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by Stephen Logan on 2nd May 2012
Yesterday, Alec wrote a rather compelling post on why he occasionally hates Google. Whilst all of the points made were entirely valid, in the interest of balance, I thought it might be worth looking at the more positive aspects of the search engine and what it has given the world.
Let’s be honest, before Google, search was awful. Sure, it’s far from perfect now, but at least you don’t have to stuff keywords into a Meta description to get your GIF-filled homepage (visit counter et al) to rank on AltaVista. Keywords gave way to links and PageRank; a much more effective and collaborative method of judging authority.
Critics and cynics (of which I am one) will often suggest that Google continue to get it wrong and are over-reliant on links, which are easily gamed. However, this is changing and whilst the move towards social signals and personalisation is far from universally popular, results should benefit.
It’s easy to complain when Google decides to hide some keyword data, but it’s equally easy to forget that they have provided it, without charge, to millions of people year after year. Hundreds of thousands of websites rely on data from Analytics, many also use Webmaster Tools to deal with site issues. These are indispensable tools to many and yet they are entirely free.
Kudos to Google for this. Whilst they might be siphoning off data for their own ‘non-evil’ means, they could have quite happily charged a standard monthly subscription fee for all services and made billions. Sure, they do have premium services available to the biggest brands, but in the most part Google are still offering some of the best freeware available. Not too shabby.
Innovators in Search
Whilst Google do tend to buy any half-decent start-up and quickly gobble them up (sharing the wealth?), the vast majority of innovations within the field of search have come from this one company. Yahoo! has spluttered and now appears to be in a Bartz-induced coma, creating nothing of note for years. Microsoft have had to undertake a comprehensive rebranding exercise, but whilst many like the clean appearance of Bing, it’s still not a source of innovation.
Sure, you can talk about Blekko, DuckDuckGo, Wolfram Alpha and even Ask, but none have been able to keep pace with Google – both in terms of growth and development. They’ve had their fair share of failures (Wave, Google Instant and the like), but they continue to evolve – improving the algorithm as they go.
For better or worse, Google has made a lot of people a lot of money. That is why SEOs and online businesses are so precious every time there’s an update. Admittedly they could do with sharing a little more information and it’s not like they haven’t made more money than most countries over the last decade; however, despite all this, it is their search engine and related advertising tools that has made it possible for many to flourish online.
If Google hadn’t come along with PageRank, who knows where we’d be today? They created the search infrastructure that many people have grown up with and are still delivering the best* results. If you get booted out of the index for gaming the system, that’s exactly what you deserve. In any walk of life, if you try to bend the rules or game the system, you can be punished. In the world of search, most of the rules are created and governed by Google, so it is their duty to enforce them however they see fit as well as adapting them to future changes.
Google’s success in search, effectively becoming the go-to service for billions of people, has facilitated the growth of online commerce and entrepreneurial spirit. Bloggers can make money from adverts (including AdSense) whilst stores can advertise their goods to a global audience. Without the traffic that comes through search, many would suffer.
Prepared to Take Action
As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of online businesses that have fallen by the wayside simply because they aren’t able to innovate or adapt quickly enough. The Internet has changed hugely in the last decade or so, becoming far more social, with Facebook rising up to challenge Google’s online domination. Equally, the way in which we access the Internet has changed significantly. From being consigned to slow desktop computers with even slower dial-up connections to using mobile phones and tablets with high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity. It’s a completely different world.
Despite all of these potentially damaging changes to consumer behaviour and technology, Google has maintained consistent popularity. This is largely due to the aforementioned innovation and their ability to spot up-and-coming products (think YouTube), abandoning those that don’t work and making the most of those that do.
They still get a lot of criticism, much of it warranted, whenever they update results pages. Instant Search was pilloried, the Places update rendered some organic rankings absolutely useless and personalised results have been re-jigged following the unsuccessful integration of Twitter feeds. Most people eventually grow to accept it, but most of the time Google will just roll things out as and when they choose; as long as it is part of their ongoing vision for search, it stays.
The search engine giant also has to deal with ongoing criticism for flaws in its algorithm. Again, harking back to the most overused example, the JC Penney mess wasn’t discovered by searchbots, nor was it resolved by an automated penalty. It was discovered by a newspaper and resulted in a manual penalty. This has happened time and time again, potentially embarrassing Google and their ability to police results. So what did they do? They upgraded their algorithm.
So if you got hit by the recent ‘unnatural links penalty‘, you can probably blame JC Penney. Google are also talking openly about the adoption of semantic search for the first time, which paves the way to even better results and a clearer understanding of queries. Again, they are the first major search engine to do so and will probably be leading the field when it comes into full fruition.
This is not an ode to Google
For all the good they do, there’s plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Google, particularly when it comes to privacy and data. The company’s lack of openness and continued issues with legislation highlight that it isn’t a whiter than white corporation. So whilst praising the work they have done, there will always be a counter-argument.
From an SEO point of view, it’s pointless criticising Google. Sure, they could be doing more to punish those buying links and perhaps stop claiming that people aren’t benefiting and that negative SEO doesn’t exist. But that is their prerogative. Nobody is duty bound to use Google, plenty of alternatives exist.
If you base your entire business model on getting traffic from a single, variable source, then you are taking a huge risk. You have to do more than simply go after search rankings, you have to deliver what customers are looking for. That’s the point of semantic and personalised search. If you’re so good that people can’t stop talking about you, then your stock will rise. However, if you’ve got a shoddy website, expensive products and no discernible unique selling point, but yet command top spot on Google due to years of “over optimisation”, a day will come where search traffic will plummet.
Google may not have helped create a better Internet, but they have at least kept it moving in the right direction. Hopefully others will one day take the mantle and deliver a better all-round service and search experience, but for now, they’re the best we’ve got.
* Best – not great, but better than all major competitors.