There won’t be too many businesses who’ll admit to it, but many often search for their own businesses on the search engines. They do this not as a matter of vanity, but simply to check whether they have managed to reach, or more importantly retain first page ranking on the search engines. Now, you may wonder why businesses would waste their time doing this. Well, it’s simple enough really. Search engine rankings are vitally important for all businesses, especially small ones: if you’re not on the first couple of pages of Google, ranking for your chosen keywords, the chances are you won’t get the click through business you’re striving for. The problem is you can play everything by the book and optimise your website so that you are in a position to attract as much business as possible, but if the organisation that runs the search engine is constantly changing the rules and moving the goal posts, you could find yourself at a distinct disadvantage without even knowing it.
We all know that Google is the world’s pre-eminent search engine, accounting for over 65% of US search and over 80% of all European searches. Effectively it has become almost a monopoly. If you don’t rank highly on Google, then you’re going nowhere, unless of course you’re prepared to pay for the privilege with targeted advertising. We’ve all also no doubt heard of the Panda update and the changes Google made to its algorithm earlier this year. The result of that update was that many undeserving business found that their search engine rankings had plummeted, though they were at a loss to understand why this had happened. Well, it transpires that the Panda update was but just one algorithm tweak. Google has now let it be known that it changed its search engine formula about 500 times in 2010 alone. So, what are businesses to do? How are they to even begin to second-guess what information it is that Google wants from them?
The answer is they can’t. All any website can try to do is to stick to what they believe Google wants from them. All we know at the moment is that Google’s three major ranking criteria are keywords, unique content and the number of other sites linking back to your own website. Apart from that it’s all a bit of a blur. There are apparently 200 differing determining factors in the algorithm, but for strategic reasons, Google is not prepared to divulge what these are. All Google has ever admitted to is that these adjustments are made to make the search engine rankings more user-friendly, though not many small businesses would necessarily agree with that. According to Google:
“We can’t divulge the actual ranking signals or details about each change we make because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for all users. We built Google for consumers, not websites. Not every website can come out on top, or even appear on the first page of our results, so there will almost always be website owners who are unhappy about their rankings. The most important thing is that we satisfy our users.”
So, will Google be allowed to carry on acting as it is, and monopolising both the search engine results and targeted advertising? Well, maybe not. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice are currently examining whether Google has become an anti-competitive monopoly that requires federal intervention, and is unfairly using its influence to gain an advantage for its own services and advertising clients. The Antitrust Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee will seek explanation this week in testimony from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and is expected to question the CEO about ranking formulas, as well as placement of paid advertising and links to Google products that might confuse customers who think they are looking at unbiased rankings.
To prove that Google is improperly limiting competition, the government must demonstrate that the company’s business practices serve primarily to downgrade competitors and mislead consumers. Being dominant, alone, doesn’t warrant federal intervention, nor is a violation of the law to be a monopoly.
The case is not expected to conclude this week, and it’s unlikely that Google will be forced to divulge information it considers to be protected or anti-competitive. It’s also uncertain whether the committee will have the powers to force Google to change its ways should collusion be suspected. Therefore, until such time as the case is concluded, it might be worth a business’s while continuing to search for itself on the SERPs just to make sure that all remains well.