We spend a lot of our day trying to change the way people think and talk about Google. A lot of people see Google as a big evil artificially created intelligence like Terminator’s Skynet. We don’t.
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article called “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.” That’s obviously a pretty firm stance and a pretty aggressive title that implies Google reneging on their “Don’t be evil” policy.
The narrative the WSJ creates is a big bad evil monster and they’re “interfering” with search results. This is an incredibly over-simplified way of looking at something incredibly complex.
The general feeling among SEO experts in Canada and around the world is that the writers didn’t seem to have an overly strong grasp of some pretty basic SEO principals. They also used a series of misconceptions and misquotes to frame their argument. The WSJ sensationalized a very important topic
Here’s a deeper dive into the article and the issue.
One of the most striking things we noticed in pouring through the WSJ monster-sized piece was that it was nearly 9,000 words, but contained no actual facts.
It did contain lots of allusions from “people familiar with the matter.”
There was only one real SEO expert quoted in the story… and they were apparently misquoted.
Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing veteran with over 20 years of experience. He is also president of G-Squared Interactive and a regular contributor to Search Engine Land. He was quoted in the WSJ article as describing Google’s algorithm as “black magic.”
Gabe has since come forward and said that he would never describe Google in such a way, and he added any and all conversations he had with the authors were supposed to be off the record.
Gabe also explained his involvement in the article thusly:
“During my calls (which were all off the record), it was clear that writer had a very limited understanding of how Google’s algorithms worked. So I decided to educate that writer over a series of calls.”
He added, “After reaching out to the writer on Friday after the article was published, they asked if I can send another quote that they might use instead of the ‘black magic’ quote. Then I heard back that the editor refused to make the change.”
Ok, yeah, that’s sketchy as hell.
Another one of the best SEO experts in the world today also spoke to the WSJ for their piece, although he was never quoted in the story. He did, however, have lots to say afterward.
Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz said that he spoke to the Wall Street Journal reporters a number of times in an attempt to help them with that story. He said:
“… it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them.”
“They seemed to have one goal: to come up with a sensational story about how Google is abusing its power and responsibility for self gain.”
If the WSJ wanted to get on the phone with someone who has lots of well-informed criticisms of Google, they needed to only call Moz and Sparktoro’s founder Rand Fishkin. Most recently, Fishkin has called Google’s SERPs a “walled garden” because less than half of Google searches will result in a click because of the way that results are structured.
However, Fishkin had nothing good to say about the WSJ article. He told Search Engine Land:
“There’s a lot of unproven, speculative innuendo about how Google’s blacklists work, about the nefarious motivations behind their decisions, and no statistical or meaningful assessment of whether Google’s decisions are good or bad for businesses or users.”
Only quoting one expert and misquoting what they actually said (off the record) should be enough to discredit the entire WSJ article.
However, as they say on late-night infomercials, “But wait! There’s more!”
Flawed Testing Methodologies
One thing grew very clear in reading this article. The WSJ really likes the number 17 for some reason.
To show that Google was interfering with auto-complete search results, they ran tests on 17 search terms for 17 days. Why 17? It sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it? “For 17 days we ran 17 tests.”
Ok. That is not how an SEO expert, nor anyone who knows anything about SEO, would run this test.
The article also calls DuckDuckGo “a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies.” They’re sort of tacitly inferring that DuckDuckGo is a version of Google that hasn’t been corrupted by advertisers and lobbyists. Come on, man.
They’re also implying that the DuckDuckGo version is the version you should see, without Google interference. This is flawed for too many reasons to fit into one blog. The biggest issue I see here is they’re not even comparing apples to apples or Coke to Pepsi. They’re comparing Coke to apple juice.
DuckDuckGo is not using a morally uncompromised version of Google’s search engine algorithm, with all of the interference stripped away. Google uses its own proprietary search algorithm, and DuckDuck uses its own. One is not better than the other, one is not right or wrong.
Also, Google updates its search algorithm about 3000 times a year, so running those same search results may be completely different three weeks from now.
Google has stated that their algo for returning autocomplete or featured snippet results is different from the one they use for standard search results. Basically, you’re never going to see offensive or derogatory terms used in auto-complete.
And as much as someone like Donald Trump has called out Google, you could certainly say he owes them a solid for the way they handle autocompletion.
Google has said, “Across all of these features, we do not want to shock or offend anyone with content that they did not explicitly seek out, so we work to prevent things like violence or profanity from appearing in these special formats.”
Is this curated? Absolutely. Is this interference? Absolutely not. If you take your search a step further and type “Donald Trump is great” or “Donald Trump is insane” you’re not going to have your organic results censored on the SERPs page.
Of course, we all had a chuckle when Google’s Sundar Pichai had to explain to Congress why Trump’s picture shows up when you Google “idiot.”
It feels like someone needs to explain Google to the WSJ in the same way.
Google Favours Big Business
Another one of the more damning things the article goes on to report is that Google favors big businesses and ignores the little guy. It’s hard to even know where to begin with that. There are so many factors involved it’s ridiculous.
I talk about this topic every day, and I’ve been quoted in the Globe recently about how small businesses can succeed in SEO in today’s marketplace. I’m extremely passionate about this. I’d like to think I happen to know a lot about the subject after over a decade of helping small businesses rank.
Let’s break this down on a very simple level. Let’s say you open your own pizzeria downtown. Are you going to have a tough time beating Dominos in the SEO rankings? Oh good lord yes!
That’s because Dominos has:
- A huge web footprint that has been around as long as the internet itself
- A yottabyte or two of existing blogs, videos, and other content
- A few million high-quality links pointing to their domain
- Millions of dollars to invest in marketing every year
Your small pizzeria has none of those things. THAT is why you will have a hard time beating an industry giant. Not because Google has some sort of preference for big businesses over small.
Believe me when I say small businesses can overcome all of that and still find success online against the big guys. We help businesses do it every single day. The game is not rigged.
The eBay Example
The article says, “Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action.”
Anyone who has been following SEO as long as we have knows that eBay and Google have had a contentious-at-best relationship over the years. Google and eBay are not big business BFFs. Google and eBay have beef.
Even the article contradicts itself there. It explores the issues that eBay has had with Google over the years, with eBay even going so far as to pull their advertising from Google in 2007 and again later in 2013 and a Google algo update caused eBay to lose about $200 million in revenue in 2014.
If anything, eBay’s struggles point to the fact that even the biggest brands in the world can’t straight-up buy Google’s affection. You can throw millions of dollars at pay-per-click ads, but they’re not going to perform if they’re not well written or well thought out.
In fact, if you wanted to write a case study on how budget does not always equal success, you could easily use eBay as an example.
So, So Many Blacklists
The article also makes pretty liberal use of the term “blacklist” and uses it as a blanket term to describe everything from removing sites from their rankings, to “weighting” websites differently, to not allowing certain words in autocomplete.
One particularly quizzical example comes shortly after they talk about eBay. The article explores how the people from DealCatcher reported seeing their traffic drop from 31,000 visitors a day to about 2,400 “for no apparent reason.” But, then the traffic magically reappeared a month later.
I’m not going to pretend to know what happened here, but I would absolutely love to talk to the people at DealCatcher about it.
Any single one of about 10,000 things can cause a site’s traffic to drop overnight, and none of them have anything to do with Google deciding to arbitrarily “blacklist” you.
Dealcatcher did hire a professional SEO consultant to find out what happened and to find someone at Google to speak to about the issue. They had issues getting ahold of someone from Google’s end. Well, no argument there. Getting in touch with someone at Google can be a real nightmare.
However, if they hired an SEO consultant, did this traffic just magically come back, or did it come back because of other tactics this consultant used to fix the problem?
I don’t know enough about the case to try to explain it. However, the article also makes no attempt to explain it either… Like, at all. They just kind of leave it open-ended and an example of Google screwing over a company.
Google Under More Scrutiny
As if the PR department at Google wasn’t busy enough with the WSJ story, this same week 50 states combined to file an anti-trust lawsuit against Google, with only California (worth noting this is where Google’s headquarters is located) and Alabama having the only two state attorneys general sitting this one out.
Of course, antitrust suits are nothing new for Google. They were slapped with a $1.7 billion antitrust fine by the Europian Union back in March of this year. This is after they were fined €4.34 billion ($4.9 billion) in July 2018 for unfairly pushing their apps on their smartphone users, and a €2.4 billion ($2.7 billion) fine for steering consumers to its own shopping platform. In total, they have been hit with €8.2 billion ($9.3 billion) in total fines by the Europian Union since 2017.
However, that’s Europe and this is North America. Chris Sagers teaches antitrust at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and said that this lawsuit “will be a lot harder here than it was in Europe.” He added this is because Google is even more dominant in the EU, while European law favors plaintiffs with a looser definition of monopoly power.
We will be watching this one very carefully.
Is Google perfect? No. Is it the evil force that this article describes? Hell no.
Is Google aloof about what’s in their secret search sauce? Of course, they are. They have to be. The techs at Google already have to deal with legions of people trying to cheat or hack the system based on the basic information Google has given us. Can you imagine what would happen if they told us exactly how all 200 of their ranking factors work? Total chaos would ensue and it would literally ruin the internet.
As someone who works in SEO and shows businesses what they need to do to rank, I can say this. There is no “black magic” when it comes to their ranking algorithm. In fact, I frequently say that Google’s search algo has never made more sense than it does right now.
Their algo changes a few thousand times a year. That’s not nefarious, that’s progress. That’s also how you capture about 90% of the overall search market; by constantly committing to improving your product and every searcher’s experience. That’s also why no client has ever come to us worried about their Bing or DuckDuckGo rankings.
Google’s algo updates aren’t constant attempts to keep the little guy out, while finding new ways to reward their big business buddies. Most of their updates like the Panda or Penguin are intended to crack down on the spammy tactics that short-cut-takers use to achieve quick wins.
I also always like to say that if you do all of the right things and build great content and organic links, you should be excited about the next Google update. If your SEO campaigns are built on tricks and hacks, you should be very nervous about the next update. The people doing the right things will most likely never see their SEO results and rankings disappear overnight.
Google is a business and part of that business is refining their product. The algorithm is a product and we have to respect it. Don’t hate the player – hate the game!