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.
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.
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.