The Wall Street Journal dropped a bit of a bomb on the SEO community last Friday when they published a report called “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results.”
To which, most of us replied: “Oh this should be good.”
Turns out, the report was not very good. In fact, it has been nearly universally panned by experts in SEO agencies in Toronto and across the globe, with most of us calling B.S on a lot of what has been written.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to get SEO nerds to agree on anything? We’re a fairly opinionated bunch. We all have our views on what Google is and what it could be doing better. However, most of us read this article and felt it missed the mark by quite a bit.
It reads like they had a very clear agenda and a narrative they wanted to create to sensationalize a topic; a very important topic that doesn’t need additives to be interesting or controversial.
There is a lot wrong with this piece. But here are a few of the most glaring.
1. “Said Glenn Gabe, an SEO expert”
Maybe this is just us. But, if we’re writing a massive exposé on the evils of Google and how it’s rigging the game, we’re featuring a quote from every SEO expert we can find.
However, this article only quotes one expert, Glen Gabe. And Gabe has been very adamant that he was misquoted. He also added that all conversations he had with these writers were supposed to be off the record.
Gabe told Search Engine Land:
“I was contacted by a writer from the WSJ in April of 2019 explaining they were researching a piece on Google’s search algorithm. During my calls (which were all off the record), it was clear that writer had a very limited understanding of how Google’s algorithms worked.”
He added, “Then I heard back that the editor refused to make the change. So they actually thought about it… and they said no.”
Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz is also one of the most respected and read writers in the world of SEO. So, naturally, the writers of the WSJ article reached out to him as well. After speaking with the authors, Schwartz also said he noticed they had a pretty glaring lack of SEO knowledge.
“… it was clear then that they had little knowledge about how search worked. Even a basic understanding of the difference between organic listings (the free search results) and the paid listings (the ads in the search results) eluded them.”
2. “Despite Publicly Denying Doing So, Google Keeps Blacklists”
To borrow a term from the world of poker, the authors had a few “tells” that pointed to them maybe not actually knowing what they were talking about. One tell could be how they use the word “blacklist.”
It’s an ugly and impactful word. I can see why the authors liked it so much. However, when you use it as a blanket term to describe most any actions Google takes, it loses impact. Google is said to blacklist everything from search terms, to websites, to publishers.
It’s used to describe Google removing sites from their rankings, while it’s also the word they use to describe Google “weighting” websites differently and not allowing certain words in autocomplete. These are all different things.
I don’t know if this word was deliberately chosen to act as a blanket term to resonate with people who don’t know much about SEO, or the author simply didn’t know any better. In either case, it hurts the story.
3. “Algorithmic Changes That Favor Big Businesses Over Smaller Ones”
This is another statement that appears to be made to rile up people who don’t know a lot about SEO. It paints a nasty picture of big bag Google stepping on the small business owner, while elevating their fat cat buddies at eBay, Facebook, and Amazon.
There is just one big problem with that… Wait, actually, there’s like 1,000. But I’ll try to stick to the top 3.
First of all, saying that Google favors big businesses over smaller ones is an incredibly myopic statement. Are small businesses at a disadvantage in the SEO world when competing against major brands? Big time, yes! However, that’s not because the algorithm discriminately seeks to destroy small businesses.
It’s because big businesses have:
- Big web footprints. Many have been around since the dawn of the internet
- Big marketing staffs
- Even bigger marketing budgets
However, a small business can compete against major brands for search engine space. The best SEO agencies in Toronto, like ours, help entrepreneurs fight this battle (and win) every single day.
One of the most puzzling ways the article tried to explore this was pointing to Google’s relationship with eBay. The article quickly contradicts itself by also pointing to the numerous massive issues eBay has had with Google’s algo, which has caused eBay to actually pull their PPC budget on two separate occasions.
So, make up your minds. Are eBay and Google at odds with each other, or in bed together?
To be honest, we could kiss them for using eBay as an example. Because, eBay is the perfect example of how you can’t simply buy SEO or PPC success, no matter how many ads you buy. So, the big businesses have no real advantage over the little guy here. Or, at least not to the extent that this article would have you think.
There was a time where eBay essentially ran PPC ads for anything you could search Google for. The end results were pretty hilarious. If you wanted to buy a baby, or a perpetual motion machine, or even love, eBay claimed to have your hook up.
This is pretty much shotgun blast marketing at its worst, and you can imagine why eBay didn’t feel like they were seeing a return on investment.
Of course, today the SERPs page looks entirely different than it did a few years ago. The adds are now at the top, not on the side.
However, it’s worth noting that having the 1# ad slot is far from a shoo-in that you’re going to get the click.
Your ad can earn more clicks than the one above it if it’s:
- Better written
- Has a better offer
This means small business owners can steal clicks from bigger companies if they take the time to make their ads better.
Smaller companies can also steal the click and the business if the #1 ad lets them down in any way.
Maybe the site is too slow. Or maybe the landing page doesn’t even have the product, service, or offer doesn’t even show up on this page. This is a big problem for major companies because of the sheer volume of PPC ads they buy. They sometimes struggle to make sure the ad and the landing page “agree” or match up.
Small business owners are smaller and more nimble, so they can ensure their PPC game is always dialed in.
As you can see, small business owners can compete with major brands. They simply have to know what they’re doing, or hire an SEO firm that knows what they’re doing.
4. “You’re Kind of Just Left in the Dark”
Just after the eBay example, the WSJ article goes on to chronicle a sudden and alarming traffic drop for the website DealCatcher, who saw a 93% traffic drop overnight. Yikes, we feel for you.
However, the WSJ article says that DealCatcher’s traffic disappeared for “no apparent reason.” Well, yeah… The reason is never apparent. You need highly trained SEO experts to figure it out for you. If the reason was apparent, the solution would be too. You could go “beep boop, fixed.”
The article goes on to say that DealCatcher hired someone to look at the problem and liaise with Google on the issue. Then, magically, the traffic came back one month later.
Was it magic? Or was it something that the SEO person they hired did for them? Maybe, this happened after the Penguin update and DealCatcher was suddenly being punished for a bunch of spammy links out there. That could account for a sudden drop.
If a trained SEO professional audited their link profile and addressed the bad links, that could cause the traffic and rankings to return.
That’s not black magic. That’s SEO magic. But, we suppose that wouldn’t fit with the narrative of the story.
5. “Google Engineers Regularly Make Behind-the-Scenes Adjustments”
Well, duh. Of course, they do. Google has been pretty open about the fact that they changed their search algo 3,000 times in one year.
However, the behind-the-scenes changes that this article is claiming to be insidious start with Google’s autocomplete.
The article states that, “Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.”
There’s that nasty word “blacklists” again.
However, Google has made their treatment of autocomplete searches no secret, publically saying, “we’re careful about not showing predictions that might be shocking or offensive or could have a negative impact on groups or individuals.”
This is no secret and it’s a feature appreciated by most parents.
The WSJ article takes a deep dive into this by comparing the auto-completed results from Google and compares it to DuckDuckGo, who are, according to the article, “a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies.”
This is a bit irksome to SEOs for two reasons.
- The article is somewhat implying that the DuckDuckGo results are what you should be seeing– that these results are somehow interference-free
- I’m not sure why the WSJ worked so hard to prove Google does something that they freely admit they do.
The DuckGoGo results are definitely less-rated-PG. But, to be blunt, do you really care? It’s not like Google will censor your results if you type “Joe Biden is a moron” and press enter.
A Rough Week For Google
As if the WSJ article wasn’t enough to deal with, in the same week, Google also found themselves at the wrong end of an antitrust lawsuit, that also questioned their business practices.
50 of 52 states teamed up to file an anti-trust lawsuit against Google, with California and Alabama having the only two state attorneys general not taking part in it. Google is no stranger to antitrust suits, saying in their blog:
“We have answered many questions on these issues over many years, in the United States as well as overseas, across many aspects of our business, so this is not new for us.”
The Europian Union hit Google with a $1.7 billion antitrust fine in March of this year. Google fined €4.34 billion ($4.9 billion) in July 2018 for forcing their proprietary apps onto Android users, and a €2.4 billion ($2.7 billion) fine for steering consumers to its own shopping platform. In total, they have been fined €8.2 billion ($9.3 billion) since 2017.
However, making a case for an antitrust suit is harder in North America, with a looser definition of monopoly power. Chris Sagers teaches antitrust at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and said that this lawsuit “will be a lot harder here than it was in Europe.”
Haters gonna hate. Journalists gonna journal.
It’s somewhat surprising how an article that claimed to interview over 100 people couldn’t come up with an article that holds more weight.
Even Rand Fishkin (Moz and Sparktoro’s founder), who has been one of Google’s most vocal and visible critics at various times over the years, felt that the writers, “tried to shoehorn a narrative onto facts that don’t fit.”
“There’s a lot of unproven, speculative innuendo about how Google’s blacklists work, about the nefarious motivations behind their decisions, and no statistical or meaningful assessment of whether Google’s decisions are good or bad for businesses or users.”
The ethics of SEO is an incredibly important subject. However, if you’re new to SEO and want to read an article that explores this topic, the WSJ’s report is not the article to read.
It’s essentially being ripped to shreds by most of the experts in the SEO community, including the only expert they actually quoted in it.
If you’d like to speak to an actual SEO expert about Google, we’d love to talk!