Will Google Hurt Your Site By Improving Itself?

    March 15, 2012
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Are we getting ready to see a massive overhaul of Google or just some expansion of what we’ve already seen for years. That’s the question. Either way, it appears Google wants to keep users more on its own sites and less on other people’s sites.

If Google can give users what they need without sending them to other sites, that makes the user experience better doesn’t it? On the other hand, it could hurt a lot of other sites and businesses in the process, depending on how certain things play out. Do you think Google should do more to keep users from having to click through to third-party websites? Let us know what you think in the comments.

What Is Google Planning?

The Wall Street Journal put out this huge article about changes brewing with Google (specifically, the company’s search engine) that would make you think search as you know it is about to be turned on its head. Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land provides some good analysis and what he calls a “reality check”.

The truth about it all is that much of what the WSJ article discusses has been part of Google for a while. However, that does not mean that there is not a bigger picture takeaway we should get out of that article – the direction Google is moving in, which does have large implications for sites (and therefore businesses), competition in search and social media, and advertising. It also sounds like Google is getting more aggressive in the strategy.

Okay, so what is the strategy? Basically, it’s about providing more direct answers in search results. Much of what the article discusses sounds like what Google has been doing with Google Squared, as Danny mentions.

Where Google’s Changes Are Coming From

Google really started using the Squared technology to provide direct answers in search results in 2010.

If you read the WSJ article, however, you discover (near the end) that it’s more about (or at least additionally about) Google’s acquisition of Metaweb Technologies (also in 2010). Here’s a snippet of Google’s announcement about the Metaweb acquisition from back then:

With efforts like rich snippets and the search answers feature, we’re just beginning to apply our understanding of the web to make search better. Type [barack obama birthday] in the search box and see the answer right at the top of the page. Or search for [events in San Jose] and see a list of specific events and dates. We can offer this kind of experience because we understand facts about real people and real events out in the world. But what about [colleges on the west coast with tuition under $30,000] or [actors over 40 who have won at least one oscar]? These are hard questions, and we’ve acquired Metaweb because we believe working together we’ll be able to provide better answers.

In addition to our ideas for search, we’re also excited about the possibilities for Freebase, Metaweb’s free and open database of over 12 million things, including movies, books, TV shows, celebrities, locations, companies and more. Google and Metaweb plan to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world. Better yet, we plan to contribute to and further develop Freebase and would be delighted if other web companies use and contribute to the data. We believe that by improving Freebase, it will be a tremendous resource to make the web richer for everyone. And to the extent the web becomes a better place, this is good for webmasters and good for users.

According to the WSJ, that 12 million is now more like 200 million entities, and Google is also trying to get access to more organizations’ and government agencies’ databases to expand even more.

Will Google’s Broader Strategy Hurt Your Site’s Traffic?

The Journal calls the forthcoming changes (reportedly in the coming months) “among the biggest in the company’s history” adding that they “could affect millions of websites”. The report cites “one person briefed on Google’s plans” as saying the changes could directly impact 10% to 20% of all search queries or “tens of billions per month”.

That’s a lot.

Of course, anytime Google makes big changes, webmasters and SEOs have to pay attention, and often adjust their strategies. Sometimes the changes have a huge impact on the web and businesses. See Panda update.

Interestingly, the Journal’s report says “people briefed on the matter” indicate that Google is hoping the changes will make people stay longer on its own site. Obviously, time spent on Google’s search results page is time not being spent on your site. If Google’s expansion of these direct answers is as huge as it’s being portrayed (and probably depending on the partnerships the company is able to secure), this could cover a pretty broad range of website and content types. We might have a lot more types of sites joining the growing list of “competitors” complaining about Google “favoring its own results”.

It’s definitely worth noting, however, that the article also implies Google will be offering markup solutions for sites to use to highlight certain content elements to be displayed in the direct answer-style results. Even still, applying such markup, would presumably only help Google in keeping users on Google’s site and not going to yours. Depending on what you are hoping to achieve with your site’s traffic, this could be either critical or make no difference. A brick and mortar store would already have to deal with a similar situation, by having info displayed in Google Places. If the end goal is simply trying to get customers in the door, who cares if they’re actually going to your site? Other businesses rely on traffic to their sites.

We’re No Longer In The Stone Age Of Search

Given recent developments in the ever-lasting discussion and efforts related to aggregation (such as new legislation proposed in Germany), there is another interesting layer to this whole strategy. Some sites may simply have a problem with Google displaying content from their sites. Clearly, some (news organizations in particular) already don’t like that Google displays snippets of content when linking to sources. Depending on how big this direct answers strategy gets, I can see more fuss being raised in that area. At least with the traditional snippet-based result, it’s accompanied by a link that is likely to drive a referral to the content.

This appears to be the way search is evolving though, and it’s not just Google. Bing has touted its ability to serve direct answers since it launched. That’s why it’s “the decision engine”. Then you things like Wolfram Alpha, which is heavily integrated with the ever-popular Siri. Despite its mysterious absence from the new iPad, I think we can still expect that to be more involved in the future of search. Google has its own competitor to that in the works, by the way. I wonder how much these changes will play into that.

Competition and Advertising

Though Google has been doing a lot of the direct answer and semantic search stuff for years, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that since Microsoft launched Bing, Google has made some changes directly in response to what Bing has done.

As far as competition goes, it’s not all about Microsoft and Bing though – even in search. It’s clear that Facebook and Google are major rivals these days (as companies), and as I’ve written about several times in the past, Facebook has some real opportunities to make a bigger play in search. I’m not going to rehash all of that again here, but ultimately it’s about where web users are spending their time and monetizing those web users – mostly through advertising.

As one disgruntled engineer, who recently quit Google discussed in a widely publicized post, Google is much more about advertising and competing with Facebook these days. This is the primary reason Google needs Google+ to succeed. It can potentially tell Google a lot more about its users, the way Facebook knows so much about its users, and is able to deliver highly targeted and relevant ads, which are tremendously beneficial to advertisers, and growing in popularity among small businesses, I might add.

The fact is that a lot of Google users aren’t thrilled with all the Google+ integration that has been happening – namely “Search Plus Your World,” which injects a personalized, largely Google+ based experience (despite the on/off toggle). We’ve seen plenty of examples of where relevancy has been sacrificed. It will be interesting to see if an expanded amount of direct answers can help counter that. Interestingly enough both strategies serve to keep users on Google properties more – whether that be reading a direct answer from a results page or clicking through to a Google+ profile. And while Google+ doesn’t have ads on it now, how long do you think that will last? After all, what people commonly think of as Google+ is really just Google’s version fo the News Feed. It’s just a feature. Google+ is a social layer across the greater Google.

Do you think the direction Google is headed in is a good one for the web? Let us know what you think in the comments.

  • http://www.hub-uk.com David Jenkins

    If Google’s plans impact my site that is a bit irrelevant now after Panda destroyed my visitor numbers but they really are becoming like Big Brother.

    Is the fun going out of the Internet? How many times in the past have you started doing some research only to get completely sidetracked by something that catches your eye. What should have taken 10 minutes ending up taking 30 but what the heck you found something interesting and enjoyed doing it.

    I for one do not want Google personalising my search results and I want to visit web sites not have Google giving out answers. Can you trust Google to get it right or even not to misuse the information they might give out? The more Google chases the money the more people will turn against it.

  • Martin

    As a website owner with a number of domains providing content in order to monitize the sites with adverts, I have noticed that Facebook and Google invade my sphere of content, and if Google continues like portraied in the article above, I am thinking to start searching in Yahoo and promote Yahoo searching on my websites instead of Google.
    It is harder now, than before to provide content and monitize the sites than before.
    But I dont think at all that Google or Facebook will consider me and my sites for a second, if they can make some money providing similar content on their own site rather than sending visitors to my sites.
    It is time for a new search engine to be born.

  • Peter

    Although Google still has 60+ share of the search market, their adwords program is becoming less effective each year. As someone who spends thosands of dollars a month on adwords, I am moving my ad dollars to other sites as Google continues it’s relentles march to self promotion. People staying on Google sites longer, does not translate into better ad service… They seem to have dropped the ball in the insane race to become the next Facebook.

    • http://www.webpronews.com/author/chris-crum Chris Crum

      My guess is that Google aims to make targeting better (more like Facebook), by making all of its products more social.

  • http://www.new-bingosites.co.uk Neo Anderson

    This sounds like a nightmare for me. Google wants to be “Big Brother” in a way that we would never believe 10 years ago. They are doing it step by step.

  • http://www.LAokay.com Steve G

    Google needs to give the power of these changes it’s creating to actually be optional at the user level. This one size fits all approach just doesn’t work. Not only that, but it would tell Google what users like and what they don’t by how users configure their default search options.

  • http://www.securehostinghawaii.com Anthony

    I have to agree with the comments above, my marketing $$’s are counting for less in sales all the time. As Google tries to promote itself more and more, they are hurting the very aspects of their business that made them what they are today, their better search results and their ad words, period.

  • http://ohyawanna.com OhYaWanna WebDesign

    Google is going the same route as Yahoo did. It tried to provide too much content to it’s users. Yahoo is still used, but not as much as it used to be. There were many search engines back then… Hotbot, Dogpile, askjeeves. Back when the internet was simpler Yahoo was king. Google has had a lot of time in the spot light, but I think that it is finally starting to tap out. I’m actually just looking for the next up and coming search engine. I found google and started using it back when it wasn’t as big as it was. But now that they are trying to be like so many other sites (example: facebook = google + ). It’s only a matter of time before the kingdom begins breaking down and both webmasters, and search users will begin looking for relative content results elsewhere.

  • http://www.labarcodelabel.com Adam

    @Neo Anderson Google is the wool that has been pulled over our eyes.

    I agree that their adwords is becoming less effective. As a web developer I tried to monetize some sites by using google adsense on some of my websites, but I found that the keywords and phrases I used to develop the sites led to ads that competed with my website. As a developer I would rather develop direct relationships with affiliates and code in the ads myself. This way I keep control of what is displayed to my target audience rather than to trust google to do the right thing.
    Maybe it is time for a new search site to be born because the harder they work to increase their own revenue at the expense of website owners, the faster they will push people to look for alternatives.

  • http://teasastipss.blogspot.com LaTease Rikard

    I can see Google becoming an answer/search site in the very near future. Here’s why: two of the biggest players in social refuse to give precious user data to Google. Making a strong statement in their belief in the power of social. New micro social sites are popping up all the time, and those sites are certainly following in the footsteps of Twitter & Facebook protecting their data from Google.

  • http://www.webdesignjustforyou.com Eileen Forte

    Any company that has so much control and influence over what the public does becomes dangerous. For example, I, for one, refuse to give my cell phone number to gmail.com which they say is for “my protection” in case I lose my password. Yeah, right. Google is collecting all sorts of information on people, and it’s scary thinking about what they have on you, especially now that they are “integrating” and sharing all the information with every division or company they buy. Big Brother is right!

  • João Oli

    Google wants to be the INTERNET itself!
    This way you will lose the war…

  • http://apennyandchange.pennyleisch.com Penny J. Leisch

    IMO, the longer people have to spend searching the less time they’ll spend. Google hasn’t been paying attention to the shortened attention spans of the users. Do they really think people will stay longer on their sites? I think they’ll just give up or go to another search engine. My site stats stink and I can’t afford a marketing team.

    In addition, I noticed that Google wants to penalize sites for too much above the fold advertising. Yet, when I search on Google, guess what? The entire top third or more of the page is paid ads, not real search results. I’ve check out those results too. Not once have they been relevant to my search. Do they think people don’t notice?

  • http://www.howtoselloncraigslistebook.com/ Nick G.

    I understand the “entity” thing, but isn’t Google basically stealing content from other websites and showing the content from competitors’ websites in their own direct search results?

    Using the Dolly Parton birthday example, Google is pulling info from Wikipedia, IMDB, and other sites to show the best answer in Google’s direct search results.

    It seems to me that Google is stealing info from other websites, hence, Google is taking away clicks to websites that provide the info people are searching for and calling it their own so users don’t have to click on competitors’ websites. That equals more time on Google.

    I doubt Google employees are uploading birthday information for every famous or semi-famous person that ever existed so that info can be shown in direct search results.

  • http://www.makemoneyteam.com Raymond

    I’m sure this new update will help Google, but as I’m sure my traffic will take a dump. I lost 25% of my traffic in the Caffeine Update, then what traffic that was left was cut in half by the Panda Update, so now I say “go ahead Google finish me off with one more why not”. My site isn’t the greatest site, but it’s definitely far from the worst of it’s kind and deserves some traffic after 6+ years online.
    I finally just switched my focus to a company called “Staged” and monetized that and I’m doing better now. I will keep MMT online anyway, since it IS usefull to me and many others, but I’ve no doubt that Googles next update will hurt MMT like they always do.

  • Charles ODonovan

    The reality is that people will just switch to a better searching service and google will have to rethink its technology. I don’t want answers when I search I want to find a few good sources and do the work myself.

  • sandeep kumar

    Although Google may bluff about Semantic Search and showing the content in some squared boxes if a user searches for Top ten cameras for example then will google decide the top 10 camera’s list ?

    All in all Google seems to move to semantic web search and record all the questions typed by searchers and copy the answers for that question in their database and make websites for that content and present theme to their users.
    In that way they don’t have to spend more money on generating content and also they will have answer for every question on the web.

  • http://nichewebsitehelp.com denzil

    I hope Google don’t become a jack of all trades.