If you’ve read any of our SEO Guides for beginners, there is a constant theme: the user comes first. Create content for the user. Set up your site hierarchy for the user. Improve your UX/UI…..for the user.
The reasoning behind this is sound. Focussing on the user will improve the experience they have on your site. It is critical for your marketing to be cohesive, to have an established sales funnel and to be conversion led. It also pays homage to Google’s main objective: their search engine is “guided by a commitment to our users to provide the best information.
Google’s free search engine looks to deliver the most valuable and relevant result for searches. It keeps people coming back to use it. In turn, the popularity of their free tool allows them to sell advertising space. Therefore, putting the user (or searcher) first is the mindset Google take, so it should be the one that we adopt as SEOs.

This changes nothing for SEOs

Before we jump into the discussion, we want to make it clear that this should change nothing for us as SEOs. That’s very important. This is a discussion on whether Google get distracted from their main objective. It’s related to them as a business. It’s a commentary on how the waters can get muddied by profits and share price, rather than their search engine technology.
As an industry we have come a very long way since the pre Panda/Penguin days. Let’s not regress.
There will always be those that look for shortcuts, but don’t use this as an excuse. Just because someone lies or is hypocritical does not give you carte blanche to do the same. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Question of design: Google Ads vs Organic Results

We decided to review some of the other tests in 2020 and were reminded of a particularly contentious one back in January 2020.
Most tests and updates to Google’s user interface fly under the radar. The SEO world may have some fleeting discussion on Twitter but on the whole, they go unnoticed. They blend into the background noise.
Not this one. It was picked up by major publications and newspapers including The Independent and TechCrunch. For good reason as well, it resurfaced memories of previous attempts to blur the lines between ads and organic results.
Here’s what happened:
  • In January 2020, Google announce the use of favicons and the URL/breadcrumbs being placed above the title tag.
  • They also changed the way that the ‘ad’ label was used for Google Ads by making it bold.
  • Google claimed that it brought the UI of desktop results in line with mobile results

The reaction may not have been exactly what Google were after:

Twitter reaction to Google UI update

Why was it controversial?

The general feedback was that this update was a move towards making ads and organic results more homogenous in appearance.

Twitter reaction to Google SERP UI change Jan 2020
Some commented that ads had been moving away from a separate design to organic results for a while.
Others felt that the inclusion of the favicon made it harder to distinguish between ads and organic results. This is because both types of results now used the same format.
This was (and is) an issue for people. Google generate revenue from people clicking on their ads. Therefore, it was viewed by many as an attempt to reduce the distinction between ads and organic results, in order to increase ad revenue. It very much seemed as though Google were putting the ol’ greenback in front of the user.

Previous transgressions

This isn’t the first time that Google have come under fire for their practices. In fact, since 2017 they have been fined around £7.5 billion (€8.24 billion or $9.24 billion), mainly be the EU, for antitrust violations. Not a great track record.
Whilst the figure is made up of multiple fines for different issues, there is a recurrent theme: revenue generation.

Do Google care more about money than searchers?

Considering Google’s track record of violating antitrust/competition laws, it raises the question. Does Google care more about money than they do their searchers?
Yes and no. They care about maximising revenue (i.e Google Ads). You don’t grow to be one of the most valuable companies in the world without a focus on revenue generation.
But, and it is a big but (no pun intended). Without caring about their searchers, they don’t have a platform upon which to generate said revenue.
Their search team have to be focussed on providing the best results for searchers. If they don’t continually develop their free offering, in the long term their ad revenue suffers. That doesn’t mean that their aren’t team members that may look at ways to maximise ad revenue. So you could argue that whilst they do very much care about the searcher, it doesn’t stop them from walking a thin line to generate more money.
That’s problematic, especially considering the tech related trust issues such as Facebook’s Cambridge Analytics scandal.
This is of course exacerbated by Google’s monopoly-like hold on the search market. They already make unfathomable amounts of money, why would they look to squeeze out even more? If a searcher finds it hard to distinguish between ads and organic results, surely that is a worse experience?
Anecdotally, when we first saw favicons being displayed, our reaction was not the same. The favicons seemed to put more onus on displaying the brand in search results (your logo could be seen in the SERPs). However, once you see the narrowing of the gap between ads and organic results, it’s hard to unsee.
To summarise, Google still cares about their users. It shouldn’t change anything for us as search marketers. The user is still, and will continue to be, the most important element in the search equation. Nor does Google appear to have forsaken the user, that would be suicide. It does highlight the fact that they are a business and that revenue generation is a critical aspect of their operation. There is hypocrisy in their actions, no doubt about that. Should they be treading such a fine line? The fines would point to the fact that they often overstep that line.
It’s great that the EU hold Google to account. It’s hard to think of a house hold name that has such a monopoly on a global industry. As SEOs we’re hostages to Google’s choices. Be aware of the fact that the Big G aren’t as squeaky clean as their slick marketing might portray. But rest assured that you should continue to deliver the best experience and solution for searchers. By doing so, you put yourself in the best possible position to generate your own revenue from search. Does that make us hypocritical? Perhaps.

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