Reading Shane Moore’s letter, you could smell the burned air, see the cracking flash of lightning and dark clouds of righteousness swirling around the 1980s-era peach-coloured office complex on the edge of Brisbane’s CBD.
Inside, through one of its arched window portals, one might have seen Moore typing it out. He was concerned, not for himself, but his friends in the insurance brokerage industry and other small businesses. Moore’s TradeRisk is an unhappy participant in a story ripped from the bible: David takes on Goliath, but this time the Goliath was winning, and the Goliath had friends.
“When a prospective customer searches on Google for a product or service, more often than not they are now being directed to a big business rather than a small business,” Moore wrote. He fights an everyday battle to stop his website tumbling down Google’s rankings.
“The thing that bothers me is waking up each morning and wondering whether those search rankings are still going to be there,” he says.
Moore, one of two managing directors of brokerage TradeRisk spends nearly all day working on websites. He does this because he understands the link between having a strong web presence and getting work for his small business and its five staff. But his job is getting harder.
The David and Goliath metaphor isn’t perfect. There’s a different mechanism at play here, but it’s equally curious.
Central to our story is the internationally-dominant search engine, Google. Other players are the thousands of search engine optimisation companies, who have been documenting and graphing these curious goings-on. This story is about the ways Google ranks websites and the way it feeds useful information back to website operators so they can upgrade their rankings and see what works, or, as is increasingly the case, what used to.
Everyone wants to be on page one of Google’s search results. It’s a good way to get business leads because not many people flick past page three. Studies suggest 95% of users click on a link on the front page, as reported on Search Engine Watch.
In the early days, when marketing on the internet was still finding its feet, SEO pros would load their pages with keywords just for Google’s search computers to find. The more relevant keywords appeared in pages, the higher the sites would appear on the rankings. This was helped by the fact that website owners could see what web users were searching for before they landed on their sites.
Say you sell shoes, and you have a website. You’re just a small shoe store so you only want people to see your range, know where to find you, and maybe find out a bit of your story. But your site is falling behind your competitors’. What you would do is use the free analytics from Google to tailor your websites to use the words web users type into Google to find your site. Whammo. Your site moves up the ranks.
But there was a third player in this game: the spammer. Their goal was to get clicks on gambling sites, or the other dark regions of the web. They know that shoes are popular so they load up their gambling sites with keywords for shoes and suddenly they start to appear when users are looking for footwear. You wanted sneakers, you get the jackpot.
Something had to be done, and along the way Google has been fine-tuning the way they present search results to weed out the dodgy or irrelevant results and fill page one with what you want. Part of this process is a decision to crowd-source relevance, which made Google unique and dominant early on. They trusted the web to reference to sites which held useful information, and ignore those sites which weren’t talked about.
Google manages to skim through the web pretty thoroughly, so it can pull together vast amounts of links and pages to see which sites are being linked to, and which ones were being left out. Sites which were trusted, had relevance, or were otherwise interconnected were to be given prominence.
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However spammers began to launch vast networks of fake blogs and shares on social networks to convince Google their phony sites were worthy of page one for a search of “shoes”. Google has fought back over the past three years.
Google’s latest algorithm, Hummingbird, is the newest in a series of major changes to the way the search engine organises the web. It’s also tried to glean other information from users such as their location, and the “meaning” behind search words, to give a more relevant result.
People like Moore understand that to get pole position without paying for an ad you had to be relevant. He spends his time writing articles, sharing them around and basking in the success that comes with being ranked second on the page of Google’s search results for “public liability insurance”. To do this, he registered publicliabilityinsurance.com.au and regularly updates its content.
“We give away a lot of really good information on the site, hopefully people see us as a bit of an authority and come to us,” he says.
But Moore has seen his counterparts in the SME insurance brokerages tumble down the results. With a search for public liability insurance, page one offers AAMI as the first site, followed by Moore’s company, then Allianz, a Federal government information page, GIO, QBE, CGU and on it goes.
Moore has a theory. “They’re putting more focus on mentions as opposed to links, and that’s where the big brand ranks really blow out,” he said. “They get a mention in the media all the time, whereas the little guys barely do.”
Remember those spammers, hijacking the footwear buyer traffic with unwanted search results? Google recently put a stop to that, and other snooping on popular search terms by encrypting search requests, in the wake of the discovery that US agencies were spying on metadata and gleaning what people were looking for online. They announced, in their blog, that they would be encrypting their sites, so that a third party can’t spy on traffic between user’s computer and Google. Google’s move towards security made it harder for spies and spammers but also meant websites can’t be static storefronts, they have to fight for business and find new ways to measure success.
It has had an unintended impact on small business. As SmartCompany reported yesterday, from July-August the helpful way Google told website owners what their users searched for to find their page in the results dwindled away. www.notprovidedcount.com is a site that is counting down the days until there is no feedback on search terms from Google. Where once our shoe store might have seen that their visitors searched Google for high heels, pumps, laces or boots, now they see ‘(not provided)’ in their analytics results.
One way around this is to pay for an ad on Google. The shaded-out paid ads at the top of the search results get the double-benefit of topping the list and finding out what users searched for. The problem with paying for an ad is the cost, says Reprise Media’s director of organic search and analytics David Coats. Ads are charged per-click based on the search term’s popularity, so an unpopular search term, let’s say it’s ‘brussel sprouts’, would only cost 0.50c when someone followed the paid link to the brussel sprouts supermarket, whereas a search for shoes or insurance might have a paid ad at the top worth $50 a click.
A google spokesman added: “If a site is concerned about its performance on Google, we advise webmasters to review our general design, technical and quality guidelines for basic tips on how to improve their site’s quality. We provide a range of free tools and resources to help small business owners optimise their websites such as our webmaster guidelines and our tips for a Google-friendly site.”
One free tool they suggest website operators use will report back search terms used for the past 90 days. Other SEO professionals have suggested using the feedback other search engines like Bing still provide.
But Coats says feedback has gone missing, at least partially, from the web marketing game. “We still engage with the same tactics and do the same things to help our clients. The overall impact is on measuring success,” said Coats. “[But] now we can’t tell our clients what keyword worked.”
Moore and Coats both say Google is likely doing this to weed out irrelevant results, and so far the evidence is clear that the search algorithm has a front page full of quick information and varied results from useful sources. Try looking for plumbers in Carlton or electricians in Darlinghurst, Google gives a listing of names and phone numbers of small businesses and sole traders like the White Pages. This is part of the knowledge graph, which collates information and presents it on Google’s search results, rather than sending searchers to look elsewhere. Try “compare Empire State building to Chrysler building” and it brings you the knowledge graph and forum entries and articles which do just that. Search is smarter.
But the advice SEO professionals like Coats and practitioners like Moore give is that the days of quick, easy leaps up the rankings are gone. Google’s move towards security made it harder for spies and spammers but also meant websites can’t be static storefronts, they have to hustle for business.
“It is a challenge for a small business. It’s forcing businesses to give their customers something, to give them what they want, rather than thinking about what’s the highest ranking keyword,” Coats says.
Like publicliabilityinsurance.com.au, successful websites need to offer material that gets shared and republished until Google notices it as a popular entity. And by that, Google means a well referenced, recognised and respected site that is interlinked to the rest of the web. “When you’re a bigger brand you have more of a chance to become that entity than if you are a smaller brand,” says Coats.
It’s no longer easy to game the algorithm, and results don’t come cheap either. Web-focused businesses have to invest more time into their sites to achieve the same results, and with fewer cues to tell them they’re getting it right. “Businesses like ours depend so heavily on Google rankings, it’s definitely a concern,” says Moore. It could lead to more sleepless nights.