Google Search in Disrepair? BrightEdge’s Yu Chimes In

Inplace #2

searchADOTAS – Is Google just not the same search engine it once was? Conductor’s Seth Dotterer, 15miles’ Mike Flanagan and Searchmetrics’ Horst Joepen have all submitted their thoughts on this burgeoning theme of 2011. Now Jim Yu , founder and CEO of enterprise-class SEO platform BrightEdge (which launched as the company emerged from stealth mode last summer) sits down at the discussion table.

ADOTAS: Is Google’s search engine in disrepair? What, if anything, needs improvement?

YU: Certainly Google’s search engine is not in disrepair but it’s clear the web is becoming more dysfunctional.

There are two fast-moving forces creating an inflection point for Google and its users. The first is that the way people use the internet is changing: mobile, social, local, real-time information and so forth. Google has already made significant changes around these issues. The Caffeine update, for example, allows it to index more quickly and enables Google to integrate more social signals.

The second is that Black Hat techniques are growing more sophisticated, in particular the growth of paid links on “high-quality” sites and auto-generated content to bypass duplicate content protection. We’ve seen Google act quickly and decisively against these practices. The Mayday update was designed to help address just this.

Google is also being more active against paid links. Last week they rolled out a tool that warns webmasters if it has sensed any illegitimate techniques in their domains. And we also know that they have been active for quite some time against malicious sites.

How could Google better approach the plethora of spam and lackluster content gumming up the web (i.e., cut through the crap)?

Google needs to look more closely at content rather than links. One of the most interesting ways the internet is fundamentally shifting is that the signals that search engines relied on to evaluate content have totally changed.

It used to be that people would link to your content if they thought it was interesting. At a simplified level, this was one of Google’s greatest innovations: to use reference as a barometer for relevance.

But now, more than a decade later, there is a world of ways to game this system. Paid links, cloaking and auto-content generation have become more common, sophisticated and difficult to detect. At a fundamental level, social media and innovations like Twitter are cannibalizing the link graph.

Another example of how things have changed is in using age as a signal. It used to be that older content that had lots of links was a sign of relevance. Now with real-time social, it can – but not consistently — be the opposite. So search engines are posed with the problem of blending in recency and popularity and balancing them in the greater framework.

So if you’re Google, how do you make sense of and blend in all these new signals and practices as the old ones decline? It’s still early days in figuring out how traditional search blends with social search, but clearly these factors are going to bring a lot of innovation.

Caffeine was a big first step. They are making major steps towards personalizing the search experience. Bringing in Twitter feeds and the social graph will help.

How have SEO practitioners had to adjust in facing this same foe (i.e., crap content and spam)?

What the advent of search engine spam really shows is that SEO is crucial to business goals and needs to be managed, funded and evaluated in a systematic way – just like any other element of a company’s marketing mix. Search engines are an exploitable opportunity for spammers today because there is a huge disparity in SEO expertise.

Really what we’re seeing is a race between companies whose core competencies are selling things versus companies whose core competency is doing SEO to siphon off users. For many of the former, SEO has not traditionally been elevated in their marketing mix in a sophisticated, well-funded way. It’s been a nice-to-have back office function, but not a source of competitive advantage.

Do you feel Google’s myriad initiatives (i.e., display advertising, mobile, social media) have caused it to drop the ball on its core competency, search?

Of course search is still a priority for Google. They make hundreds of changes and improvements every year. Just in the past year, they’ve rolled out major changes like Mayday, Caffeine, integration of social results, Instant, Instant Preview, defaulting to personalization and literally thousands of changes that aren’t visible to users.

Are social search engines — including Facebook and Quora — biting into Google’s search share? Will there be a noticeable effect in 2011?

Facebook has clearly had a meaningful impact on overall online activity. Social has become as integral to the online experience as Search. If Facebook was thought of as an independent search engine instead of primarily a social site, it would already have meaningful market share.

What are your thoughts on Blekko and its use of slash tags?

We like how Blekko brings the social dimension and the open approach to search. They have several cool products and the slash tags definitely introduce new methods for improving search quality. Opening up index data creates an unprecedented level of transparency, which can only be good for consumers and marketers, and it creates great potential for continuously improving the search experience.

Blekko is using the same methods that have made open source such a force: getting contributions from the full community, both searchers and marketers. We’re also impressed by the innovations Blekko has introduced for integrating social signals into search.

How can search advertisers take advantage of social searching services?

Lines between web, search and social search are blurring. You’re already getting social search results blended into the regular search results. This will continue to converge over time and bring new challenges and opportunities for marketers.

Take reputation management, for example. From a search perspective, you want to see what listings are coming up for your brand. But now you need to look beyond search results and see what people are saying on Twitter, Facebook and myriad other sites – and that becomes an integrated part of your online strategy. No longer will you measure share of search. You’ll have to measure your share across all these channels.

Are there other avenues search professionals should be exploring?

Search is evolving. Social, mobile and real-time are having a huge impact. As mobile continues to grow, more users will connect to their social network or search engine via handheld devices. Mobile search can be dramatically different than desktop search since proximity of the results can be more important than relevance or authority.

The question for marketers becomes how can they best connect and engage with consumers in this environment. For SEO professionals in particular, it means that SEO is no longer solely about web site optimization. It’s about how you optimize and manage your entire set of digital assets in tandem to be in front of your consumers at the right time.