Resolving the Google Desktop Conspiracy Theory

Strolling the exhibition floor at last week's Ad:Tech, it seemed like nearly every company had some connection to the search space. With so many companies engaging in search engine marketing turf wars, it's a ripe environment for conspiracy theories to arise.

Last week's column focused on Google's Desktop, a brilliant application from the consumer perspective, but one that will cause confusion for search marketers for the time being. A few readers chatted with me about this during Ad:Tech.

Someone named "Bob" commented, "Now that Google Desktop is starting to take hold, you should realize that true organic results are getting pushed down near or below the fold. If there are two sponsored listings at the top, followed by a few desktop results, followed by Google News, where does that leave the top natural listings?

"In many respects, the popularity of Google Desktop will make getting the top organic position even more valuable. Companies that can achieve them will rule the search engine optimization roost. Google's taking a step to minimize the value of natural search while playing up paid search."



Paging Oliver Stone.

There are a number of valid points here. The most salient is that with so many companies jockeying for top positions in search engines, screen real estate is at a premium. Consider the first screen of search results Manhattan (with Central Park views), the first page San Diego, the second page Seattle, and page 10 Patterson, Ohio (population: 139, according to

How much does the average user see on the first page? This depends on the screen resolution, where the higher the resolution, the higher number of listings appear on the screen (the downside with high resolutions is that everything also appears smaller). reports the most popular screen resolution globally among Internet users is 1024x768 (54 percent of users), 800x600 (27 percent), and 1280x1024 (14 percent).

At work, I use 1280x1024, making me a relative oddball. With that resolution, a Google search for the term "credit cards" brings up two sponsored listings up top, desktop results, and news results. At that resolution, five natural results appear in full (plus 7 paid results) in Internet Explorer where the Google Toolbar is displayed (further pushing everything down).

Switching to 1024x768, two natural results and four paid results are visible. That's what 54 percent of users presumably see with Google Desktop enabled. At 800x600, not a single natural result appears on the first screen, and there are two sponsored listings.

Assuming OneStat's data is accurate, and it's at the very least in the ballpark compared to other data out there, that means 80 percent of Internet users see two to three natural results (allowing for some variations in browser setup) at most. Gaining top position - "above the fold," in Bob's terms, is all the more appealing.

As much as this columnist is inclined to view most Web users, and people in general for that matter, as lazy, passive sheep who only use pre-installed software, there's some hope. Millions of Internet users have downloaded both the Google Toolbar and Google Desktop. Yahoo! Desktop and Yahoo! Messenger also have millions of fans. If so many people go to such lengths to install browser plug-ins and desktop applications, then they deserve a little more respect.

Expect these people to scroll, at least down the first page, to find the most relevant results. Such Web users are also much more likely to have higher resolutions to begin with, as higher resolutions tend to become more popular over time and with more online experience. The top result will always hold keys to bragging rights, if not more visitors and customers, but by no means will it be "rank first or bust."

Lastly, to address the conspiracy theory that this is part of Google's plan for world domination, or to at least emphasize paid results even more, consumers who try Google Desktop fall in love with it. It's amazing to hear their reactions. The point, as usual for Google, is to cater to its users first, and advertisers second. There's no indication that this philosophy changed since it went public.

Google manages to answer conspiracy theories in its own way. Type "who shot JFK?" into Google's home page and click "I'm Feeling Lucky." Go on, do it.

Another conspiracy theory laid to rest.

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