Google Search in Disrepair? Chatting with Conductor’s Dotterer

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sethADOTAS – Call it a shot across the bow to begin the new year: on Jan. 1, 2011, traveling entrepreneur-cum-academic Vivek Wahdwa published a piece on TechCrunch titled, “Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google.” In it he discussed eschewing Google for Blekko, the recently introduced social search engine that employs slash tags, when instructing his student to research for a major assignment.

Why? “Google has become a jungle: a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers. Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money. There’s no way to do a meaningful chronological search.”

A growing number of tech commentators are echoing this sentiment and I’ve started to openly wonder, “Is Google search in disrepair?” It almost seems like blasphemy to type it… But upcoming social search engines are getting a lot of attention as a way to bypass the glut of SEO-gamed, junk content.

I’ve hit up a bunch of search pros in the industry to get their take on Google and social search. Today I talk to 14-year industry veteran Seth Dotterer, currently senior director of marketing for SEO software developer Conductor. Dotterer was a successful pay-per-click advertiser on Goto.com (which eventually became Yahoo Search Marketing) long before Google was doing no evil.

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

DOTTERER: Interesting question — and can be looked at from several different angles.

From an advertising perspective, Google continues to see more companies invest more heavily in adWords. The billions of dollars they take in by aligning those commercial results above and to the right of their “natural” results would imply that they seem to be pretty healthy.

The question is whether or not decreasing relevance of the actual results will eventually cause consumers to look elsewhere for their answers. There’s a very real sentiment in the search community that in spite of dropping quality that those dollars just don’t have anywhere else to go – yet.

Throughout their financial success, they’ve been significantly worse at addressing and realizing the fact that the same massive forces that have benefited them have created an ecosystem of third parties who have recognized the financial value of optimizing their PPC spend and appearing on those SERPs.

This creates an overwhelming set of market forces that act to shape the ecosystem, and companies who simply cannot afford to be left out of the discussion, but Google has never had a satisfactory answer for the commercial interests. Where there is opportunity, there will be people trying to manipulate that to their own advantage, and Google had a lot of work to do in combatting that.

Obvious example of this is the arbitrage and “made for AdSense” sites that are thrown up and provide zero value to the searcher. Over the past 12 months, these have become much more common, searches result in page after page of low-value content, and Google needs to find a way to get rid of those sites that are simply standing in the way of a searcher finding the product or service they’re looking for.

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

Google is in a constant tug of war, where they need to balance their reliance on automated ranking signals (however 200+ many there may be now) versus understanding if the site that they’re presenting a result for is qualified to give an answer (or if it’s simply regurgitating someone else’s half-baked answer). To do this better, they will have to find a way to not only value the real content, but to de-value the junk.

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

This is where Google has potentially missed the boat. Enterprise-level SEO practitioners are in a bind — they’re forced to compete with individuals with much less to lose, but aren’t given real guidance on how to do so, for fear that the spammers will simply copy that. The appropriate response has been to create good content, make sure it’s organized properly for search engines to consume it, and audit and monitor religiously — it is not enough to “hope” that Google gets it right.

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?

Google hasn’t stopped evolving their core search models, and I think from an external view, that they probably couldn’t solve it by throwing more bodies at the problem.

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

To some degree – but here there is a huge distinction between looking for an answer or opinion from a semi-trusted network (social search engines) vs. finding a product, service, or options. But they still tend to be single answer seekers querying a community for a one-off question vs. Google’s dominance in the searches conducted at massive scale by many indivoduals (“where can I find cheap car insurance?” for example.) If social search engines do thrive, it will be because they’ve identified the RIGHT person to answer a question, and then gotten out of the way.

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

Blekko is an interesting experiment to watch closely. The tags and open stance on how they rank makes for a great study and debate in the SEO field, but should they pick up enough actual commercial traffic, you’ll see nefarious folks start to use that open nature against them.

How can search advertisers take advantage of social search engines?

Monitor your brand/keywords, etc. And jump in and create good content when the conversation comes into your area. Be the right person. And as said before, monitor your position at scale, because its not enough to wake up at the end of a quarter and realize your search traffic dropped 90%.

Are there other avenues search professionals should be exploring?

Sure – any online marketing mix should constantly be evolving. One of those that is starting to converge with search marketing is the retargeting arena. Search is a great way to get that early volume of visitors, and retargeting can me highly effective at reminding those visitors that they found something relevant at your destination.

1 COMMENT

  1. I couldn’t agree more that Google search results have become a ‘jungle.’ But it’s not so much the search engine itself as it is the ecosystem that Google has built up over the years. Their whole system of incentives (where search rankings and AdWords payments work in symbiosis) is set up to be a spammer’s paradise. I don’t think Google wanted it this way, but that’s certainly how it’s ended up. If Google doesn’t adjust its algorithm and its AdWords policies soon, its search results will rapidly become useless for the average person. Even if just the smart, internet-savvy people (who tend to have more money) decide to abandon Google for alternative solutions, Google’s top-line ad revenue will start to erode; legitimate advertisers will jump ship along with the most lucrative chunks of Google’s audience. And once Google’s AdWords multi-billion-dollar cash cow dries up, it’s good-bye Google. I’m not predicting their doom, but if current trends continue, this is a likely outcome. But I’m sure they understand this problem and are working to fix it as I write this.

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