There are rumblings of discontent amongst webmasters, online marketers and internet users. Has the search engine giant Google taken its eye of the ball and seen better days? By diversifying into multiple markets and trying to be so many different things to so many different people, and by changing its core product from a Search Engine to a Knowledge Engine, has Google lost its way?

With such a dominant market position and with so many pies to keep their fingers in, is it possible that Google have become complacent in their very comforable throne? This speculation is not questioning the scale of the role Google has played in making the internet an accessible, user friendly tool for the online shopper, browser and inquisitor. This is not a piece to dispute the positive influence Google has had; rather it is an attempt to interrogate the possibility that the quality of Google’s core activity has started to wane. 

Poor quality search results

Webmasterworld is a trusted and established discussion resource for search engine optimisation specialists the world over, and in recent months their forums have started to simmer with the hushed whisperings of a search engine revolt. The consensus of those in the industry is that the quality of Google’s search engine results has slipped to a place where results being served are the worst they have been for many years.         

This belief is probably best expressed by Brett Tabke, who runs Webmasterworld: “Right now I continue to receive some of the lowest Google results I have seen in years: Duplicate sites, irrelevant Google property spam, author images and squeeze page results. It just feels like Google is in the middle of a full scale panic.”

The SEO team at Liberty had a little dig around, and it didn’t take long before we came across an apt example for one of the internet’s most highly contested key phrases – ‘payday loans’.

Page one of Google’s search results last week can be seen above. Not only are none of the industry’s biggest, most trusted names included, but at least four of the results have nothing to do with payday loans whatsoever – they are hacked websites. Is this the new black-hat way to get on to the first page of Google - hack someone else’s website?

As yet there is no acknowledgement from Google of this problem, although concerns must be rife that the latest batch of algorithm updates and filters intended to improve user experience have had the opposite effect in many cases. However complacent Google may have become, it seems baffling that an organisation which has so shrewdly forged its place at the head of such an innovative industry can allow an obvious flaw in their core activity to remain unchecked for so long.

Flouting of privacy laws 

Aside from poor quality search engine results, internet users are feeling alienated by the Google brand, which is guilty of sending mixed messages to its customer base. Google’s ‘Do no evil’ mantra, which aims to portray the company as their ethical, trusted friend, has time and time again proved to be disingenuous or even dishonest at worst, as Google’s interpretation of privacy seems to differ from that of its users.

There is no shortage of events which have made it clear that privacy does not appear to be a priority for Google’s powers that be. This is in direct conflict with internet users and government officials, who see privacy as a central issue.

In March the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged Google with unfair privacy practices, when it set the gmail contact details of users of its ‘Buzz’ social media service as public by default. The Google browsers Chrome and Android have also caused a stir by failing to offer users a ‘Do Not Track’ option, meaning that all of the movements and actions of browsers are tracked in a transparent attempt to digest all of the private information available.

There have also been much publicised investigations, particularly in the EU, into the collection of personal data via Google Street View. Following claims from Google that the collection of data (including emails, passwords and other personal information) from unprotected wireless networks was a simple mistake, fresh insight cast the complaints in a new light. The engineer responsible for the creation of the software claimed he had informed the Street View team that the software he had designed would collect this information, flouting EU laws, although during interviews with the Federal Communications Commission, the Street View team denied knowledge of the report. 

Perhaps the icing on this rather bitter-tasting cake is the recent scandal which clearly flies in the face of Google’s increasingly fragile ‘Do No Evil’ slogan. The company reached a $500 million legal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department to avoid prosecution on charges that it knowingly accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal ads from Canadian online pharmacies, which included illegal drugs and controlled substances.    

Possible alternatives

With these transgressions in mind, which competitors are best placed to gobble up the scraps from Google’s table if it continues to flagrantly contradict its ethical pledge?

Figures detailed in a recent search market share report from Compete.com show that in the last month Bing fielded 19.2 per cent of all search queries, which has led to an increase of 4.2 per cent since August 2011. With a fifth of the market, Bing is certainly no small fry and Microsoft are steadily gaining in confidence. The recent launch of Bing It On, a search engine comparison service, perfectly illustrates this point.

Bing It On allows users to enter five search queries, comparing the results side-by-side with those from Google. Although the test is only available in America, Bing claim that an independent study found that users preferred the results displayed by Bing to those produced by Google by nearly 2:1. Bing have clearly thrown down the gauntlet on this one.   

A more recent entrant to the market, Duck Duck Go, believes Google’s position has weakened to such an extent that they are actively targeting the growing anti-Google crowd. An illustrated guide by the newcomers, http://dontbubble.us, shows just how Duck Duck Go aim to capture a different breed of internet user by offering less presumptuous search results, which offer a more rounded range of information by breaking users out of the bubble that search engine tracking automatically imposes. 

The Future

So how do we expect these developments to impact on the future of online search?

If the Google decline is set to stay and Bing, along with other new entrants, continue to mop up their disillusioned users, the market will segment and SEOs will have to pander to the algorithms set by other search engines to keep achieving results. Until now, SEO strategies have been devised to follow Google best practice, but if Bing continue their surge, before long SEOs will find themselves moving to the beat of a new and slightly drum. Regardless, these developments bode well for the internet user. A more tightly fought market will drive innovation and increase the search for competitive advantage, which in our experience is never a bad thing.

The world of SEO does not sit still for long. One of the biggest changes to the digital landscape and addition to the tools available to inbound marketers is the implementation of on-page data mark-up languages such as Schema.org.

The aim of on-page data mark-up is to increase the amount the search engines actually understand about the information they are categorising, ultimately leading to more accurate search results.

Thus back in 2011, as a result of collaboration between the search engine superpowers Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, Schema.org was created to improve the search engines ability to understand the web by creating a structured method of microdata mark-up. By sharing a microdata mark-up vocabulary, webmasters are able to ensure their efforts are properly rewarded.

As is often the case in the field of SEO, a simple process has been made to sound more complicated than it actually is. Hopefully an example will clear up any underlying confusion:

When using a search engine, people have a primary understanding of the information they are viewing. Until now it has been impossible for search engines to replicate such an understanding. For example, if as your header 1, you have the word ’Flipper’, there is no information to tell you what the text string actually means – Flipper could of course refer to the popular film about a 12 year old boy who befriended a dolphin, or the popular swimming aid. This can make it difficult for the search engines to display content relevant to the user.

By using the Schema.org vocabulary, it is possible to tell the search engines that this information describes a specific movie, place, person or video, helping to tidy up the search engines understanding of your content.

So, will Schema.org help your website to work its way up through the rankings? Well no; as yet mark-up is not used for ranking purposes. However, there is still a huge benefit to implementing Schema.org to your website.

Google has slowly begun to roll out rich snippets within the search results for those webpages that have used microdata such as Schema.org, to help display authorship, videos and review data.

There are many different kinds of snippets Google supports, and the number keeps growing. Rich snippets are having a tremendous impact on a visitors click through rate within the search results with some webmasters reporting a 30% increase in CTR after implementing rich snippets.

Applying the mark-up isn’t a difficult process on small sites and there is a great guide for getting started with Schema.org at: http://www.schema.org/docs/gs.html

Once you have implemented your microdata mark-up, use the rich snippets testing tool to make sure that Google can read and extract your marked-up data, and enjoy your improved CTR.

Bing vs. Google

A recent study has shown that Google may be falling short of Microsoft's search engine, Bing, when it comes to the helpfulness and relevance of their search results. The study looked at just how many searches made using the search engines actually resulted in a visit to one of the suggested websites. The findings were very interesting; around 80% of searches conducted on Bing resulted in the user visiting a link provided by the search engine. Meanwhile, over at Google, searchers made use of the links provided by only 67% of the searches.

This brand new research has been conducted by the web tracking firm, Experian Hitwise, who concluded that both search engines showed room for substantial improvement in terms of the number of search results that users actually go on to explore. Researchers at Experian Hitwise believe the high percentage of searches which did not lead to a website visit shows that both search engine services could stand to enhance the precision and usefulness of their results.

The results of Experian Hitwise's study could suggest a number of things. While it is possible that Bing, and its related search sites, are simply more likely to come up with the link or answer that searchers are looking for, the results of the study could also mean that people using Bing and Google are using the two search engines in different ways and for different reasons. This may account for different patterns of use and may mean that the disparity between the two does not necessarily reflect badly on Google.

The comparative success of Bing over Google in this section of the search engine market, however, looks as if it could be mirrored by the state of the companies' respective market shares. In July, Google's US search market share dropped to 66.05%, a drop of 2%. Searches conducted through Bing on the other hand experienced a 1% increase, taking their share of the market to 28.05%. The most substantial growth, however, was recorded by the Bing-affiliated Yahoo, whose shares in the market ballooned by 4% to achieve a 15% share of the market. Interestingly, and perhaps relatedly, searches conducted on bing.com itself dropped by 2% to 13%.

In a clean-up of its services, Yahoo! is about to remove a number of “underperforming” websites, including a few very well known brands.

Those of us who have been involved in search engine marketing for years will remember when Altavista was the Google of its day. Anyone involved in social media marketing will undoubtedly have spent time on the bookmarking website, Delicious.

In addition to these two sites, AlltheWeb (another search site), Babelfish (a translation service), Buzz (a news aggregation site) and MyBlogLog (a social media network, similar to Facebook) are all also likely to be taken off the web.

For the sake of posterity, here’s a screenshot of Delicious:

 

A Yahoo! spokeswoman said “Part of our organizational streamlining involves cutting our investment in underperforming or off-strategy products to put better focus on our core strengths and fund new innovation in the next year and beyond...We continuously evaluate and prioritize our portfolio of products and services, and do plan to shut down some products in the coming months...We will communicate specific plans when appropriate."

The company is also planning on cutting its workforce by 4%, which equates to about 600 jobs.

If your website receives traffic or has links pointing to it from any of the Yahoo! properties that are going to disappear then put measures in place to limit the impact. Start taking advantage of other social media, bookmarking and blog sites ASAP, to strengthen your link profile and the number of referring sites.

From last night, if you are logged into Google then the search experience will be very different to yesterday. Google has launched Instant, which they describe as "a new search enhancement that shows results as you type".

According to the Google Blog, "The most obvious change is that you get to the right content much faster than before because you don’t have to finish typing your full search term, or even press “search.” Another shift is that seeing results as you type helps you formulate a better search term by providing instant feedback. You can now adapt your search on the fly until the results match exactly what you want. In time, we may wonder how search ever worked in any other way".

When you type a single letter into the Google home page, it instantly takes you through to the results page. The option to click "I'm Feeling Lucky" is removed. The more cynical in the search industry will no doubt see this as Google's way of stopping people hitting that button as it's a feature that cost them millions of dollars in lost AdWords revenue ('lucky' users are sent straight through to the first search result, bypassing the sponsored listings).

The main change we think this will have on SEO is for businesses that attract traffic from misspellings, unusual phrases and long-tail searches (phrases of 4+ words). Users will be less likely to type these in if Google is suggesting the correct or more popular word and they will be less likely to type in a whole sentence if they can see what they are after by the time they finish typing the second word.

This week Yahoo! announced that their transition from Yahoo! Search powered results to Bing search results is complete. The organic results are now powered by Bing in the US and Canada, whilst the search ads are still from Yahoo!

As a result of the deal signed over a year ago, Microsoft now owns 28.1% of the US search market (as of July’s 2010 comScore numbers), though this figure still represents less than half of the 65.8% share held by Google. In the UK, Google’s market share is thought to be closer to the 90% mark.

The change may not be immediately apparent to Yahoo! users, as the search interface will remain the same. However, the eagle-eyed will notice on the status bar in their browser that the search data is actually loaded from Bing.

Another crucial factor in the deal is the migration of Yahoo! search advertisers to Microsoft’s adCenter platform. This stage is currently still under development, with Microsoft “optimistic about completing this phase later this year.”

So what does this mean for businesses? The main thing is that there is one less search engine to optimise a site for. If your sites were high up on Yahoo! but not Bing then this is bad news, if however, you were ranking well on Bing, then those high rankings you are enjoying will now expose your business to a lot more searchers.

The other main impact is the migration of Pay Per Click advertisers from Yahoo! Search Marketing to Microsoft adCenter. The programmes work slightly differently and anyone who was using YSM will now have to familiarise themselves with the Bing system.

We recently saw a job vacancy being advertised on one of our clients' websites. It caught our attention because even though it was a great role and one that the company really needed filled, it was hardly noticeable on the web. The company did not want to spend money on advertising on a job board, so the only way this job opportunity could be found was via the search engines.

We have been interviewing graduates for a number of trainee positions at Liberty over the last year and many of them have expressed their difficulty in finding a job advert that didn't have a horde of other candidates interested in the role. Just looking at reed.co.uk today, a search for marketing jobs in Cardiff displays vacancies that have had 50-100 applications already.

A search query to find rare jobs

Many people use search engines when looking for jobs, particularly when trying to find those that are relevant to their career and in their desired or current location. This is when we had the idea to create a customisable search query to assist job hunters in finding those vacancies that are hidden away:

[location1 OR location2 OR location3] [type1 OR type2 OR type3] [job OR jobs OR vacancy OR vacancies OR role OR roles OR career OR careers]

Simply copy and paste the above search query into Google and replace each instance of "location" with suitable locations and each "type" with the types of jobs you are interested in. If Google thinks a web page contains relevance to at least one of the locations, one of the job types and one of the words in the third set of brackets then it will appear in the results.

Here's an example for someone looking for jobs in and around Cardiff relating to search engine optimisation and online marketing:

[cardiff OR "south wales"] ["online marketing" OR "internet marketing" OR seo OR "search engine optimisation"] [job OR jobs OR vacancy OR vacancies OR role OR roles OR career OR careers]

For the above example, for a web page to appear in the results, it has to contain relevance to at least one of the two locations, at least one of the four job types and at least one of the following words: "job", "vacancy", "role", "career" or one of their plural forms. The words do not have to appear in that order - as long as they appear somewhere on the page, they will show up in the results. So in the above example, possible web pages that could show up include:

- cardiff + seo + jobs (e.g. "Cardiff SEO Jobs"),
- cardiff + "internet marketing" + vacancy (e.g. "Vacancy: Internet Marketing, Cardiff"),
- "south wales" + "online marketing" + role (e.g. "We have an online marketing role available. Based in South Wales, the company…"), and so on.

A few points to take into account

- The square brackets aren't necessary, as Google will show the same number of results whether or not they are there, but it makes it easier to keep track and make sense of each part of the query.

- If one of the locations or job types is longer than one word (e.g. "online marketing"), put quote marks around it, otherwise the query will not function properly and the words might be searched for separately rather than together.

- The search query is likely to bring up a lot of results, some of which might not be relevant, useful or current, but don't be afraid to dig deep and scan through numerous pages of results. Page 1 of the results might contain the most relevant results according to Google, but you might find something more suitable a few pages on.

- Other ways to reduce the number of results are to take out some of the location or job type criteria, which will also narrow it down more specifically, and to select "pages from the UK" below the search bar, which will also eliminate international jobs that might match closely to your location (e.g. South Wales, UK and New South Wales, Australia).

- It may look complicated but it's really a way to simplify the search process. Referring to the above example, it would save the user implementing individual searches for "seo jobs cardiff", "seo vacancies cardiff", "seo careers cardiff" and so on, as all of these and more would be covered in just the one search query.

This is completely customisable, so don't be afraid to experiment. We have only included a few examples of synonyms of jobs and have not taken into account words and expressions that might differ depending on one's career type (e.g. internships and apprenticeships). If you lose track of what you've done, just start over with the original search query and add, delete and amend as appropriate.

We hope that it helps in your job search. At the very least, you might find a new job board or recruitment agency site to keep an eye on or to send your CV to. However you could also find a job advertised on a website that very few people have noticed and applied for, like the one we found on our client's website.

Best of luck with your job search!

It is no secret that Google is growing from strength to strength, not only improving its own search engine but also investing in video (YouTube), blogging (Blogger), browsers (Chrome), mobile phones (Android) and so much more.

In an editorial piece, The New York Times makes the argument that Google - in a position to place its fingers in many pies and look after its own invested interests - could potentially manipulate its own search results to its advantage, showing its own interests above those of the competition.

Whether Google decides to play completely fair or help itself is a contentious issue. Revealing its algorithm will force Google to do the former and play fair. This piece offers some possible solutions:

"Some early suggestions for how to accomplish [a fair editorial policy] include having Google explain with some specified level of detail the editorial policy that guides its tweaks. Another would be to give some government commission the power to look at those tweaks."

It is true that revealing elements of Google's secretive algorithm would clear this. For example, if YouTube were to rank higher than other video-sharing websites, it would be noticeable whether the ranking appears naturally or forced by Google.

However, there could be other wider implications of revealing the algorithm. Google's success so far is because its algorithm is a secret. Even so, as Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan points out in his take on the New York Times piece:

"Google constantly speaks at search marketing and other events to answer questions about how they list sites and how to improve coverage... Google is constantly giving interviews about its algorithm..."

Although the algorithm is a secret, Google helps webmasters, not by telling them outright what the algorithm is, but by telling them how they can help themselves with regards to how the algorithm operates, and why it displays the search results it does.

After all, what if everyone knew the algorithm? Google's Marissa Mayer explains (originally printed in the Financial Times but reproduced on Google's Public Policy Blog):

"If search engines were forced to disclose their algorithms and not just the signals they use, or worse, if they had to use a standardised algorithm, spammers would certainly use that knowledge to game the system, making the results suspect ."

We are reminded of an incident last year when a Google search for "ugg boots" displayed seven spam/fraud websites within the first page (top ten) results. In this instance, the websites used suspect, black hat SEO techniques to get to the top of Google for that keyword. Surely revealing the algorithm would only encourage such practices - both good and bad; white hat, black hat and everything in between - affecting the quality of the search engine results shown, and in turn damaging Google's reputation as (mostly) showing the most natural, "neutral" results. Otherwise, Google would have to invest much more heavily in moderating the results and weeding out those websites manipulating the algorithm, which is likely to be a larger number if the way Google operates is disclosed.

All of this is without even considering governmental intervention, as mentioned in the second half of the above quote from the New York Times piece. Some of the bigger sceptics on the WebmasterWorld forum have expressed their fears that, amongst other things, the government may suggest changes to the algorithm from which they themselves could benefit.

Whatever the outcome, although Danny Sullivan believes the First Amendment and the fact that Yahoo survived a similar incident will save Google from such a fate, it will be interesting to see what - if anything - transpires, whether such action would be seen as a necessity as Google continues to grow and dominate the search engine world as well as other industries.

Over the past few weeks, Google has been softly launching a test program which allows businesses in two US cities to purchase 'enhanced listings' in the local results (the map that appears at the top of the search results).

By taking an enhanced listing, a business owner agrees to give Google just $25 a month and in return, their business appears in the search results with a “View Website” link next to their name. At present, with there only being a handful of businesses that are testing the system, these listings stand out so will likely get a good click through rate.

The internet marketing community is debating whether this is a good thing or not. Whilst many people feel that Google is selling far too much of its real estate and is devaluing the natural search results, others feel that this is a good opportunity for smaller, local businesses to advertise on the search engine.

By offering this service at such a low monthly cost, Google should be able to convert a lot of one-man-bands that either could not afford Pay Per Click advertising or did not understand how the system works. There are hundreds or thousands of these businesses in each city, so the amount of extra revenue for Google could be considerable.

How the general public will react to this is uncertain. Up until now, adverts have been clearly defined above and to the right of the search results, separated from the natural listings. People tend to trust the natural listings as non-commercial and websites appearing due to merit. Even though the enhanced local listings will display the word ‘sponsored’ next to them, mixing them up with normal results is likely to confuse and even anger users.

There is no news yet when this will be rolled out across the rest of the US and then the UK, though with recent amount of changes that Google has introduced to its search results, it probably won’t be far off.

A court of appeal in Paris has ruled against the search engine giant Google, in a case brought to it by the Centre National Prive de Formation a Distance (CNFDI). The long-distance learning institution filed the defamation suit last year when the Google “suggestion” feature linked the institution with the word “scam”.

The “suggestion” feature was implemented to make searching easier for users of Google, by offering the most common search queries based upon popular past searches. When a user typed “CNFDI” into Google.fr, the first result that showed in the “suggestion” drop-down was “CNFDI arnaque”, which translates as “CNFDI scam”.

The French court originally agreed with Google’s claim that these search terms are generated automatically, by an algorithm that is based on user search behaviour. However, after months of decreased interest in CNFDI and a drop in revenue, the court sided with the institution and told Google to remove the word.

Google hasn’t been having a great time in Europe lately. Last year a Dutch website was sued by a BMW dealer that is was showing as “bankrupt”, due to the Google algorithm linking the two together. Last month the French government suggested that Google be taxed every time a user clicks on one of their ads and last week a German minister accused Google of being too powerful and a “giant monopoly” that should either become more transparent or face legal action.

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