Why making companies buy their way to the top is right

Last week I discussed the various elements of the Google results pages which make up the “natural”, or free results. However, as we all know, despite there being more competition than ever to get into the coveted top slots, at the same time Google has reduced their prominence dramatically. Take a careful look at one random technical product search on a PC, an iPad and an iPhone.

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In each case, the results are dominated by advertising (“AdWords”). Obviously Google does this for the quite astonishing revenue it brings in, but it can also justify its policy while still claiming to maintain the moral high ground. This is because there are two types of intention behind searches for “blue widgets”. The first comes from those people wanting to know what blue widgets are, and how they work. The second – quite separate – one is from those people wanting to buy one.

Now, Google reckons it can provide great answers for the first group of people. It has a copy of almost the entire public web, it knows which sites are pointing to which, and it has developed incredibly complex algorithms for working our which web page tells you better than any other what you need to know about “blue widgets”.

But what about “buying” queries? How can it know that it should be showing company A’s website in preference to company B’s? What justification could it have for that decision anyway? It’s a set of algorithms, not a technical or business consultant who knows the searcher’s needs.

For the last 10 years or more, companies who have found themselves top of the Google results for a “blue widget” type search have been very pleased to have found themselves there, but know that they don’t have any real right to hold that position. Now Google has seemingly taken the decision that it shouldn’t be promoting those companies that strongly any more either. Instead, it’s decided that buyers would be better served by leaving the results to market forces, and prioritising adverts instead. After all, who do you think you should be buying blue widgets from? A company which has been chosen almost at random by a set of algorithms assessing the structure of its website, or a company which is prepared to pay that day to bring its blue widgets to your attention? I’d take the latter any time.

Some folks might point out that more than 50% of the people who search for “blue widgets” click on the first ‘natural’ result, whereas typically fewer than 5% click on the top advert. But that just demonstrates how many more people who type “blue widgets” into Google actually want to find out about them rather than buy them. I’d bet that if the ads and the natural results had equal prominence, nowadays people with buying intent would be just as likely (if not more likely) to click on a well-written advert than a free result selected by Google.

Should money talk? I’m no raving capitalist, but I don’t see why not. The free ride on Google is well and truly over, and I think businesses are getting the message. Certainly amongst our clients, AdWords budgets for 2014 appear to be going up substantially.

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