Former Googler Talks About Google’s Changes And Controversies

    December 14, 2012
    Chris Crum

Vanessa Fox is always good for an interesting conversation about Google. Considering she used to work there, created Webmaster Central, and wrote the book Marketing In The Age of Google, it makes sense.

What has been the most controversial thing Google has done this year in your opinion? Let us know in the comments.

We recently caught up with Fox, who shared some thoughts on a number of Google-related topics, such as how Google+ is impacting search, the quality of Google’s search results, the direction Google is going in, areas in which Google needs to improve, Bing, Google’s paid inclusion Google Shopping model, antitrust concerns, and the mistakes marketers are making.

Has Google+ Made Search Results Better For Users?

Google makes it more and more clear all the time that it’s in this Google+ thing for the long haul. Last week, the company pointed out that Google+ is the next phase of Google. It’s getting integrated into just about every aspect of what Google has to offer in one way or another. Ever since Google launched Search Plus Your World, its social search integration, which relies heavily on Google+, the results have brought about mixed reactions from users.

“Google has experimented with how to bring Google+ into search results and some of the experiments have been pulled back, with good reason,” Fox tells WebProNews. ”Better for users’ means getting the searcher exactly the information that they’re looking for. Does Google+ integrated into search results provide that? Maybe sometimes; often now. I think Google knows that the online world has gone social and they need to evolve to take that into account. I don’t think they’ve hit on exactly the right formula quite yet.”

When asked whether this brand of social search has been a blessing or a curse for search marketing, Fox says, “I don’t look at search marketing in a silo; I think of how to better understand and engage with audiences overall. Online audiences are social and so it’s always a good idea to meet them where they are. I think that Google+ specifically being integrated into search results does give marketers a new opportunity for visibility on the search results page, so it shouldn’t be ignored.”

The Impact Of Google’s Changes

We asked Fox what she thinks has been the most significant event or feature release of the year, in terms of the impact it has on white hat SEO/search marketing.

“I think the continued evolution of Google’s Panda algorithm and the other strides they are making to move beyond counting links to really getting to the heart of content quality and utility are fantastic,” she says. “The more loopholes are closed and the less the algorithms can be manipulated, the more the best quality sites win.”

“I also see Google making significant advances in supporting structured data, which is a great foundation for the future,” she adds. “New ways of interacting with content, such as Google Now and Google Glass are significant as well, because they start to move us beyond the keyboard and beyond explicit search. HTML5 and Google’s support of responsive design techniques make it easier to build content once and supply it audiences on any device.”

Search Visibility And Google’s Evolution

As Google continues to get smarter at giving users information they seek, whether that be through the Knowledge Graph, Quick Answers, Google Now, or anything else, marketers have a lot to adjust to.

“It’s definitely getting harder to track,” says Fox. “One of the primary reasons I’m building a search analytics software (called Blueprint) is to provide a foundation that enables marketers to better understand their audiences and better measure ROI on search-related investments. I think in some ways, search visibility is becoming easier. We now have so many more ways to connect with audiences and so much more data to better know what they’re looking for so we can meet their needs. Smart marketers will take advantage of this data and these new opportunities.”

When asked if there is any particular area of focus where she thinks Google definitely needs to do a better job, she says, “The hard problem of discerning quality and utility is definitely not solved yet. I think Google has been doing a great job of starting to pull in all kinds of data sources (images, mobile, structured data…) and is evolving as devices and searcher behavior change (Google Now, for instance), but their biggest obstacle is also their oldest one: how do you surface the more useful results to the top and cut through the clutter of an ever-increasing web?”

Bing And Scroogling

We asked how Bing is stacking up to Google these days in her opinion, in light of all of Bing’s campaigns against Google of late.

“Well, funny you should say that because I finally took the Bing challenge yesterday and I picked Google (4 out of 5 times),” she tells us. “But honestly, Bing is doing a pretty good job.”

Bing would probably be happier with her answer to the next question, which was: Has Google made any product changes (non algorithmic) that you think they should not have made?

“I’m not super happy about the shift to paid placement in product search,” she says. “I can see the rationale of why they did it, but doesn’t reflect the stated mission all that well.”

Bing has a “Don’t Get Scroogled” campaign based on this.

Competition And Antitrust Concerns

We’ve written a number of times about how Google is lacking real time search, and potentially sending information seekers to Twitter. A recent NYT report talked about more people starting their product searches at Amazon rather than Google. We asked Fox what kinds of information she is turning to non Google sites and services for.

“I primarily use Urban Spoon for restaurant searches,” she says. “And Oyster or Tablet Hotels for hotel searches. Although I then will search Google for hotel reviews but will specifically click on Tripadvisor results, rather than search Tripadvisor directly. No, I can’t explain this behavior.”

As you may know, many companies have voiced dismay with Google’s business practices with regards to competition. We asked Fox if she believes any of the antitrust concerns are legitimate.

“I can only speak to those that relate to unpaid search,” she says. “But no, I don’t. Google’s search quality team is maniacally focused on including as much of the web in the index as they possibly can and then surfacing the most useful results to searchers. The complaints I’ve seen tend to be based on a misunderstanding of how search works (from those outside of the online world) or misplaced fears about Google’s goals (from those inside).”

What’s Wrong With Your Strategy

Finally, on common pitfalls she sees in organizations’ marketing strategies, Fox tells us, “I see a lot of algorithm chasing, which is such a short term game. I also see a lot of fragmented organizations — the web developers don’t think SEO is important and don’t know best practices of making sure the site is search-friendly; the user experience team thinks that SEO is spam and has no idea that insight can be gained from search data; and so on. And I see a lot of tactics with no strategy. Organizations need a plan, they need to prioritize changes based on impact. There’s ideal online marketing and then there’s practical online marketing. Practical should win every time.”

Do you agree with Vanessa on these various points? Which don’t you agree with? Let us know.