Will Google Hurt Your Site By Improving Itself?

    March 15, 2012
    Chris Crum

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.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.