Aaron Wall is one of the most well-known personalities in the online marketing industry and is best known for his website, www.seobook.com. He has spent years helping marketers like myself hone their skills, and perhaps more importantly, at least to me, he has the unique ability to weave in social, economic, and political perspective into his marketing point of view. I’ve been suggesting that he shift his focus beyond marketing and delve deeper into some of the most important topics facing the human race, but he has stubbornly refused to take my advice ; )
If you read his stuff religiously like I do, then you realize just how penetrating his thought process can be, particularly as it relates that little old search engine whose corporate philosophy states “Don’t Be Evil.” I consider Aaron Wall to be one of the preeminent independent authorities on Google, so I figured I would ask him a few questions that have been on my mind for some time. Fortunately for me and the rest of the online marketing industry, he obliged.
Hugo: You’ve made no secret of your dislike for Google’s business practices particularly as it relates to their not-so-subtle push away from organic search results to paid search advertising listings. But some might say that Google is not required to focus on organic search (and the SEO industry those organic searches subsidize) especially if their paid search ads and listings provide the end user with relevant and useful results. What are your thoughts on this point of view?<
Aaron: I think that in theory it is an excellent point of view. However, in practice, it leaves some things to be desired. The other day I was searching for telescopes & Google showed a psychic reader near the top of the page.
Ask the Google founders what they think of astrology and they will probably say “it is horsecrap” and yet there Google is conflating astronomy & astrology as they make “advancements” to their organic search results. As they “improve” their relevancy algorithms society loses out.
Also, some of these improvements do not increase diversity, just the complexity of the underlying algorithms. In many instances they lower diversity by showing the same companies over and over again.
So now you see the same brands over and over again, in …
1.) instant suggest / google instant
3.) product ads
4.) brand navigation links
5.) product search
6.) local results
7.) organic results
that is the same brand showing up potentially 5, 6 or 7 times. And that is before you count ad sitelinks, organic sitelinks, a person doing multiple searches on related keywords, ad retargeting, and a company owning multiple brands in the same market ( http://www.seobook.com/google-mmo).
Just because something is large & has a large brand ad budget does not mean that it is great. Look no further than the big banks in the United States or Europe to see where that leads. A Citibank risk officer stated before congress that by 2007 80% of their loans were defective.
And yet there was no jail time for those bankers because they are “above the law.”
More recently Google started mutating search queries to strip or change less common words.
I guess it is great when it works to improve the search results, however sometimes it does ugly stuff. For instance, when I was looking into maybe shipping something to extended family in Manila Google decided to strip the word Manila from the search query. If Google is only going to show us the most broad based industry players & point us to their home pages then there really in no need for the search engines. In point of fact, at least the Yellow Pages didn’t steal 3rd party content while dropping attribution of the source.
One last relevant point here is that popularity and quality are not exactly the same thing. Some domain level experts don’t have brand budget. This problem was reflected in PageRank already, but now with Panda it is worse, because Google can penalize the smaller players and then pay someone else to steal that content and outrank the original source. Meanwhile Google gives sermons about “improve quality” while they are destroying businesses, simply because the business isn’t of a large enough scale to afford brand advertising.
And in some cases where Google is also a competitor in the niche, they won’t allow you to recover no matter what you do. They can state that the algorithms are “genetic” or that there is “no manual human intervention” however the genetic algorithms have to be fed training data by someone. Their recently leaked rater documents stated the following
“Note: Major cosmopolitan cities are preferred targets for spammers, especially hotel affiliates. Such results should be flagged as Spam, even if they are related to the query and helpful to users. For example, a hotel affiliate page with a list of Chicago hotels may be assigned a rating Relevant, but also receive a Spam flag.”
It takes them 130 pages to describe useful vs non-useful & spam vs non-spam. And in spite of that granular level of detail, if you monetize in a way that Google doesn’t like they say “the hell with you” even if your site is well regarded by the broader web community and objectively helpful by every other measurement they can think of!
There is only one word which adequately describes that behavior: ______.
Hugo: You introduced me to the book The Master Switch so I know that you’re familiar with that rather cyclical history of media channels and the corporate juggernauts those media channels create. Google is already the juggernaut of online search, and it’s clear that their goal is to become the juggernaut of the internet as a whole. Do you believe that Google, like the Bell Company before them did with telephone networks, can consolidate and close what is currently a very open, distributed, and relatively unregulated internet and reign over it with an tyrannical fist for decades (or longer)? And if so, how should a forward-thinking online marketer plan for that eventuality?
Aaron: I don’t see the internet as being all that open. Certainly there is a lure that it is open & accessible to everyone. But it is mostly an amplification of existing channels. One infographic artist on Reddit wrote something like “thank god for CNN or else I wouldn’t know what was on Twitter.” What he didn’t realize (or, if he did, I doubt he would have created it) is that these alleged bottom up social tools are mostly amplification tools for existing media channels.
There is the promise & story that they are different, but outside of a few rare edge cases it is mostly the same old stuff. Worse yet, if something is an out-of-context distortion that aligns with your political philosophy it will be read over and over again, while the nuanced nature of the stories fade (along with the non-extremist counter views). You can’t create a viral headline if it is measured, boring & factual when it has to compete against mainstream media acting like tabloid publishers. This leads to publishers “optimizing” for a more incendiary headline & in many cases just making up stories that extend their ill informed ideals.
The choice behind it is mostly illusory. And, worse yet, the bits that are not illusory are more likely to reinforce your existing worldview. The focus on relevancy and personalization means filtering out some of the stuff that is uncomfortable to read (there was a recent book called “The Filter Bubble” about this topic). In the past if you read only Mother Jones you would (or at least should?) know you were reading a left wing magazine. But if you follow a couple hundred people on Twitter you may not realize the bias you are self-subscribing to.
Likewise anyone can rank for any keyword in the search results, except not really! Some keywords where a company like Geico spends roughly a billion Dollars a year buying ads are inaccessible to smaller players. Brand bias to the organic search results means that you have to pick and choose your spots. And if you read the quote from Google’s remote rater documents in the above answer, it also means you have to be careful with how you pick your business model as well!
Can people still succeed outside of those types of ecosystems? Sure. But it is hard to scale into something big without investor capital or an opportunity to play in the larger existing traffic streams. And as long as you are small it is easy for Google to step on you without anyone noticing.
As more offline signals work their way back online I think a key to sustainable success online is going to come down to creating more of those signals offline.
Hugo: One of the other media channels that Google has shown intense interest in is television. Do you believe that they will eventually dethrone the current TV powers that be (e.g. broadcast networks and cable TV providers) and finally transform TV from a very outdated, non-interactive, analog medium into a truly online, interactive one (much like what happened to the newspaper and magazine industry)? And if so, how will this monumental shift impact search as we know it?
Aaron: I don’t think they will succeed with that goal. 2 reasons.
TV executives have seen what has happened to newspapers, book publishers, music labels, etc. and they want no part of it.
Part of the value of culture is the ability to share it. That shows have a slotted time help them stick out & help them create a social bond among observers. Discussing “the game” or the latest episode of South Park gives people things to share…which helps them bond…and helps influence your view of the world and create meaning. Most cultural stuff has little meaning in isolation.
Online there are ways to track what people do & make recommendations, but a person who is 52% similar to you & shares the same employer and lives in the same town may in fact be far more interesting to you than a person who is 95% similar to you but lives half way around the world. People meeting in person has value & matters. As AI (and spam) get more advanced we will be able to create more and more tools that “feel” like the real thing & ultimately that nearness will make us only desire the real thing more.
Hugo: At lot of online marketing pundits have been focusing on Google’s recent curve ball regarding the encryption of keyword data for organic search referrals, and they are using this latest policy change to justify their “Google does plenty of evil” mantra. Meanwhile, Google is perfecting driveless cars and investing heavily in renewable energy; two initiatives that the scientific community believes are crucial steps in mankind’s evolution towards a sustainable and generally better society. This is both inspiring and a bit scary in a 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 kind of way. Is it possible that Google is priming itself to become an uber corporation that is tied into virtually every facet of human life and business, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Aaron: If we are in the “information age” then it makes sense that the company at the center of information attempts to embed itself over and over again wherever it possibly can.
Is that good or bad? It is both. More usage data does lead to the ability to create better relevancy signals. At the same time there are risks in the consolidation of power. One example is the blocking of organic search referrals. Another great example was reading the post on Matt Cutts’ blog about how link selling could be bad if it influenced health search results, and then later seeing Google have to pay a $500 million fine for selling illicit drug ads. And what is far worse than anything Google has done is some of the stuff governments push. In some countries you could literally lose your life for a blog post & vast online databases make some government officials drool.
Hugo: If search is quickly becoming a “closed” distribution medium, what should astute online marketers and business owners be doing to insulate themselves from this forthcoming reality?
Aaron: Three things come to mind:
1.) increase visitor value so that you can afford to buy traffic
2.) create non-search distribution (email, social, offline marketing, etc.)
3.) build brand (so that a search engine looks stupid if they don’t rank you when users look for you. that also helps to build other relevant search signals)
Hugo: Could there be a day in the somewhat near future when SEO could truly be dead (really dead, not that fake “SEO is dead” that dozens of nincompoops have uttered over the past two decades or so)?
Aaron: Certain job titles or certain styles of job may go away. For instance, a lot of independent hotel affiliates may get whacked, but as Google eats up more of the SERPs for themselves that will force some of the vertical travel brands to need to hire some of those savvy independent affiliate types.
However, if Google promotes themselves too much they also create another opportunity. Notice that almost all the big content farmers are now posting loads of videos to YouTube? Likewise there is an amazing amount of parasitic spam on sites like Facebook.
Hugo: What is the single best piece of advice you could give to an entrepreneur that wants to follow your path and be as successful as you?
Aaron: I tried to list about 10 of these here:
but if I could list only one it would be “avoid debt.”