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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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Dissecting Google Conspiracy Theories


Part of every professional SEO’s job is to read between the lines — to be a conspiracy theorist of sorts. We are required not only to possess tactical skills like researching keyword semantics and using schema markup, but also to predict the future direction of organic search to reveal opportunities and risks within clients’ campaigns.

The source of this information is often through analysis of what search pundits are saying, but it also involves reading between the lines, and at the very least, using some form of inductive reasoning to figure out what those pundits aren’t saying that could help site rankings, traffic and revenue.

There are some logical applications of this kind of reasoning. For example, when we read:

  1. Page speed impacts user experience.
  2. Good user experience is highly correlative to good organic rankings.

we can logically imply that good PageSpeed scores will correlate with good organic rankings. That’s not a conspiracy; that’s a logical syllogism we can bank on, for the most part.

Of course, we know that site speed is a ranking factor because Google has officially confirmed it. However, other theories lie in a purely speculative realm — one that fundamentally mistrusts a company that cites “don’t be evil” as part of its code of conduct.

Which of these somewhat far-fetched ideas has a basis in reality? That’s the focus of today’s post. What are the top Google conspiracy theories, and which ones should we be brave enough to discuss seriously at the water cooler or, dare I say, in the boardroom?

Participation In AdWords Improves Organic Rankings

This is one of the oldest conspiracy theories, in my experience. If you spend in Google AdWords, your site’s rankings will improve within their organic search results.

First, we should establish Google’s position:

Investment in paid search has no impact on your organic search ranking.

The word investment is key here; simply investing in Google AdWords willy-nilly has never been proven to directly result in improved organic rankings. However, there are definitely organic benefits that result from participation in AdWords. For example:

  • A 2012 Google study concluded that “50% of the ad clicks that occur with a top rank organic result are incremental, compared to 100% of the ad clicks being incremental in the absence of an associated organic result.”
  • A 2010 NYU study determined that “positive interdependence leads to an increase in expected profits for the firm ranging from 4.2% to 6.15% when compared to profits in the absence of this interdependence.” In other words, you make more money from visitors when both paid and organic listings appear together.
  • Using AdWords to advertise your brand/your website may increase brand searches, and thus, increase organic searches and traffic from people who recall your brand name.
  • Using AdWords to advertise your site’s good content can result in increased incoming links to that content, which will result in improved organic rankings for relevant phrases.

Google Is De-Prioritizing Organic Rankings

The idea is an easy one to grasp: Google doesn’t directly profit from organic rankings, so their ultimate plan is to de-prioritize those rankings in their search results.

Anecdotally, I’m sure we have all noticed the fact that it’s hard to find an example of organic listings “above the fold” in mobile results, and I’m sure we’ve also noticed the increasing prominence of local listings in the top screen view of desktop search results. Yes, anecdotes like this are how conspiracy theories start — but any truth behind them can only be proven by research.

Only one study we found did this. A 2013 article on Search Engine Land, “Are Google’s Results Getting Too Ad-Heavy & Self-Promotional?” relays information on a study that found organic results “made up from 0-to-13% of a Google search results page.” There are a lot of caveats to this — like the types of queries studied and the fact that non-paid results like Google Carousel weren’t counted as organic — but the message remained: traditional organic rankings take up very little space in viewers’ top screen view.

Other more recent examples, like “Google Achieves 100% Monetization Above the Fold with New Pak” from November 2014 and “The Declining Value of Google Organic Results Below the Fold” from September 2015, express concern over the issue. Yet these articles only use one example to prove the point.

Regardless, I think this conspiracy can be counted as true; traditional organic listings’ exposure within Google results is declining.

Google’s Ultimate Goal Is To Promote Their Own Content

As cited above, Google’s search results include more non-organic listing types than ever before. Additionally, Google the corporation (now Alphabet, Inc.) has acquired a few companies (like ITA Software and Nest) and technologies (like delivery solution BufferBox and mobile payment processor Softcard) that definitely imply they are positioning themselves as a retailer, or at least a retail fulfillment provider.

How long will it be before they begin promoting that content or those companies above all others?

Though Google “denies prioritizing their own products in search results for an unfair business advantage,” the company has commissioned a report which argues that legally, it can prioritize its products in search. Organizations, from the European Union to review aggregator Yelp!, have taken issue with this, arguing that Google is using its search dominance to skew results to fit its own corporate goals rather than providing the best search results.

While the legal outcome of all this is yet to be determined, it appears this conspiracy theory is true. I suppose only time will tell whether self-promotion remains limited Google features (like local listings and Knowledge Graph results) or if this expands to include Google retailers/paid products/services.

Google Wants To Discourage The Use Of Apps

Two things are clear: the world is going mobile, and apps dominate the time consumers spend in that mobile world. In that sense, apps can be seen as a “Google killer” — if 90 percent of mobile users’ time is spent in an app, only 10 percent of that time is available to be spent in Google’s traditional mobile search environment.

When we consider this together with the recent announcement by Google that “mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial… will no longer be considered mobile-friendly,” some — like Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman — have concluded that Google would like to “slow users’ natural migration away from Web search towards apps.”

I don’t know that the interstitial penalty alone is cause enough to conclude that Google wants to kill apps, but understanding apps as a potential, future Google killer is a very plausible idea.

Perhaps watching what Google does with their $25-million acquisition of the .app top-level Web domain will give us some sense of their intent. If they simply sit on the TLD, was this $25M spent to protect them from competitive challenges? If they develop it, it would be hard to argue they are anti-app outright.

The US Government Has A Back Door Into Google

When the PRISM surveillance program was revealed in 2013, we learned that the US government collects stored internet communications from companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Some went on to suggest that the CIA, FBI and other agencies actually have a back door to Google so they can pull information at will and without process.

In response, Google unequivocally stated that “the US government does not have direct access or a ‘back door’ to the information stored in our data centers.” While the truth of this statement is very likely, it is also true that Google complies with a majority of the requests tendered by the US government (They effectively have a back door).

Additionally, Google thought leaders Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen openly stated (warned?) in their book, The New Digital Age, that

Since information wants to be free, don’t write anything down you don’t want read back to you in court or printed on the front page of a newspaper, as the saying goes. In the future this adage will broaden to include not just what you say and write, but the websites you visit, who you include in your online network, what you ‘like,’ and what others who are connected to you do, say and share.

While there does not appear to be a conspiracy here, the overall fact of the matter is that nothing you do on Google is secure from acquisition via government request.

Google Wants To Dictate What Is “True”

We’re not just talking about filter bubbles, here — we are talking about the impact of Google’s speculative use of “truthfulness” or accuracy as a ranking factor.

The issue is outlined well in the Washington Post article, “Why some people are so terrified by the idea of a Google truth machine.” In short, a Google paper has proposed a method for identifying factually accurate websites and, from that, deciding which results to return for consumer searches.

The fear is that non-traditional ideas or interpretations of events will effectively be written out of the conversation if they fail to meet Google’s model of truthfulness. For example, if they deem that anti-vaxxer sites are not true, the anti-vaxxer argument will be eliminated from results and thereby dictate the truth about the impact of vaccinations.

What does Google have to say about all of this?

This was research — we don’t have any specific plans to implement it in our products. We publish hundreds of research papers every year.

But would they tell us if they were secretly plotting to determine what is considered truth vs. falsehood? Probably not. Do I believe they will purposefully dictate what is true? Probably not. But, as an “accident” of their systems’ logic, a scenario could very well develop where their machine learning becomes an accepted, de facto source of what is true.

Google Is Evil

Did anyone else notice Alphabet, Google’s new corporate holding company, eliminated the “don’t be evil” mantra from their code of conduct?

Final Musings

You may notice that I left out a few conspiracies like Google Maps hiding aliens and that Alphabet, Inc. is building a robot army to take over the world.

Those are entertaining but land solidly on the “tinfoil hat” side of the fence. What conspiracies did I miss? (Your responses will not be passed along to the government, I promise.)

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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