Google’s advertising business is showing signs of slowing as CPCs decline and market share is lost. Meanwhile, Facebook continues to forge ever-closer ties with Bing - and the combined power and reach of those two online giants poses a serious and growing threat to Google’s dominance of the search market.
That's the motive explained. Here's the means by which Google appears to be assaulting the SEO industry - and the opportunities it may be exploiting in order to do so.
1. Not Provided Keywords
The SEO industry has seen a dramatic rise in traffic from "Not Provided" keywords - a trend that shows no signs of slowing as Google encrypts ever more search queries. If you work in SEO then you'll find this chart all too familiar.
Google claims they encrypt keywords to protect user privacy - but that's just nonsense because they still provide full keyword data via Google Webmaster Tools! The only real difference is that you can't use that data to measure revenue from SEO. That's a very important difference to Google - because they don't make a penny from SEO, only from their paid ads.
Marketers aren't asking for user data - just clean search query data, the same data seen in Webmaster Tools, just linked to transactions and revenue. So what's the problem? Clearly there is no genuine problem - except that Google may not want people to measure the revenue generated by SEO - as opposed to Google Adwords campaigns.
To make matters worse, search share from tablets and smartphones is growing - and Google compells new users of its Android mobile operating system to log in or register. After which, of course, searches are encrypted and hidden from Google Analytics. The next version of Google's web browser, Chrome 25, will encrypt searches by default. Google may be using its growing strength in the mobile and tablet markets to encrypt even more searches.
2. Fewer organic search results
There have been signs that Google also intends to literally reduce the number of organic search results - so that the balance of visible results would shift in favour of Adwords results. This issue has been covered extensively - notably in this article on SEOmoz.
3. Withdrawing Google data from SEO tools
Google has been systematically investigating providers of SEO ranking software - and forcing them to either stop using Google Adwords data or stop tracking rankings. Some, like Raven Tools, were forced to abandon their rank-tracking facilities - and just offer Adwords data instead. So they have changed from SEO tools to Google Adwords tools. Marketers need both sets of information together in order to track SEO campaigns effectively, but Google doesn't seem to want us to track SEO campaigns effectively. only PPC campaigns. This seemingly sinister activity by Google could put some software companies out of business. Not nice.
4. Larger paid results
Adwords ad extensions and experiments are increasingly crowding out the organic results below them. From sitelinks to phone numbers, map links, images, product lists, star ratings and even lead generation forms, these extensions take up more and more space. For some competitive searches only two or three organic results can be seen below the enormous, screen-hogging Adwords ads.
5. Google Shopping has gone - to Adwords
Just to squeeze a little more activity through Adwords, after many years of offering Google Shopping listings for free the platform was shut down - at least for free/organic search results. Effectively Google Shopping has become an extension of Adwords. Anybody sensing desperation here, on the part of Google? It gets worse.
6. More eye-catching Ads
Google further emphasises its bias towards Adwords results by making paid results far more eye-catching than organic results - and not to improve the overall user experience. Just the Adwords user experience.
- Google Shopping images are only shown in Adwords results
- Star ratings are only shown in Adwords
Google is perfectly capable of displaying product images and star ratings in organic results - indeed, as we have seen, they used to provide free product image ads through Google Shopping, as a separate platform to Adwords. I used to love that about Google. But now those eye-catching, click-through-rate-boosting images are reserved for Google's paying customers. Star ratings have only ever been available in paid ads. That only helps Adwords advertisers - not customers and not Google's users (unless they want to click on a paid ad).
These changes may help Google protect its enormous revenues from paid search - and Google may appear to be in control here. But make no mistake: the brands are in control of the Adwords revenue and they can take it away.
More important, though, is the fact that we the people are in charge of the internet. We decide what succeeds and what fails by making our choice. In the long-term, in my view, these changes will alienate brands and customers alike, leaving Google isolated.
The original Google concept was to give people the best possible search results. That's what people want, not the highest bidder, not intrusive ads. There's the inevitable tension between commercial interests and people. But if history reveals one thing it is that, in the end, the people always win.
Search results dominated by expensive, eye-catching paid results from the biggest brands may crowd out small sellers and prevent new businesses from entering the market. That will only harm the market.
Google is doing things that are bad for most businesses who can't compete with brands. It is doing things that are bad for users, which can only lead to a decline in Google's popularity.
Google knows that competitors like Microsoft, Facebook and Apple are poised to exploit Google's weaknesses over the next few years. Google may look unbeatable right now - but if there's one thing that characterises technology, business and the web, it is constant change.
I smell change in the wind. Change for Google. Change for the search market. And change for the web.
Change for the better perhaps.