Google, the world’s most successful Internet company, got so big because so many people have loved its search engine for so long. Lately, though, some folks have become really angry with Google. They’re saying that it’s mistreating the small businesses whose sites show up in its search results.
Small Business and Internet Marketing Influence via Google
In a ZDNet blog post titled “Google’s highly profitable war against small businesses and jobs,” my friend Tom Foremski accuses Google of … well, waging a highly profitable secret war against small businesses and jobs.
‘Panda’ Bites Back
Foremski accuses the company of tweaking its search results to keep visitors on Google’s own pages rather than sending them to sites operated by small companies. Google initiatives such as research into self-driving cars, he says, are intended to divert the attention of journalists, thereby discouraging them from asking questions about these search-engine changes.
Then there’s an organization called Saving Small Business. It’s agitated about “Panda,” the code name Google gave a set of changes it made to its search algorithm earlier this year. Panda aims to emphasize high-quality sites and push down junky ones. But Saving Small Business maintains that Panda “is destroying small business and jobs” by accidentally penalizing good sites along with the bad.
The organization says that Google isn’t doing enough to explain how companies can maintain high rankings. It also carps that Panda led to layoffs in the search-engine optimization business.
Speaking of search-engine optimization, SEO export Aaron Wall argues that the search engine now favors big brands over everyone else, making it tough for little guys to compete. He’s created an infographic that states his case.
Google Goes Nuclear?
My instinct is usually to side with small companies over behemoths like Google. In this case, however, I’m conflicted.
Sure, I feel for hard-working businesses that have been negatively impacted by changes at Google. I understand why it’s an emotional issue. (Among the metaphors for Google’s search-engine changes used by company owners quoted at Saving Small Business: arson, napalm, nuclear warfare, and a blind man randomly shooting a rifle.)
There’s a crucial lesson for businesses of all sizes here, though. It’s always risky when your company is too dependent on any single organization, whether it’s one major customer or one major search engine.
Google, of course, isn’t just a major search engine: It controls around two-thirds of the search market. You can’t do business on the Web without having a strategy for getting found on Google.
But you also need a strategy for getting found without Google’s help — or at least without as much help as you’d like. A high placement in its search engine was never an entitlement, and it’s self-destructive to act like it is.
Anyone who’s been paying attention already knew that a company’s ranking in Google results can be fragile. In 2002, a company called SearchKing sued Google when its results tumbled. In 2006, a site called KinderStart filed a similar suit. Both cases were dismissed.
Google isn’t required to guarantee that any company, large or small, will get a great position in its results. It’s also not responsible for preserving the jobs that small businesses create. It’s just a profit-making enterprise that’s under intense, continuous scrutiny — and no matter what it does with its search engine, it’s going to make some people unhappy.
Before it rolled out the Panda update, for instance, the company was taking a drubbing in the media from pundits and rivals who said its results were too spammy. It dealt with the problem in part by demoting sites with lots of affiliate links and little original content, characteristics which are often a sign of poor quality. But especially at first, the changes it made hurt some good sites, too.
Still, I can’t imagine that even the most furious small-business owners would vote to go back to the Web as it existed before Google debuted in 1998. Back then, it was far harder for anyone to find anything on the Internet. By improving search so dramatically, Google let small companies introduce themselves to the world in a way that was utterly new.
The News Isn’t All Bad
Even some of the facts presented by Google’s critics show that it remains a boon to small businesses.
For example, Foremski’s post includes figures that show ad revenue from the ads Google places on partner sites — such as those operated by countless small businesses — growing at a slower rate than revenue from the ads on Google’s own sites. That’s a change from last year, when ads on partner sites outpaced ones on Google itself. But partner-site revenue isn’t shrinking. It’s just increasing at a less robust clip — still in double digits — than it did in 2010.
So what’s the best way to think about Google as a source of customers for your company?
I’d start by maintaining a healthy skepticism about advice provided by search-engine optimization consultants. As Google’s Panda changes proved, SEO trickery that works well one day can fizzle the next.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to increase your site’s chances of ranking high in Google in a more permanent manner. In this blog post, SEO expert Wall provides some smart tips for doing just that. (A lot of it boils down to “be useful and original.”)
If you’re not using Google’s AdWords service to put your company’s ads in front of people who search Google for keywords relevant to your business, I’d consider doing so. It’s the only way to guarantee yourself a prominent spot on Google.
You should also look beyond Google, thinking about how you’ll reach people on services such as Facebook. These days, your company’s social-network strategy is just as important its search-engine strategy.
I don’t mean to be completely contrarian here. Sitting on the first page of Google results for searches relating to your business is a wonderful thing. We all know that.
Ultimately, though, it’s a little like owning a beautiful home in an area which you know is prone to mudslides. It’s fine to enjoy it while you can, as long as you understand that it might not last forever. And if disaster does strike, being prepared is much, much more productive than being angry.