The Google Mystique

We've known Google for a long time now. We were charmed by him, back when he was just a humble, unadorned newcomer. As we watched him become less awkward -- and constantly transform himself as perhaps the defining digital business and cultural enterprise of our times -- we've maintained a love-hate regard and resigned ourselves to mixed emotions. Isn't this always the case with power and popularity?

Last week, we had occasion to consider anew Google's power and popularity. Time seemed to slow as we pondered our industry's progress, and thought, How exactly did we get here again?

First there was the jaw-dropping case of JCPenney and Google -- a case in which someone or some team, doing Penney's bidding, attempted to game the system. Using one of the oldest black-hat SEO tricks in the book -- mass inappropriate, madcap appropriation of inbound links -- Penney prevailed in number-one slots on all imaginable retail keywords for several months. Yes, it is surprising that Google did not initially clamp down on this. But the actual jaw-dropper is that any top marketer in today's marketplace would allow such work to be executed, no matter to what degree knowingly. It was blatantly foolish.



But, in addition to giving us the opportunity to consider a good marketer's negligence, this little digital vignette highlights our regard for Google's calm, sure power. I thought the piece by David Segal did a great job of encompassing the tension around the progression toward punishment.

When things like this are discussed, most of us in the business are eager to hear from a certain guy over at Google, the guy on whose watch these things can or can't, should or shouldn't, happen. He is Matt Cutts, the head of the Webspam team at Google. As the New York Times piece so rightly, hilariously characterizes, Cutts is a man "whose every speech, blog post and Twitter update is parsed like papal encyclicals by players in the search engine world." It's true.

While the JCPenney issue was allowed to persist longer than one might assume Google's anti-spam operations would allow, Cutts' perspective represents a massive power essentially confident in its position. Problems always gets taken care of. As Segal so concisely portrays it from Cutts' unflappable vantage point:

"'Am I happy this happened?' he later asked. 'Absolutely not. Is Google going to take strong corrective action? We absolutely will.'

And the company did. On Wednesday evening, Google began what it calls a 'manual action' against Penney, essentially demotions specifically aimed at the company.

At 7 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, J. C. Penney was still the No. 1 result for 'Samsonite carry on luggage.'

Two hours later, it was at No. 71.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Penney was No. 1 in searches for 'living room furniture.'

By 9 p.m., it had sunk to No. 68.

In other words, one moment Penney was the most visible online destination for living room furniture in the country.

The next it was essentially buried."

A companion to Google's awesome presumed and spooky power is its popularity. We've long referred to Google as the most popular search engine. The people's choice, if you will. Even still, with somewhat mixed emotions, we acknowledge that Google's (as with others') cryptic algorithms do indeed factor a listing's popularity, among other things. Google has been seen as the engine that delivers the best results, the best consumer experience. "Popularity" is tied to Google's persona and personality. Despite our love-hate regard, despite our conflicted reverence for Google's power position -- looking back to those humble early years on the playground -- we assume this popularity stands.

Well, Bing is catching up in some very important ways. This is not a point about killing Google. That's a tired quest not all that interesting to discuss. Yes, Bing is creeping up on share of the search market. But, even more interesting is that Bing enjoys a significantly higher "success" rate - that is, the stat indicating the rate at which results satisfy the user's query at least enough that they will click. If you read the reporting, Bing prevails on this front.

According to industry definitions, popularity is linked to favored usage. But, when you look at these stats on success rates , you have to question the basis for popularity. Are we thinking about this the right way? What are we favoring if not success? Have we lost sight of why we, as consumers in the first place, even love Google?

Because we grew up on the playground, we know that power and popularity have their dark sides. But, as an industry, may we always take the time to examine how these reputations get earned - and when it's time to refresh credentials.

6 comments about "The Google Mystique".
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  1. Scott Gregory from Triggerfish Marketing, February 14, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.

    On the one hand, a clear example of the "good guys" triumphing over the "bad guys".

    On the other hand, with Google's ever-increasing influence and power over search, it would be useful for there to be more transparency not only into how they penalized Penney, but why they decided #71 was the magic number for that penalization.

    With Google as judge and jury for transgressions of this nature, openness into their process will become increasingly important.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 14, 2011 at 1:24 p.m.

    Google has some nifty toys aka tools which attach people to their services. Google is in the default search box of computers. Google does supply many answers. So generally, Google works and people don't give it a second thought when they use it. All the more reason why there needs to be "watchers" and competition to ensure some kind of balance and "honesty" with their dealings. There is no such thing as self regulation.

  3. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, February 14, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.

    While the JCP event was bad, a far worse matter with Google received little attention. This is the “Quality Score” addition to their algorithm to their search engine. I have published sweepstakes for many Fortune 100 companies for years now. Recently one key word, which I have with Google Adwords for years and spent over $31,000 on, was turned off for “Low Quality Score”. I would love to hear what Google's management response and what they will tell the Google stockholders. Considering they have millions of keywords from their hundreds of thousands Adwords clients, their new algorithm could take off hundreds of millions of revenue dollars off of their books.

  4. Catherine Ventura from @catherinventura, February 14, 2011 at 7:55 p.m.

    Great post Kendell and very good point Scott. I would like to know if they "chose" 71 or if that is where JC Penney belonged organically. On a personal note I remember searching for something fairly upscale a few months ago and being startled that JPC came up first. Missed my chance to be a whistle-blower!

  5. Kendall Allen Rockwell from WIT Strategy, February 15, 2011 at 3:38 p.m.

    Craig -- very interesting. The QS is another can of worms entirely. The impact of this is very real -- part of being in the game, unfortunately. Your illustration on numbers sheds good light, though.

    Do you know which factors led to the low QS? Certain factors are easier to address than others.

    Thanks for weighing in on this.


  6. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, February 16, 2011 at 8:35 a.m.

    Maybe it's common knowledge yet unknown to me. Who is Matt Cutts' counterpart at Bing?

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