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The AdWords Conspiracy

Oliver Ewbank

by Oliver Ewbank on 28th September 2012

Google AdWords LogoGoogle have hardly been subtle in the changes they’ve made in recent times, nor have they been apologetic. From major algorithm updates to tweaks in the colouration and complexity of sponsored ads (integration within maps, site links and even images for instance); the face of results pages has changed drastically. However, some might argue that this is more of an effort to please stakeholders, rather than users or advertisers.

While it might appear to be a little crazy to think algorithm updates are for stakeholders rather than users – there is some evidence to support those theories.

Penguin Update

The penguin update was designed to penalise sites that participated in link schemes or violated the Webmaster Guidelines. Sites who have suffered from this update had unnatural link patterns. Examples include bought links, over optimised anchor text, sitewide links, suspicious IP addresses and irrelevant link sources.

The Result

Many companies who suffered a severe drop in rankings were asked to submit a reconsideration request. This is an extremely long process and can take months to resolve. Many companies who lost rankings overnight immediately switched to Google AdWords, to compensate for the loss in traffic.

Venice Update 

The Google Venice update paid more attention to the local information that is available. The update prioritised local organic results and integrated local search data.

The Result

Big brands that once dominated the SERP’ were given a back seat while smaller local companies were given a chance to grow through local results and map listings. Again this led to larger companies using AdWords to dominate the local market, such as through paid adverts in local listings.

Panda Update 

Google’s panda update was designed to penalise sites with weak content and to reward sites with quality content. Sites who suffered from this update had duplicate issues, limited copy and keyword flooding patterns. If ever we needed confirmation that content was king, this update certainly hammered home the message.

The Result

Many companies who suffered from a drop in rankings had to re-write and re-structure their website. Writing good comprehensive content can be extremely time consuming and expensive. Some chose to invest in a writer but many chose to use AdWords as an alternative. Again this update led to a more competitive and expensive PPC market.

The May Day Update

This update was said to influence the gains through long-tail traffic, so companies would each rank for a far smaller amount of keywords.

The Result

There were reports of sites losing large amounts of long tail traffic.  This almost certainly would benefit Google AdWords, as their system allows you to target a range of long tail terms with broad and phrase match advertising, that simply could not be targeted at length through organic SEO.

Caffeine Update 

The Caffeine update mainly centred on increased speed of crawling, expanded index and almost real time ranking. As a result, more weight seemed to be put on the site speed and loading time.

The Result

The importance of site speed led to some companies losing rankings. For companies who could not improve their website architecture a good short term fix was to make the most of Google AdWords. Although site speed can harm your quality score you still have a chance of appearing for key terms with a higher spend.

Personalised Search 

In 2005 Google began using the history of searches to adjust results and make them more specific for the user. Personalised search has evolved over the years with the integration of Google Plus.

The Result

While personalised search has undoubtedly benefited the Google user, it has also made SEO more challenging. The constant change in rankings and personalised data has made consistent rankings a thing of the past. One way to consistently target a primary term and get round personalised search is to use Google AdWords.

AdWords Extensions

AdWords Extensions have been around for years but the features are becoming more and more dominant in search results. Location extensions, sitelink extensions and product extensions are all valuable features which give paid search a visible advantage over natural search.

Product Extensions

The Result

As Google roll out more extensions that fill the screen and make adverts more appealing the CTR is going to continue moving over to paid search. Google Shopping is also being phased out and customers of the Merchant Centre are being pushed to use AdWords to continue to get their products shown in the search results. This is the only way they can have product images shown in the results and advertisers will need to pay for the clicks on their products. 


There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there and here is another one to cause a debate. Is SEO dead? No. Does it take more effort and time to achieve results? Yes. Google’s evolution of new products and algorithm updates makes AdWords more attractive. Whether that is deliberate or not, there is no denying that if you have the budget Google AdWords has never been better.

The search engine giants have made big changes over the last year, most notably Penguin and Panda. The sound bites coming from Google are that they want to become better at detecting unnatural backlinks and rewarding good quality content.

I’m all for a better search engine that rewards ‘best practice SEO’ but is there such a thing as too much change? Are they clamping down on over optimisation or are they making changes for change’s sake?

If you look at the big picture, Google wants SEO to be unreliable and flaky. Their paid advertising service (AdWords) has one main competitor and that is SEO. The more they came make SEO seem bad the more you will be tempted to use AdWords.

It may seem a tad cynical, but next time Google runs an update (beware of Koala 7.2) ask yourself is this helping the user or the stakeholder?

What should you do?

While you can still get invaluable traffic from SEO, I think you need to spread your bets. If your whole business model is based on Google’s algorithm you will constantly be playing catchup. My advice would be to invest in content marketing and social media, alongside traditional SEO. Equally important; you need to get to grips with AdWords.

The inevitable algorithm updates will force more people to use AdWords which will make it a more competitive marketplace. If you are not familiar with AdWords and quality score, I suggest you get learning. For beginners we have just published a new Whitepaper to get your started in PPC for Google.

AdWords Beginners Guide

If anyone has any feedback on my conspiracy theory I would love to hear your thoughts. Are the constant Google updates for the user or the stakeholder?

Oliver Ewbank

Oliver Ewbank

Working in new media for over 8 years, Oliver Ewbank has worked for a range of brands including eBay and SportBusiness.com on SEO, PPC and Social Media Management. He has won awards for his SEO work and been featured in a number of publications, including Virgin online.


  • Mike Essex

    Mike Essex 28th September 2012

    Hi Ollie. An interesting debate. There’s one other change that is seen as a conspiracy theory to think about:

    (not provided)

    Put simply. If you get organic traffic you can’t see keywords that people used to find your site if they are logged in. If you use AdWords then they’ll show you all of the data even if someone is logged in.

    Seems like a pretty clear case of Google favouring people who spend money with them rather than users or SEO’s.

    Reply to this comment

  • eMarketing Excellence 28th September 2012

    At the end of the day Google are a business who need to make profits.

    So not surprising when they made the move to only show (logged in users) keyword queries to Adwords users.

    The other key strategy that people need to get to grips with is joint ventures (real people to people) as no search engine algorithm change will ever be able to stop that natural flow.

    Reply to this comment

  • Samantha Noble

    Samantha Noble 28th September 2012

    My thoughts on this are that Google have made some big changes to their algorithm recently but, they have not ‘changed anything’ in their guidelines, they have just got stricter with things.

    Google are obviously looking for people to spend money on AdWords and some of the changes they make may help push people towards using paid search but a lot of the changes have had a positive impact on the search results.

    The thing that does annoy me with Google is that the paid listings blend in so much with the organic listings and on certain devices you can’t even see the where paid search ends and organic search begins. I would prefer to see the two sets of listings separated more clearly.

    Reply to this comment

  • Andrew Tonks

    Andrew Tonks 30th September 2012

    Whilst I agree to a point, the fact remains that Google is not a charity nor a business set up in the public good but a public company – it doesn’t have to answer to the likes of people in our industry nor to users but shareholders and the Board of Directors have an obligation to do what’s best for those shareholders by maximising profits and providing an attractive dividend.

    I think for a lot of people in our industry, we have lost perspective as to what a great deal Google actually does give us in terms of organic traffic, many businesses make millions each year purely on the back of organic traffic, how many other forms of advertising would simply give that away for pretty much free!!?

    At the end of the day if Google want’s to make changes to the way it ranks websites organically it’s up to them really, do things they way Google want’s them done with regard to their guidelines and you’ll in most cases be able to rank for keywords that will drive large amounts of traffic and sales – however, as nobody in the SEO industry is paying Google for any of this, then we shouldn’t really have an issue when they decide to change things – it makes life tough for some of us, but when compared to the ridiculous rates charged for TV or print, we’re still getting a pretty good deal I think.

    In the end these update highlights how important it is to be engaged fully with their guidelines, do this an you’ll rank sustainably and you will not need to panic when the next update happens and have to go over to PPC.

    Reply to this comment

  • Andrew Howard 2nd October 2012

    Whilst Google are a public company and their objective is to make a profit, they do this under the guise of providing a “free” service that is unbiased (allegedly) in its display of information.

    I no longer consider that service to be unbiased and whilst I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory I am of the opinion that they are no longer as “blamefree” as they once were.

    By this I believe that all algorithm changes are done in the full knowledge of how it is going to benefit them and will only be done as long as it does benefit them.

    Reply to this comment

  • Oliver Ewbank

    Oliver Ewbank 15th October 2012

    Thanks for all your comments.

    Google are a business who need to make profits and it seems the majority of their algorithm changes also benefit the use of their paid service.

    I think the key take away from this discussion is to keep up to date with the tweaks in their guidelines and have a broad strategy which will not totally depend on SEO.

    Reply to this comment

  • Dan Wilson 6th November 2012

    If we were to place all our trust in Google, then the algorithm changes are merely to provide the searcher with “the most relevant” content and pages related to the search query. However i am of the firm believer that Google makes these changes in order to enhance their own Adwords profits.

    It is however understandable, how many online products/services do they offer free of charge? I mean Google Analytics for a free tool is pretty impressive. Having used many other analytics tools (Hitbox, Webtrends, Omniture etc etc) in the past i do prefer analytics.

    Am i completely happy with giving Google all this information, linking Adwords, to analytics, to double-click, to tag manager, etc etc thats probably a question for another day.

    Thanks Oliver really insightful topic. One question i will leave, how long till Google starts placing Adwords ads inside Google+ Profile’s? I can defiantly see “why not promote offers to your Google+ fans through Adwords” messages turning up within the next 12 months.

    Dan Wilson

    Reply to this comment

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