The overarching goals and philosophies of Google have shifted significantly over time, but how they approach those goals remain fairly consistent.
In the early days of Google, the search engine became beloved of tech savvy people both for delivering relevant results and for their overall philosophies. Their motto of “Don’t be Evil” resonated with their users and their philosophy for their search results was that they tried to get users to leave their site as quickly as possible. After all, the sooner they can deliver a good result, the better the user experience.
In recent years many former Google fans have noted a fairly drastic departure from their founding philosophies. Google’s shopping results are paid inclusion only — something the Google founders once explicitly said was inherently evil and would always lead to biased results that were bad for users. Google is monetizing their results more aggressively than ever and leverages their monopoly to try to force users into their other products, like Google+,
Google’s philosophy now seems to be to make as much money as possible, and to actually try to keep users on a Google site for a long as possible. They really want users to either click on a paid result, or click on a result that leads to another Google property where they have another chance to deliver ads. They appear to have shifted the bar to optimize a bit more for profit and a bit less for user experience metrics (getting people away from Google as quickly as possible).
Ultimately Google is a private company and they can do what they want with their results – though at least in the EU regulators are starting to clamp down on them — and our job as SEOs is to react to how they change.
But regardless of what Google is optimizing for, the way that they do it remains pretty much the same. Google runs thousands of tests each year. Some of these tests are for changes that are virtually invisible to the average searcher, and some changes are substantial.
Google A/B tests their results constantly. They take a very small percentage of searchers and show them a different version of Google, which is the change that they’re testing. If that test group responds to the new version in a way Google likes better, that version is deployed. Google is running many of these tests every day.
How they measure success for a test is open for debate. We know they used to consider getting someone to leave Google as quickly as possible, and for as long as possible, to be a success. A lot of changes in the last few years suggest that’s no longer the number one metric for success. If a user clicks on a result lower in the SERPs that was generally considered a bad thing, and likely still is. That click on result number 7 or 8 implies that the first few results weren’t the best ones possible. This metric is almost certainly one that Google still tracks. Google also constantly evaluates their ad listings in a similar way: they are continually trying to optimize their ads to show the best and most relevant ads to users — because after all, they’re a business and they only make money when someone clicks an ad.
The point of this section isn’t to suggest that Google is out to get you or to do away with organic results — they’re not. Their success hinges on delivering good-enough search results (they no longer need to deliver the best) and so they will always have to do a pretty good job of showing organic results.
But on the other hand, Google isn’t your friend either. If you do something wrong in your SEO pursuits and your site suddenly fails to rank in organic results at all, I can promise you that no one at Google is going to take your call. There’s no customer service email either — no customer service at all for organic search, which is after all a free service. For SEO you’re on your own in a constantly changing landscape.
Fun story: I once worked for a company that spent tens of millions of dollars a month on Google ads. We were invited to Google HQ regularly and had access to the top guys on the ads team. When we had an issue with something on the organic search side the company applied as much pressure as possible, including emails back and forth between VPs and the CEO and the top Google ads guys. This resulted in absolutely nothing (as it shouldn’t of course — the wall between the Google ad teams and the search teams is very real).
Google is not quite as bad as I’m making it sound, but I do want to stress that if you engage in risky tactics, or even just look similar to a risky tactic to the algorithm, you could quickly find yourself up the creek. And once there, no one at Google is going to give you a paddle.
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