ORLANDO, FLORIDA-Bing recently attacked Google about changes made to Google’s Shopping section last year and the lack of disclosure they provide search users about it.
Bing launched a huge campaign against Google complete with full-page newspaper advertisements, commercials on television and a shiny new website, scroogled.com, to draw attention to the changes Google made. The home page of the site explains their beef with Google: “In the beginning, Google preached, ‘Don’t be evil’-but that changed on May 31, 2012. That’s when Google Shopping announced a new initiative. Simply put, all of their shopping results are now paid ads.”
It goes on to say that limiting choices and ranking them by payment the way Google is doing means consumers get Scroogled. Bing points out that it is unclear to the user that Google is including only certain companies. Then they encourage people to try Bing “for an honest search result.”
The only problem with their campaign is that according to some industry experts Bing is guilty of exactly the same thing, which kind of takes the oomph out of their claims of moral superiority and honest search results.
“I’ve been one of the biggest critics about Google’s change, which has indeed been largely under-the-radar,” says Danny Sullivan, an SEO expert and the former editor of Search Engine Land. “Unfortunately, Bing is hardly in a position to be lecturing Google about poor disclosure and charging for listings, when it has the same issues.”
He published an in-depth piece that explains what Google has changed about its Shopping section and compares how the two search engines disclose information to consumers.
“No matter who’s doing it, search engines forcing businesses to pay for inclusion on their shopping sites without clearly indicating that to consumers is wrong,” says Ali Husayni, the CEO of Millionairium.
While the Scroogled campaign has focused on Google’s changes to the Shopping section, regular search results are being infected, too. There are more advertisements and sponsored content pushing the organic results farther down the page, which impacts SEO and search users as well. Google ads show up in the top two or three spots of a normal search result. There is a section at the bottom of the page with more ads from Google.
Here’s an example of how that affects a search for “dog helmet.” For this search, Google has a row of sponsored thumbnail pictures pulled from their shopping section and a row of images for dog helmets before they ever get to the first organic result.
Someone using a standard monitor or laptop won’t even see the website like Rockstar Puppy in the third spot of organic results without scrolling down.
Consider how the sponsored ads might affect the amount of traffic and business the website gets, and ask yourself if the average user would be able to tell the difference between an ad and organic result.
“Sponsored ads aren’t bad,” says Husayni, who has run an organic SEO company since 2004. “They’re a great resource, but people should be able to clearly see what Google has put there because they’re being paid to, and what is an organic search result.”
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission created guidelines in 2002 about how search engines should disclose paid placement and paid inclusion listings (for more information visit the article). But as Sullivan said in his letter to the FTC about search engine disclosure compliance, “The search engine industry has either largely forgotten these guidelines or is ignoring them.”
Search engine users are the ones losing out here while search engines profit from the ads and sponsored content. Maybe it just means that until there are better measures in place to protect consumers—and even after there are—consumers need to be smarter about their Internet use. Google and every other search engine is a business when it comes down to it, and they have to turn a profit. Unfortunately, that seems to be at the expense of their original mission as a search engine.
“Google should stick to their principle of being honest,” says Husayni. “That’s what got them successful in the first place, in addition to a strong search algorithm. The danger of what they’re doing is that it could alienate its users.”
Let’s hope that they do decide to move back toward their earlier “don’t be evil” days and make changes to their disclosures. However, if you’re going to be concerned about informing consumers, should that extend to the SEO industry too? At this point, getting a top 10 Google ranking in organic search results is pay-to-play. Businesses that want to show up on the first page of Google have to use a professional SEO company, have an SEO consulting expert on call or their own in-house SEO to be successful.
A small percentage of search engine users have probably heard of SEO but how many of them could actually give a working definition of what SEO does? When they type in a search query, people trust that the results provided are the most relevant to their search. But when businesses and companies have to have an SEO campaign to compete—even one that is squeaky-clean—that isn’t necessarily true.
What do you think, do consumers deserve to know about SEO and how it effects search results placement?