Decline of Google

By just about any measurement, Google is a very successful company. They have a huge amount of revenue, have a market value in the billions, and they have more than 60% of the search engine market. Google is the walking dead, though. Their business model is failing, they aren’t able to make Google+ successful despite throwing the entire company behind it, and their search results are getting worse, not better. Marketers and brands are better focusing on social media networks than on search marketing, especially Google search.

The updates that Google has made to its search algorithm over the last year have resulted in, shall we say, not so great search results. There are those that believe Google is deliberately manipulating search results for the worse to drive more clicks to their paid links. The number of people clicking Google’s paid links has been declining. The thought is, if the web is so full of spam, I might as well click the paid links since I know I’ll be getting something relevant.

I don’t really think that’s the case. I believe Google really does want people to find what they are looking for online. The problem is that Google is not very good at providing you with the information you want. There are a few reasons for this.

Google relies on a computer algorithm to determine a page‚Äö√Ñ√¥s value and computers are not the best at this. They can‚Äö√Ñ√¥t ‚Äö√Ñ√∫read‚Äö√Ñ√π videos or pictures, nor can they determine intent. Google can determine if hidden text is present on a website, but it can‚Äö√Ñ√¥t determine if it was put there to manipulate a site‚Äö√Ñ√¥s ranking or if it’s because Google can‚Äö√Ñ√¥t see what‚Äö√Ñ√¥s in the video that was posted so the website added the text.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that Google doesn’t find great information by itself. Its search algorithm relies on others to inform Google if a page is worthy of high-ranking in the search results. Incoming links, social media signals, and certainly some proprietary voodoo feed into that (Apple and Wikipedia do extremely well in Google search results even though they are poorly optimized and might not be the best result‚Äö√Ñ√Æwhy is that?). These are all “votes,” but they can be manipulated either positively or negatively.

Google tries to determine if the manipulation is negative, yet seems to do a poor job of this. Legitimate sites are delisted while spammy sites show up in the first search results. Google fixes this for larger websites (think Pfizer’s Viagra® website), but what about smaller websites? Some sites might have extremely valuable content, but Google has no way of knowing it unless the website is good at positive search engine manipulation (an even then there is no guarantee).

Google tries to replicate the social media experience, but isn’t doing as good of a job as social networks. And why would people want to go through a middleman when they can directly to the source? People are shifting more to social networks for advice and information instead of search engines. They are relying on feedback from friends on Twitter and Facebook more and more. They ask questions on Quora and LinkedIn. They might Google something simple, though not complex questions (discussions aren’t even a possibility on Google). People are getting information from social groups they belong to and find it more reliable than wading through pages and pages of crap in the search results.

Google doesn’t want to be the one that provides commodity answers. They want people to come to them for… well, everything. They’ve tried to make their search results reflect this shift to social media for information, albeit poorly. They created their own social network to provide them with much-needed social signals that they can’t get from Facebook, but Google+ seems to be less of a success as time goes by (and as Google grudgingly provides metrics about its use).

Social signals can be manipulated as well, so Google has been moving slowly on this, but not Bing. It just released an update that includes social in its search results. That probably has Google a concerned, though I imagine Google is far more worried about a possible Facebook search engine, with its 900 million plus users and all that social data, than it is of Bing. Nonetheless, Bing has been steadily creeping up on Google. A recent Experian Hitwise report says Bing now accounts for 30% of the search market. That’s an increase of 11% while Google’s share fell 3%. Not staggering numbers, but it does show the trend Google is facing.

Google realizes they have a problem. To combat it they’ve been altering their search algorithm repeatedly and pushing Google+. Yet, the search algorithm changes have resulted in poor search results and Google+ is underwhelming. Google keeps telling websites to write good content but they really don‚Äö√Ñ√¥t tell you what that means. As Danny Sullivan pointed out in his search marketing column, ‚Äö√Ñ√∫Google gave a list of 23 questions for people to ask themselves, but the answer is largely ‚Äö√Ñ√≤Google knows poor quality when it sees it.‚Äö√Ñ√¥‚Äö√Ñ√π

Google‚Äö√Ñ√¥s lack of guidance about its search algorithm and what makes content “good” has created a host of problems for websites and for Google itself. I don’t expect them to give away the farm, but clearer guidance would make things better. Though, that‚Äö√Ñ√¥s not likely to happen soon (read Miranda Miller‚Äö√Ñ√¥s article on this).

Instead we are forced to try and figure things out on our own. We have to play games and try to reverse engineer the search algorithm to see what we really need to do. This obfuscation by Google has created and entire industry of trying to find out what “create good content” means.

Websites have ended up more focused on creating content for Google than they are for their own audiences, resulting is less than stellar results for Google. Google says they don’t like this and will penalize websites that do that, but then they end up with poor results because they’ve delisted good websites. They brought this on themselves though their ambiguity. Websites know that it’s simply not good enough to write quality content to rank well, no matter what Google tells you.

Some websites have given up on even trying to feed Google. Lauren Indvik over at Mashable recently posted an article that The Atlantic doesn’t care about SEO anymore, and instead is focused on social. Good content is independent of Google’s search algorithm. Google knows that, but certainly doesn’t want marketers to find that out least they move to creating content in social media channels that Google can’t access. That’s happening anyway, though Google hopes to staunch the flow until it figures out how to capitalize on social media‚Äö√Ñ√Æsomething it seems to not be succeeding at.

People will continue to search online. Online search just won’t be the big thing it was a few years ago. SEO will remain important and relevant, just requiring far more research and effort than before. Google will probably even remain the dominant search engine, but in a world where search engines are less important than they once were. People will rely more on their social networks and less on Google. Marketers and brands will have to focus on building relationships on social media networks to attract an audience and less on search engines.

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