Google’s Paid Search vs. Organic Results – A Rickety Wall of Separation
"Chinese Wall – The ethical (not physical) barrier between different divisions of a financial (or other) institution to avoid conflict of interest…"
"While Google never sells better ranking in our search results, several other search engines combine pay-per-click or pay-for-inclusion results with their regular web search results."
Google’s Webmaster Help Center FAQ
"NO pay for inclusion, and a complete separation of the search index part from the money part."
Google Chief Engineer Craig Neville-Manning, Search Engine Strategies 2004
The good people at Google have long maintained that there is a Chinese Wall between paid search results and organic results – that is, the department responsible for advertising is completely separate from the department responsible for organic search engine placement. The company insists that Google Adwords is a completely separate entity than the Google search engine, and never the twain shall meet. This all sounds very good, in theory. But do they live up to this ideal in practice?
You don’t hear Google talking much about Chinese Walls these days. This is certainly in part because they have had great difficulty gaining traction in the literal and very competitive Chinese market (headlines such as "Google Hits Chinese Wall" or even "Google Advance Halted at Great Wall of China" were commonplace). But might there be other, more nefarious reasons? Is there a reason why we hear less and less from Google about the virtual wall that separates paid search results from organic search engine placement?
What Is Google Really Doing for Its Big Spenders?
It has long been rumored that Google will offer technical assistance in achieving better organic search engine placement to those who spend more for paid search results. I know for certain that these rumors are true in at least two instances. In fact, I actually have the minutes from one of these technical assistance meetings after the company met with Google engineers. While the identity of these two companies is irrelevant, suffice to say that they are companies that you have almost certainly heard of and that they spend millions of dollars on paid search words each year.
To be fair, based on the meeting minutes I have, the advice that the engineers gave to the company does not include anything groundbreaking. It is mostly common sense advice that a good search engine optimization firm already knows about organic search engine placement and other issues, and much of it is already covered in the publicly-available Google Webmaster Guidelines. This, however, is beside the point. Google has obviously decided that it must offer perks to its big paid search spenders to keep them happy (or rather, happy enough to not pull their advertising). Clearly, one of these perks is access to Google engineers and the ability to glean information about organic search engine placement, a luxury that smaller advertisers do not enjoy.
Organic Search Engine Placement for Sale – The New Google Reality?
From a business perspective, this makes perfect sense, of course. Big-dollar advertisers make up the bulk of Google’s revenue for paid search, and any intelligent business will take whatever steps they deem necessary to hold on to their most valuable customers. This is why larger advertisers already have a designated account representative from Google. I am willing to bet that this perk was not Google’s idea. Rather, it almost certainly stemmed from the sense of entitlement that those spending large sums on paid search felt and the fact that technical help with their organic search engine placement is what they demanded.
Unfortunately, this reality leaves an advertiser with a small budget for paid search at a disadvantage. If Google is willing to offer this secret perk to larger advertisers now, what might they do in the future? Offer price breaks to larger paid search spenders? Increase the minimum monthly spend to squeeze out smaller companies and please the larger ones? It certainly has the potential to become a slippery slope, and I am interested to see where it goes next.
One final point – since Google is willing to give advice about organic search engine placement to companies that spend a great deal of money on Google advertising, is the phrase "While Google never sells better ranking in our search results…" truly accurate? I suppose this is open for interpretation. It may be technically true, but offering advice regarding organic search engine placement straight from the horse’s mouth in exchange for millions of dollars in money for paid search results isn’t far from selling rankings, in my opinion.
Please don’t get me wrong – I still believe that Google is the best search engine out there, I greatly admire the way that they are continually reinventing themselves, and I think they are still the target for those seeking the most benefit from organic search engine placement. They have the folks in Redmond constantly guessing and always three steps behind, and I love how they have started from humble beginnings to take on one of the biggest corporations in the world (and consistently win). I simply believe that they have played the underdog, anti-corporate card for too long, and that even if it has not outlived its usefulness, it has outlived its truthfulness. Google is now a huge multinational corporation that answers to its shareholders. To pretend anything otherwise is silly, but it seems that, for now at least, the charade will continue.
Google’s overriding principle, one that they have been happy to espouse to the media, has long been "Don’t Be Evil." Whether they still adhere to this principle since they have become a public company is another question that is open for interpretation. If you are a smaller advertiser and feel that Google’s favoritism toward larger paid search customers regarding organic search engine placement is evil, it probably seems as though the "Don’t Be Evil" principle no longer applies. You may conclude that the principles of "Don’t Be Evil" and "Keep Shareholders Happy" are mutually incompatible, and that the latter has gained the upper hand.