Google Revamps SERPs, for Money?

I guess it was bound to happen. Google has started to experiment with manipulating the organic results listings in order to find ways to earn additional revenue, as well as expand their service offerings to their users. Google has added things in the free results listings in the past, but this newest change has monumental impact on webmasters, and search engine marketers, as well as search engine optimization overall.

We have seen Google add local results listings, with the compass image to remind us the result is local to our vicinity. We have seen the implementation of Google Images added to search results, as well as Froogle shopping results, each of which has been unobtrusively added to the results page so as to not disrupt the user experience. This uninterupted user experience is what the company was built on.

There have been a few less subtle changes that have come along in the past few days that change the look of areas already touched by Google and redesigned into the SERP pages. There are now Book Results that are displayed based on the user query, provided by one specific sotre. After typing in a search for “cable TV,” I really did not see a book being relevant to my search query. After looking at the book title, understood what Google wants to do, which is, to offer me almost any choice of media I may be interested in, from one page.

Additionally on the paid side of Google, there is now a third link being added up top in the sponsored listings. I saw this when I searched for cable TV, so I didn’t have to do too much research to find it.

Well there is no putting off the real reason I am writing and that, ladies and gentleman, is the organic results listings have been changed!

Funny as it may seem, I had posted in another SEO forum about a month ago that Google would need to further monetize the organic results listings now that they are a publicly held corporation. Charged with growing share value, the bean counters are hard at work looking for methods to earn additional revenue through the organic search results pages.

A few may not understand this, but when an accountant looks at the search engine results pages, he sees a money-losing proposition. Were it not for the pay per click ads, the expense Google would incur providing millions of pages of information for free would soon lead to financial disaster.

Typically, users do not search past the first three pages of results on any search engine, so the 100s and at times 1,000s of pages Google has behind these pages are a drain more than an asset. Indexing and providing them is a constant expense without as much reward as indexing the leading pages. Perhaps this move is designed to extend the pages searched through from 3 to 5 or 6.

{mospagebreak title=Shuffling Organic Results}

The trouble that the bean counters may not see is that Google’s new reshaping of the free results pages could also spell financial disaster. Google has begun adding another referral, much like the one that comes up if you misspell a word, but this new offering replaces the results one would normally see in position numbers 6, 7, and 8.

You did read it correctly; Google replaces the free results listing in positions 6, 7, and 8 with referrals for related results of both commercial and non-commercial interests.

The term piggy bank is undergoing the “new UI,” as Google calls it. Do a search for the keyword “piggy bank.” If you scroll down to position 6 through 8 you will see the referral as,  “See results for: piggy bank lyrics.” In the illustration below, the red box highlights what I am talking about. The box is not actually a part of the SERPs.

I then did a search for piggy bank lyrics. The three results Google refers users to when typing in piggy bank were the sites listed in positions 1, 2, and 3 for “piggy bank lyrics.”

Somebody told me to enter “Add URL” as another term where the changes are made. Sure enough, Google suggests refining the search to “Add URL to Google.” The first space is a self referral (back to Google), then two links concerning adding your URL to Google. Now at the bottom there are two additional text links to refine your search: “Also see add URL to Google” and “Google add URL.” A search totally unrelated to Google now shoves their services in your face.

{mospagebreak title=Why Would Google Change Free SERPs?}

A few of us in the SEM industry such as ClickZ and MediaPost felt this move was a commercial one, and others took exception with this stance. They said it was strictly for added user value. It is truly amazing how businessmen with major revenue producing websites can look at Google and see everything as a user enhancement…as if Google doesn’t need to earn revenue. Come on people! Wake up! Returning SERPs that the user did not request is not user enhancement by any imagination; it’s manipulation.

I was told I was wrong by one of the elder SEO statesmen in the industry, over at SEW Forums, only to have him come back and post Google’s own admittance in the next post. Even he admitted that there was a commercial aspect behind it.

Google is testing an automated technique for detecting when an alternate query might help users find what they are looking for more quickly. For these searches, which are both commercial and non-commercial in nature, Google displays one or more alternate queries together with a preview of their top results

The most glaring example of the commercial aspect is found when doing a search for “on demand” as the keyword term. Using that search term, we now see results in positions 6, 7, and 8 replaced by three (3) different results listings for Comcast Cable Corp.

Unlike piggy bank used above, the results returned in the referral do not exist in positions 1, 2, or 3 when doing searches for on demand services, on demand listings, on demand shows, on demand programs, on demand time, and others.

Search engine marketers and SEO specialists, pay attention. For a number of keywords, this means that trying to be in Google’s top 10 is out of the question. Google has turned a fair goal like that into needing to be in rank 5 or higher to get noticed for sure. Any lower than that, and Google users may not see you. If results 6 through 8 are replaced, this could distract users into shrugging off the rest of the results as less relevant. Or they may scan subsequent pages and just not bother looking at results 5-10. We have yet to see how this changes matters, but it sure is going to alter how everyone reads the Google results.

{mospagebreak title=Not for Profit? Give Me a Break}

Further looking at the company which Google has given three referrals to, it is hard not to see the commercial implications. How does Google choose which “on demand” provider they should supply? Why does asking for on demand mean that I want to see Comcast pages that don’t even properly rank in the SERPs? Comcast Cable Corporation has never had a problem admitting everything they do is geared toward earning revenue, in fact most corporations readily admit this. Even Gates admits it and does not try to sit behind the user enhancements as a ploy to make nice.

Google, though, for some reason has a huge problem with it. If this UI implementation was for users, then why was it not made public knowledge from their home page?

One of their engineer’s blogs even went so far as to say the following:

Other folks will ask things like “Are queries selected by hand-can my query get in on this? Is money involved?” And the answer is: it’s all algorithmic. The algorithms pick the queries where this could be helpful. Of course money isn’t involved at all.

Of course money isn’t involved at all? I never thought SEM could be dangerous till reading that blog post and falling off my chair laughing so hard. Talk about pie on an employees face.

Google needs to stop playing games with people’s heads and be totally up-front about their need to change user experience in order to grow revenue. It is important to remember that since Google’s stock jumped up to a bloated, unrealistic $300.00 per share, the value of shares would need to rise $30.00 to earn 10% growth.

This is not something easily accomplished when you allow statements to be tossed about that “of course money is not involved” and you then turn around a day or two later, and admit that money is indeed somewhat involved.

For a very long time, people felt Google would never touch the look of the ten organic listings that make up each page of their results pages. However it is now very apparent that things have changed since going public. The control at the top has switched hands to those obsessed with generating revenues and profits. They have to meet stockholders’ expectations of growth as well as maintain an image that they are trying to help the stockholders.

Confusing users is not the most productive way of instilling shareholder confidence. Google’s offices now sit in the graveyard of another well-liked internet-based company, which went bust after the dot com fallout in the stock market in 2000. If Google isn’t careful, and if they don’t get their act together very soon, we may see history repeat itself!

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