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The Google Kool Aid

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Tamar linked to an interesting WebmasterWorld thread, Todays Webmaster & Their Relationship with Google, this week. The original poster makes some good points about how we’ve fallen under Google’s spell, spend too much of our energy focused on Google, think that Google’s guidelines are what define ethical seo, and give Google access to more data than we should. I agree, though not completely with most of the points and think they make for an interesting discussion.

The thread is growing into a long one so if you want a brief summary you can look at Tamar’s posts

Michael Gray carried the conversation over to Threadwatch with How Would You Undo the Google FUD and Brainwashing.

I’d still urge you to read the original thread at WMW. It takes a lot of different turns away and back towards the original post, and many of the different ideas in the thread could carry their own blog post. I’ll only look at a few points from it here.

Why All The Focus On Google?

The reason why everyone is so focused on Google should be obvious. They had a 65.26% market share in March according to Hitwise, more than three times that of number two Yahoo’s 20.73%. If you could only rank a page for a phrase at one search engine, which are you likely to choose? Google can drive a lot of traffic to a site.

Having said that, Google traffic isn’t always best. While I haven’t been adding AdSense to posts for awhile, older posts here still have the ads. Google traffic results in the lowest CTR of any of the search engines for this site. A third of the traffic at three times the CTR ends up balancing out. Google users also tend to be more tech savvy than say AOL users, but perhaps your product isn’t high tech. Your potential customers may be using MSN or Yahoo and if they are that’s where you’d rather get search traffic.

And while Google sends the most people here month after month it doesn’t deliver me the most clients. Networking on and offline does that. Bottom line is Google can drive a lot of traffic, but it’s not the only source of traffic nor is it necessarily the best source of traffic for your site. Your best approach is to get traffic from a variety of sources so you’re not dependent on any of them.

Are Google’s Ethics Your Ethics?

I think the reason people associate Google’s guidelines with seo ethics comes from an older debate about black hat vs. white hat seo. SEO isn’t really black and white. There are many shades of gray in between and it can be hard to define sometimes what is and isn’t black hat seo. Often, though, it’s defined as something that goes against search engine guidelines. The reason being that if a search engine catches you doing something against their guidelines they may penalize your site.

Ethics is almost always attached to the white hat vs black hat debate and I think that’s where the guidelines as seo ethics comes from. The two should not be tied together. For one, there’s nothing unethical about being a black hat. It’s simply a different approach to search marketing and perhaps a different business model. Something works or it doesn’t Black hats take more risks to gain more reward over a shorter time frame. But that doesn’t make them unethical by default.

Google’s, or Yahoo’s, or MSN’s guidelines are not seo ethics. Do you buy links? Google would prefer you didn’t. Should you care what they think? That’s up to you. Do you profit from the links you buy? Does spending $20 on a link each month result in $200 in your bank account during that same month? Let your own ethics guide you in what’s right and wrong. Just know that if you go against a search engines guidelines and they catch you it might not bode well for your site.

You don’t have to do what Google wants you to do. That’s worth repeating. You don’t have to do what Google wants you to do. And they don’t have to do what you want them to do either. Neither of you owes anything to the other. It’s up to you how much or how little you want to follow their guidelines and it’s up to them how they want to deal with you based on that.

How Many Google Products Do You Use?

Google gives us all some pretty good free products. It’s tempting to use them all. I know I use a few, probably more than some and less than others. But make no mistake, Google’s generosity is based on a profit motive. Google is a business that makes money and answers to shareholders.

They give away a lot of products in part to collect data about you. Google wants to know what sites you visit and how well your ad converts. They want to know how long people spend on your site and what pages those people do and don’t like. Is giving all that information to Google good for you? Maybe, maybe not. They do offer some very useful products, but so do a lot of other companies. If Google knows a certain keyword you bid on drives traffic and sales might they then recommend that keyword to one of your competitors. Wouldn’t that have you both increasing your bids?

How many of their free products you use should depend on which you find useful and helpful. I have a gmail account, though it’s not tied to my business in any way. I have accounts with Analytics because they offer me better information than the other options I can currently afford. I like the direct information I get from Google’s Webmaster Tools. I use a few other Google products in either a professional or personal capacity. I’m not locked into any of them, but I find them helpful to my life and I appreciate them being there.

But I am aware that Google has it’s own motivation for giving them to me. I accept that motivation as part of my use of those tools. I’m sure some of the motivating factors are to increase Google’s profit margin. I also believe some of the motivation is satisfaction from releasing something that helps others. Google is a business, but they also have a culture that was founded on being a good citizen. Do all Google employees aspire to fo good? I have no idea, but I have a hunch many do.

And even when it comes to the profit motivation I don’t hold it against Google for trying to gain something in giving something away. Wouldn’t you do the same thing if positions were reversed? I would. I don’t really want any search engine to know every site I visit, but the marketer in me would really like to know what sites everyone else visits.

Do You Drink The Google Kool Aid?

In general I like Google. I wouldn’t say I’m drinking the punch, but I like them as a company. In comparison to Yahoo, MSN, and Ask, I think Google gets it right more often. That doesn’t make them perfect and that doesn’t mean I’m always going to do what they say. I don’t look to them for my moral compass and I don’t always believe everything a googler says.

I also like Google traffic. I could do a better job monetizing it and I’d like to get a larger share of that traffic. I’d also like to get more Yahoo, MSN, and Ask traffic. It doesn’t end there. I’d like more referral traffic and direct traffic and random drive by traffic. I’d like to have more people talking about me in forums and I’d like more people talking about me at barbecues.

Yes, Google traffic is good and as such it makes sense to play by their rules to a certain degree. But they are far from the only source of traffic and revenue you can get and your choices should be made based on your business and not the business of a search engine no matter how much traffic it can direct your way.

What do you think? Should we focus on Google to the exclusion of all others? Are they that important? Is Google still good or have they gone over to the dark side?

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