Google's Great New Adventure
Mar 20, 2012 5:00 AM PT
Today we would say that the first implementation of PageRank was a form of crowdsourcing. The crowd was early webmasters, and they helped determine the relevancy of Web pages by linking to them. It didn't take long for "search engine specialists" to figure out how to game the system for fun and profit.
For more than a decade, these self-styled SEO specialists have been manipulating search engine results with all sorts of tactics, ranging from link farms and blog spam to metatag keyword stuffing, going so far as to substitute fake non-spammy link-bait content when they detect a Googlebot crawling their sites.
We've seen the top search results continually being polluted with "doorway pages" -- websites filled with nothing but links to other websites full of ads, as well as copycat sites that have no original content.
Google Attacks Blog Spammers, Penalizes SEO
It's become a game of whack-a-mole. No sooner does Google adapt its search engine to cope with one technique when two more pop up. Worse, there's always the danger of collateral damage -- tweaks that end up punishing legitimate sites in the process. And then there are the nuisance lawsuits from website owners who don't think they should be penalized, no matter how useless their list of overpriced knockoffs is.
This past weekend, another piece of the puzzle in Google's plans to improve search has come to light. Matt Cutts, one of Google's engineers, revealed that Google was going to cut down on what can politely be termed "overly optimized sites" -- overly optimized in the "search engine optimization" (SEO) sense of the phrase. Most of us refer to them as "search spam"; when those sites are gone, nothing of value will be lost.
Google Copies Bing for a Change
For the past two years, Google has been preparing to roll out the most significant changes yet to its search algorithm. After buying FreeBase in 2010, Google has mined its own search results in order to answer questions itself, instead of just serving up links to a Wikipedia page with the best matches to keyword search terms.
You can be forgiven if it sounds a bit like Google is copying Microsoft's Bing. It is -- and not just because Bing is increasingly taking market share. This move has a sense of even greater urgency because of another competitor in the smartphone space -- Apple. Siri is like an "I feel lucky" button on steroids -- just the information you want, how you want it, just for the asking.
The Change to W5 Obsoletes PageRank - and SEO
No, W5 is not some new acronym for Web HTML 5 -- it's as old as journalism. Google is getting ready to answer at least some of the 5 Ws -- who, what, when, where and why (plus how for good measure) -- that users are really looking for when they take a stab at guessing the best search terms.
Google has been running a simpler version of this for several years. Instead of searching for a table of Fahrenheit-to-Celsius temperature conversions, you can just type in "What is 50 degrees F in Celsius?" -- the same as you can ask "What is 2 + 2?" or "How many dollars is 1 Euro?"
Now that Google has expanded FreeBases' original database from 12 million topics to 200 million, you can expect to see more answer-style results over the next few months -- pages that give relevant information for any search query, letting you pick the website with the content you were really looking for.
Put another way, Google has been doing a deep dive into its search data, throwing out the usual metrics that are targets for SEO manipulation, such as how many other sites link to a page or whether the keywords match the content. If a page doesn't answer one or more of the W5 -- with bonus points for answering "how" -- it won't make the cut.
Worse for SEO fanatics, they will be actively penalized. Nobody who's ended up with a page full of link bait instead of real results is going to complain about Google using SEO jujitsu to bomb these sites into obscurity.
However, when Matt Cutts leaked that Google was going to send "overly aggressive" SEO sites to the back of the bus, he was only filling in one blank in a much larger picture -- one that also includes the threat that Apple now poses to Google's long-term revenue growth.
'Siri, How Do You Pose a Threat to Google?'
This sounds like a silly premise; how can Siri possibly be a threat to Google when Siri uses Google to power most of its searches? On the surface, this sounds like a complete contradiction, especially when Google's latest moves will allow Android devices to answer questions the same way Siri now does. And yet, the changes that Siri is forcing on Google and Microsoft are going to hurt both of Apple's competitors.
Remember how Google cut off Scroogle.com -- a website that removed all personal information before resubmitting your query to Google, then removed the ads that were embedded in the results? Google doesn't dare do the same to Siri, because that would be handing a highly visible, highly desired demographic -- and one that is crucial for Android -- to Microsoft. Microsoft is in the same boat.
With Siri, Apple has done the equivalent of "regulatory capture" -- both Google and Microsoft will continue to settle for any scraps of information they can glean from Siri search queries, not just to maintain their overall share in the broader search market, but to gain insights into what mobile users really want.
They'll do this despite not being able to stuff their results with paid ads. Siri-style searches are now just part of the cost of doing business in a hyper-competitive environment.
How Much Is One Search Customer Worth?
Are we talking real money here? Well, some back-of-the-napkin math (pass the salt shaker -- it's not like Google wants to make some of these figures public) results in really eye-opening numbers. We know that Google's annual revenue is US$37 billion, so if we assume a billion users worldwide, that makes every user worth $37 a year by the time you include tie-ins to other Google products and services.
However, not all users are created equal. Advertisers willingly pay five to 100 times as much for queries originating from Western countries than they do for the same query originating from what used to be known as "the third world." A low-ball figure would place potential revenue from Apple iPhone users at $100 per year.
Apple is currently selling between 30 million and 40 million iPhones every quarter. That's a whack-load of iPhones. As Apple users switch over to Siri-enabled iPhones over the next three years, this will result in up to 200 million people -- all who used to be premium ad targets -- dropping out of both Google's and Microsoft's ad pool for significant portions of their searches, just like iPhone users now no longer use Google Maps by default.
Google will have to rejigger its future revenue projections to account for several billion less in revenue from "ad-scrubbed" searches this year, rising to $10 billion or more in three years, particularly if Android clones Siri functionality, which it will ultimately have to do to stay competitive.
Android - When Trojan Horses Go Bad
Android was supposed to be the platform that would dramatically increase search revenues by locking people into Google products and services. Instead, Google is going to have to offer the same Apple "I'm feeling lucky and I'm special" ad-free experience on Android smartphones; so will Microsoft.
Mobile, which once looked like the next big revenue generator, with users being peppered with ads based on their location, is getting the Apple treatment -- simple, stylish and functional -- whether Google, Microsoft, Groupon, Facebook, Overture and everyone else who wanted to put their hands in your wallet or purse via your phone like it or not.
If Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave, it's from laughter. Forget the lawsuits claiming that Android copied the iPhone. In the case of Siri, copying the iPhone will hurt both Google's and Microsoft's bottom lines. Then again, so will not copying the iPhone. Both competitors have a tiger by the tail, and they better hang on tight -- it's going to be one wild ride.