The search giant hosts irrelevant ads that are choking out its best qualities. Travel planning is my most effective use of the Web. I’ve found stuff through the Web that locals don’t even know about. It’s a curious feeling to look into the face of a small-business owner after I come to pick up a canoe rental that I booked six months in advance. I remember one particularly awkward moment when the proprietor gestured to the dozens of canoes sitting on racks waiting for the next group of 60 to come streaming through the doors without a reservation.
Much of the fun of travel is in the planning. And the Web gives me a way of seeing my destinations that no other medium can. But something is amiss. In the process of planning for a family vacation to Washington, D.C., for the Cherry Blossom Festival, I noticed that the Web is getting clogged by an explosion of Google ads that have nothing to do with what they say they’re about.
As usual, it was one of our epic road trips in which I cram as many roadside attractions as possible into 1,300 miles of driving each way. As I was Googling all the towns on our route with cool sounding names, like Donegal Pa., I found that most of the results of my searches were just garbage. “Hotels in the Donegal PA area” listed 34 sites that were either about the town in Ireland where they still speak Gaelic, or about hotels in Las Vegas. As I tried to dig deeper, I noticed that the same was true of the ads on travel sites–not one Google ad was pertinent to my specific search query. I’m an expert search researcher, but search after search had similar results. I felt like I was in some kind of Web nightmare in which up was down and right was left and I didn’t know what to click. Clearly, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Just as other media do, the Web needs a strong wall between content and commerce. If content is polluted with commerce, readers and viewers see a distorted picture of their world. When print journalists pander to advertisers, they only tell half-truths that favor their advertisers. And when TV news avoids sensitive content about its advertisers, viewers don’t see the whole truth about the activities of those companies. If they’re found out, media companies lose the trust of their consumers, and without readership or viewership, they eventually lose advertisers the hard way. So they lose their integrity and their businesses. And media consumers suffer with inadequate or downright false information in the process.
On the Web, the affects of polluted content have more to do with what users find related to their searches. When search engines only display information from sponsored links, the results exclude sites that closely match what users want in favor of sites that do not. Often this is merely annoying to users. But it can have far-reaching affects. When I was editor of this publication, it was widely reported that search engines only indexed about a quarter of the content on the Web. The rest of it–sites that did not pay for positions on keyword searches–never appeared in search results. In essence, you had to know the information was there to find it.
Back when I merely searched on keywords rather than Googling them, search was a hit-or-miss proposition. Sometimes I would end up with relevant results, sometimes I wouldn’t. Using Boolean techniques, I’d refine my search queries narrow enough to get some relevant results. But as those sites started paying for position and loading up their metadata with false terms just to drive traffic to their sites, the search experience took a nosedive.
Then along came Google, and the search experience got a whole lot better in a hurry. Google was much better than the competition for two reasons: It banned paid positioning and it created the largest index of Web content in the industry–well over 50 percent of all Web content, by some estimates. In so doing, Google’s founders eliminated the two largest bugaboos of the Web. Google also employed the largest team of editors in the industry to screen sites for hidden metadata. If your content didn’t match your metadata, you could get bumped off the list for certain keywords and phrases.
Though its algorithms were not much better than those used in the rest of the industry, the results were not even in the same ballpark as their competitors. The results were good enough for Google to become the search engine of choice for just about everybody. Even after they started selling Google ads, they did it sensitively enough to not interfere with the quality of the search results. And this was a golden media position to be in.
Google started to decline shortly after the company went public, with an historic IPO that is not likely to be duplicated again. The first thing it added was paid positioning. It’s not paid positioning in the sense that you get to be placed on the top of a list of legitimate search results. It’s more insidious than that. It not only affects results of searches on Google, but any site that uses Google ads to bolster its revenue agrees to host a pile of garbage on its site.
According to the research I’ve read, up to 75 percent of all Google keyword programs are run on autopilot. Marketing managers want to get volume results for their keyword programs. So they have the same M.O. as sites used to have when they loaded up irrelevant metadata into the margins: They add keywords to their programs without considering the quality of the user that clicks through for a visit. They can report higher page views, but the percentage of users that actually orders something at their sites trends towards nothing. If 75 percent of all keyword programs are run this way, three quarters of all Google ads are not even remotely relevant to users’ needs.
This was the cause of my unfortunate wanderings through the once-familiar Web looking for places to spend the night on my way to our nation’s capital. Unlike the days when Google actually screened sites for deceptive practices, there’s no screening of the keyword programs. The result is a big garbage pile deposited on the front doors of sites that attempt to cheat the system by bringing in users who have no business being there. While Google ad buyers hope that visitors will do some business while they’re ducking into the store out of the rain, the reality is that more often than not, the experience causes a negative brand reaction towards the deceptive company.
Oddly enough, Google has been spending the huge pile of cash from its IPO on all kinds of Web services–like Google Earth–that are really cool and useful. They’ve also been buying up Internet infrastructure like a banker snapping up foreclosed farms during the Depression. Supposedly, they will soon have a data enter loaded with the full Google in the top 100 towns in America, all connected by the fattest fiber pipes in the industry. But amid all the spending and building, Google has abandoned what got it here in the first place–preventing content from being polluted by commerce.
If it doesn’t get the keyword program under control, Google might lose a sizable proportion of its search users to Ask.com or others. After my journey through the keyword Land of Oz, I might end up making my own maps of our next destination.
James Mathewson is editor at large for ComputerUser and technical knowledge offering manager for the IBM ISV Business Strategy and Enablement organization.