways to really profit are:
- In some areas (especially religion and politics) certain facts are verboten & people prefer things which provide confirmation bias of their pre-existing beliefs. End user usage data creates a "relevancy" signal out of comfortable false facts and personalization reinforces it.
- In some areas well known "facts" are sponsored falsehoods. In other areas some things slip through the cracks.
- In some areas Google changes what is considered fact based on where you are located.
- Those who have enough money can create their own facts. It might be painting the perception of a landscape, hiring thousands of low waged workers to manipulate public perception on key issues and new technologies, or more sophisticated forms of social network analysis and manipulation to manipulate public perceptions.
- The previously mentioned links were governmental efforts. However such strategies are more common in the commercial market. Consider how Google has sponsored academic conferences while explicitly telling the people who put them on to hide the sponsorship as part of their lobbying efforts.
- Then there is the blurry area where government and commerce fuse, like when Google put about a half-dozen home team players in key governmental positions during the FTC investigation of Google. Google claimed lobbying was disgusting until they experienced the ROI firsthand.
- In some areas "facts" are backward looking views of the market which are framed, distorted & intentionally incomplete. There was a significant gap between internal voices and external messaging in the run up to the recent financial crisis. Even large & generally trustworthy organizations have some serious skeletons in their closets.
- In other areas the inconvenient facts get washed away over time by money.
Less Diversity, More Consolidation
The problem is rarely attributed to Google, but as ecosystem diversity has declined (and entire segments of the ecosystem are unprofitable to service), more people are writing things like: "The market for helping small businesses maintain a home online isn’t one with growing profits – or, for the most part, any profits. It’s one that’s heading for a bloody period of consolidation."
If you don't think Google wants to disrupt you out of a job, you've been asleep at the wheel for the past decade— Michael Gray (@graywolf) March 13, 2015
We Just Listen to the Data (Ish)
As Google sucks up more data, aggregates intent, and scrapes-n-displaces the ecosystem they get air cover for some of their gray area behaviors by claiming things are driven by the data & putting the user first.
Those "data" and altruism claims from Google recently fell flat on their face when the Wall Street Journal published a number of articles about a leaked FTC document.
- How Google Skewed Search Results
- Inside the U.S. Antitrust Probe of Google
- Key quotes from the document from the WSJ & more from Danny Sullivan
- The PDF document is located here.
That PDF has all sorts of goodies in it about things like blocking competition, signing a low margin deal with AOL to keep monopoly marketshare (while also noting the general philosophy outside of a few key deals was to squeeze down on partners), scraping content and ratings from competing sites, Google force inserting itself in certain verticals anytime select competitors ranked in the organic result set, etc.
As damning as the above evidence is, more will soon be brought to light as the EU ramps up their formal statement of objection, as Google is less politically connected in Europe than they are in the United States:
"On Nov. 6, 2012, the night of Mr. Obama’s re-election, Mr. Schmidt was personally overseeing a voter-turnout software system for Mr. Obama. A few weeks later, Ms. Shelton and a senior antitrust lawyer at Google went to the White House to meet with one of Mr. Obama’s technology advisers. ... By the end of the month, the FTC had decided not to file an antitrust lawsuit against the company, according to the agency’s internal emails."
What is wild about the above leaked FTC document is it goes to great lengths to show an anti-competitive pattern of conduct toward the larger players in the ecosystem. Even if you ignore the distasteful political aspects of the FTC non-decision, the other potential out was:
"The distinction between harm to competitors and harm to competition is an important one: according to the modern interpretation of antitrust law, even if a business hurts individual competitors, it isn’t seen as breaking antitrust law unless it has also hurt the competitive process—that is, that it has taken actions that, for instance, raised prices or reduced choices, over all, for consumers." - Vauhini Vara
Part of the reason the data set was incomplete on that front was for the most part only larger ecosystem players were consulted. Google engineers have went on record stating they aim to break people's spirits in a game of psychological warfare. If that doesn't hinder consumer choice, what does?
When the EU published their statement of objections Google's response showed charts with the growth of Amazon and eBay as proof of a healthy ecosystem.
The market has been consolidated down into a few big winners which are still growing, but that in and of itself does not indicate a healthy nor neutral overall ecosystem.
The long tail of smaller e-commerce sites which have been scrubbed from the search results is nowhere to be seen in such charts / graphs / metrics.
The other obvious "untruth" hidden in the above Google chart is there is no way product searches on Google.com are included in Google's aggregate metrics. They are only counting some subset of them which click through a second vertical ad type while ignoring Google's broader impact via the combination of PLAs along with text-based AdWords ads and the knowledge graph, or even the recently rolled out rich product answer results.
Who could look at the following search result (during anti-trust competitive review no less) and say "yeah, that looks totally reasonable?"
Google has allegedly spent the last couple years removing "visual clutter" from the search results & yet they manage to product SERPs looking like that - so long as the eye candy leads to clicks monetized directly by Google or other Google hosted pages.
The Search Results Become a Closed App Store
Search was an integral piece of the web which (in the past) put small companies on a level playing field with larger players.
That it no longer is.
"What kind of a system do you have when existing, large players are given a head start and other advantages over insurgents? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not the Internet." - Dave Pell
The above quote was about app stores, but it certainly parallels a rater system which enforces the broken window fallacy against smaller players while looking the other way on larger players, unless they are in a specific vertical Google itself decides to enter.
"That actually proves my point that they use Raters to rate search results. aka: it *is* operated manually in many (how high?) cases. There is a growing body of consensus that a major portion of Googles current "algo" consists of thousands of raters that score results for ranking purposes. The "algorithm" by machine, on the majority of results seen by a high percentage of people, is almost non-existent." ... "what is being implied by the FTC is that Googles criteria was: GoogleBot +10 all Yelp content (strip mine all Yelp reviews to build their database). GoogleSerps -10 all yelp content (downgrade them in the rankings and claim they aren't showing serps in serps). That is anticompetitive criteria that was manually set." - Brett Tabke
The remote rater guides were even more explicitly anti-competitive than what was detailed in the FTC report. For instance, requiring hotel affiliate sites rated as spam even if they are helpful, for no reason other than being affiliate sites.
Is Brand the Answer?
About 3 years ago I wrote a blog post about how branding plays into SEO & why it might peak. As much as I have been accused of having a cynical view, the biggest problem with my post was it was naively optimistic. I presumed Google's consolidation of markets would end up leading Google to alter their ranking approach when they were unable to overcome the established consensus bias which was subsidizing their competitors. The problem with my presumption is Google's reliance on "data" was a chimera. When convenient (and profitable) data is discarded on an as need basis.
Or, put another way, the visual layout of the search result page trumps the underlying ranking algorithms.
Google has still highly disintermediated brand value, but they did it via vertical search, larger AdWords ad units & allowing competitive bidding on trademark terms.
If Not Illegal, then Scraping is Certainly Morally Deplorable...
Around this same time Google pushed through a black PR smear job of Bing for doing a similar, lesser offense to Google on rare, made-up longtail searches which were not used by the general public.
While Google was outright stealing third party content and putting it front & center on core keyword searches, they had to use "about 100 “synthetic queries”—queries that you would never expect a user to type" to smear Bing & even numerous of these queries did not show the alleged signal.
Here are some representative views of that incident:
- "We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we'd like for this practice to stop." - Google's Amit Singhal
- “It’s cheating to me because we work incredibly hard and have done so for years but they just get there based on our hard work. I don’t know how else to call it but plain and simple cheating. Another analogy is that it’s like running a marathon and carrying someone else on your back, who jumps off just before the finish line.” Amit Singhal, more explicitly.
- "One comment that I’ve heard is that “it’s whiny for Google to complain about this.” I agree that’s a risk, but at the same time I think it’s important to go on the record about this." - Matt Cutts
- "I’ve got some sympathy for Google’s view that Bing is doing something it shouldn’t." - Danny Sullivan
What is so crazy about the above quotes is Google engineers knew at the time what Google was doing with Google's scraping. I mentioned that contrast shortly after the above PR fiasco happened:
when popular vertical websites (that have invested a decade and millions of Dollars into building a community) complain about Google disintermediating them by scraping their reviews, Google responds by telling those webmasters to go pound sand & that if they don't want Google scraping them then they should just block Googlebot & kill their search rankings
Learning the Rules of the Road
- "The bizrate/nextag/epinions pages are decently good results. They are usually well-format[t]ed, rarely broken, load quickly and usually on-topic. Raters tend to like them" ... which is why ... "Google repeatedly changed the instructions for raters until raters assessed Google's services favorably"
- and while claimping down on those services ("business models to avoid") ... "Google elected to show its product search OneBox “regardless of the quality” of that result and despite “pretty terribly embarrassing failures” "
- and since Google knew their offerings were vastly inferior, “most of us on geo [Google Local] think we won't win unless we can inject a lot more of local directly into google results” ... thus they added "a 'concurring sites' signal to bias ourselves toward triggering [display of a Google local service] when a local-oriented aggregator site (i.e. Citysearch) shows up in the web results”"
Google's justification for not being transparent is "spammer" would take advantage of transparency to put inferior results front and center - the exact same thing Google does when it benefits the bottom line!
The following types of websites are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably. In addition, it's important for advertisers of these types of websites to adhere to our landing page quality guidelines regarding unique content.
- eBook sites that show frequent ads
- 'Get rich quick' sites
- Comparison shopping sites
- Travel aggregators
- Affiliates that don't comply with our affiliate guidelines
The anti-competitive conspiracy theory is no longer conspiracy, nor theory.
Key points highlighted by the European Commission:
- Google systematically positions and prominently displays its comparison shopping service in its general search results pages, irrespective of its merits. This conduct started in 2008.
- Google does not apply to its own comparison shopping service the system of penalties, which it applies to other comparison shopping services on the basis of defined parameters, and which can lead to the lowering of the rank in which they appear in Google's general search results pages.
- Froogle, Google's first comparison shopping service, did not benefit from any favourable treatment, and performed poorly.
- As a result of Google's systematic favouring of its subsequent comparison shopping services "Google Product Search" and "Google Shopping", both experienced higher rates of growth, to the detriment of rival comparison shopping services.
- Google's conduct has a negative impact on consumers and innovation. It means that users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping results in response to their queries, and that incentives to innovate from rivals are lowered as they know that however good their product, they will not benefit from the same prominence as Google's product.
Overcoming Consensus Bias
Consensus bias is set to an absurdly high level to block out competition, slow innovation, and make the search ecosystem easier to police. This acts as a tax on newer and lesser-known players and a subsidy toward larger players.
Eventually that subsidy would be a problem to Google if the algorithm was the only thing that matters, however if the entire result set itself can be displaced then that subsidy doesn't really matter, as it can be retracted overnight.
Whenever Google has a competing offering ready, they put it up top even if they are embarrassed by it and 100% certain it is a vastly inferior option to other options in the marketplace.
That is how Google reinforces, then manages to overcome consensus bias.
How do you overcome consensus bias?
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Information is a commodity. Corporations are passing around consumer behavioral profiles like brokers with stocks, and the vast majority of the American public is none the wiser of this market’s scope. Very few people actually check the permissions portion of the Google Play store page before downloading a new app, and who has time to pore over the tedious 48-page monstrosity that is the iTunes terms and conditions contract?
With the advent of wearables, ubiquitous computing, and widespread mobile usage, the individual’s market share of their own information is shrinking at an alarming rate. In response, a growing (and vocal) group of consumers is voicing its concerns about the impact of the effective end of privacy online. And guess what? It’s up to designers to address those concerns in meaningful ways to assuage consumer demand.
But how can such a Sisyphean feat be managed? In a world that demands personalized service at the cost of privacy, how can you create and manage a product that strikes the right balance between the two?
That’s a million dollar question, so let’s break it into more affordable chunks.
The big problem with informed consent is the information. It’s your responsibility to be up front with your users as to what exactly they’re trading you in return for your product/service. Not just the cash flow, but the data stream as well. Where’s it going? What’s it being used for?
99.99% of all smartphone apps ask for permission to modify and delete the contents of a phone’s data storage. 99.9999% of the time that doesn’t mean it’s going to copy and paste contact info, photos, or personal correspondences. But that .0001% is mighty worrisome.
Let your users know exactly what you’re asking from them, and what you’ll do with their data. Advertise the fact that you’re not sharing it with corporate interests to line your pockets. And if you are, well, stop that. It’s annoying and you’re ruining the future.
How can you advertise the key points of your privacy policies? Well, you could take a cue from noted online retailer Zappos.com. Their “PROTECTING YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION” page serves as a decent template for transparency.
They also describe their efforts to safeguard user data from malicious hacking threats through the use of SSL tech and firewalls. Then they have an FAQ addressing commonly expressed security concerns. Finally, they have a 24/7 contact line to assure users of personal attention to their privacy queries.
Now it should be noted that this is a template for a good transparency practices, and not precisely a great example of it. The content and intention is there, so what’s missing?
So who does a better job?
CodePen has actually produces an attractively progressive solution.
As you can see, CodePen has taken the time to produce two different versions of their ToS. A typical, lengthy bit of legalese on the left, and an easily readable layman’s version on the right. Providing these as a side by side comparison shows user appreciation and an emphasis on providing a positive UX.
This is all well and good for the traditional web browsing environment, but most of the problems with privacy these days stem from mobile usage. Let’s take a look at how mobile applications are taking advantage of the lag between common knowledge and current technology to make a profit off of private data.
In the mobile space, the Google Play store does a decent job of letting users know what permissions they’re giving, whenever they download an app with its “Permission details” tab:
As you can see, Instagram is awfully nosy, but that’s no surprise. Instagram has come under fire for their privacy policies before. What’s perhaps more surprising, is the unbelievable ubiquity with which invasive data gathering is practiced in the mobile space. Compare Instagram’s permissions to another popular application you might have added to your smartphone’s repertoire:
Why, pray tell, does a flashlight have any need for your location, photos/media/files, device ID and/or call information? I’ll give you a clue: it doesn’t.
Now the policy is up to date, but the insidious data gathering and selling continues. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only flashlight application to engage in the same sort of dirty data tactics. The fact is, you have to do a surprising amount of research to find any application that doesn’t grab a bit more data than advertised, especially when the global market for mobile-user data approaches nearly $10 billion.
For your peace of mind, there is at least one example of an aptly named flashlight application which doesn’t sell your personal info to the highest bidder.
But don’t get too enthusiastic just yet. This is just one application. How many do you have downloaded on your smartphone? Chances are pretty good that you’re harboring a corporate spy on your mobile device.
Hell, even the Holy Bible takes your data:
Is nothing sacred? To the App developer’s credit, they’ve expressed publicly that they’ll never sell user data to third party interests, but it’s still a wakeup call.
Privacy and UX
What then, are some UX friendly solutions? Designers are forced to strike a balance. Apps need data to run more efficiently, and to better serve users. Yet users aren’t used to the concerns associated with the wholesale data permissions required of most applications. What kind of design patterns can be implemented to bring in a bit of harmony?
First and foremost, it’s important to be utilitarian in your data gathering. Offering informed consent is important, letting your users know what permissions they’re granting and why, but doing so in performant user flows is paramount.
For example, iOS has at least one up on Android with their “dynamic permissions.” This means iOS users have the option of switching up their permissions in-app, rather than having to decide all or nothing upon installation as with Android apps.
Note how the Cluster application prompts the user to give access to their photos as their interacting with the application, and reassures them of exactly what the app will do. The user is fully informed, and offers their consent as a result of being asked for a certain level of trust.
All of this is accomplished while they’re aiming to achieve a goal within the app. This effectively moves permission granting to 100% because the developers have created a sense of comfort with the application’s inner workings. That’s what designing for privacy is all about: slowly introducing a user to the concept of shared data, and never taking undue advantage of an uninformed user.
Of course, this is just one facet of the privacy/UX conversation. Informing a user of what they’re allowing is important, but reassuring them that their data is secure is even more so.
Safeguarding User Data
Asking a user to trust your brand is essential to a modern business model, you’re trying to engender a trust based relationship with all of your visitors, after all. The real trick, however, is convincing users that their data is safe in your hands—in other words, it won’t be sold to or stolen by 3rd parties, be they legitimate corporations or malicious hackers.
We touched on this earlier with the Zappos example. Zappos reassures its shoppers with SSL, firewalls, and a personalized promise never to share or sell data. All of which should be adopted as industry standards and blatantly advertised to assuage privacy concerns.
Building these safeguards into your service/application/website/what-have-you is extremely important. To gain consumer trust is to first provide transparency in your own practices, and then to protect your users from the wolves at the gate.
Fortunately, data protection is a booming business with a myriad of effective solutions currently in play. Here are just a few of the popular cloud-based options:
Whatever security solutions you choose, the priorities remain the same. Build trust, and more importantly: actually deserve whatever trust you build.
It hardly needs to be stated, but the real key to a future where personal privacy still exists, is to actually be better people. The kind that can be trusted to hold sensitive data.
Is such a future still possible? Let us know what you think in the comment section.
Kyle Sanders is a member of SEOBook and founder of Complete Web Resources, an Austin-based SEO and digital marketing agency.