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Is Google Playing Fair?

Forbes has got itself  into trouble with Google for selling links.  Google polices this pretty aggressively arguing that such practices game the system and compromise the integrity of search results.  The question for us to think about is whether this is fair and reasonable on Googles part.

In essence, Google presents results based on popularity.  The more backlinks you have, the and the more backlinks your backlinks have, then the higher your page rank will be.  The algorithm is much more complex than that of course – and only Google knows exactly how it works.  Google has total control over how search results are presented and is also the largest purveyor of search advertising on the planet.  One way to guarantee getting your links on the first page of Google, is to pay Google loads of Adwords money.

So if it is not unethical for Google to sell access to top search results, why is it unethical for Forbes to allow its customers to back into their page rank for money and improve their own score on Google.  Well, although Google likes to dress all this up as being part of its fair practice guide, many observers have thought that this is nothing more than protectionism from a dominant player in the market.

Google is the primary access point on the web for search – by miles.  So if you expect lots of web traffic from search then you have to play the Google game.  But this is a funny game.  Lets think of Google as being the “do no evil” referee for fair search on the web.  OK. I can live with that.  But the problem is that it is only Google who knows all the rules – and when they suspect that too many of us are beginning to undestand the rules (through SEO, link selling etc) the referee in this game, can change the rules.  Oh and the ref won’t tell you exactly how those rules have changed.  Even if they did,  it wouldn’t make much sense because we never really understood what they were in the first place.

So Google is the self appointed referee in the Search game.  But it also has the biggest team in the league -selling more online advertising than the rest of the planet put together.  It makes sure that whatever happens their team wins.  They can’t blamed for that of course.  They have a business to run and will compete competively and aggressively to protect their position.

Now look at the announcement about the Google paid content model.  This is Google presenting itself as the publishers friend.   Eric Schmidt says that he will let publishers have access to customer data (Apple won’t) and will charge just 10% (compared to Apples 30%).  In the paid content on apps market – Apple is the referee and is excercising its market muscle.   Google is trying to steal its ball and in the  meantime will be much more flexible in paid content than it is in search where it all but owns the search ad market.

So a basic lesson in micro economics. The little guy will always work harder to give great price and service than the big guy.  Until they become the big guy.  It was ever thus.

Even so we should not stand by as casual spectators of all this. We are players in this game and it might be time to argue with the ref a bit.  These are some of the questions we should be asking.

  • Is the audience you get from search your audience, or is it Google’s?
  • Should Google be able to stop you trading your popularity by selling links on threat of cutting you off from that natural search traffic?
  • If Google is the dominant search player and it is going to set the rules and police them, shouldn’t it be completely transparent about how its algorithm works?
  • If Google can sell ads next to your search result which by Googles own argument must reflect the quality of what you do, why can’t you sell ads that capitalise on your search popularity? (ie selling links)

These issues are complex. What do media owners think about this?  What do the Ad networks think?  What do the clients think? Come to that, what do I think?

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February 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments