A while back Google released an update meaning that users would, after carrying out a navigational search for a site, be offered the option to search within that site – on Google. I thought it was a bad idea at the time & I still do.
I wrote about this move when Gooogle’s search within a site feature first came out and was surprised that it didn’t raise more hackles at the time so I’m glad that it’s now getting the attention it deserves a, to me, it stinks of Google overstepping a few boundaries. I’ll quickly summarise the points I raised in my original post before going on to those the New York Times raises, and why Andy seems, to me at least, to have got this one wrong.
Google is, obviously, presenting this as something aimed at helping users (apparently lots of people search for the name of a site, and then carry out another search to find the particular content they’re after); what I wonder though is whether this has the potential to hurt publishers.
You see, when users come to a site and search for information on that site, it can do two things;
- Firstly it can generate revenue; if a site’s commercial model is based on CPM (where advertisers pay based on how many times the ad is ’seen’) then this would mean that ads are less likely to be served on search results pages within the site itself. Instead the search is done on Google which, of course, serves its own AdWords.
- It could starve publishers of valuable user data. One of the best sources of keyword research data is studying the words & phrases that users enter into internal search boxes. Now this data will reside with Google and, whilst it will be possible to find it if they do end up clicking through to a page (by checking the log files or analytics) it’s unlikely to be as comprehensive.
I still think that publishers & other site owners have a right to feel aggrieved about any move, no mater how well intentioned, that has the above implications. However the issues the Times raises, which I missed, is in many ways much worse; it actually verges on suggesting that the whole move has rather dubious intentions.
Take, for instance, a situation last week, when users of Google searched The Washington Post and were given a secondary search box. Those who typed “jobs” into that second box saw related results for The Post’s employment pages, but the results were bordered by ads for competing employment sites like CareerBuilder or Monster.com.
So even though users began the process by stating their intention to reach The Post, Google’s ads steered at least some of them to competitors.
Now Andy argues that this is no big deal.
If I search for YOUR COMPANY and then decide to shop elsewhere–after using a site search for YOUR SITE and seeing an AdWords ad–how strong was my relationship with you in the first place?
But the thing that this misses is the fact that this move seems to mean that Google now has a way of showing ads against terms which would otherwise be blocked because they are protected brands. Personally I think this is just sophistry on Google’s part, pure & simple. If I search for a protected brand and then go on to use the site search function, that doesn’t mean that the terms suddenly stopped being protected. In many ways its the exact opposite as Google is, to all intents & purposes, putting itself forward as the brand’s own search function & there is no way that I would allow a competitor to advertise on my own site.
And as for the issue of whether a brand should be strong enough to deal with competiting ads, well… it’s just not relevant. If we accept that many people now use Google as a default browser, even going so far as to type in URLs, I think we can accept that if someone types in Washington Post, they want to be taken to the Washington Post. And, therefore, that if someone uses this new site search, they probably expect to only be shown content from that site. It’s not a matter of brand strength or reputation, it’s simply about usability & user expectations on the one hand, and Google taking the piss on the other.
After all, if I’m using Firefox and type Washington Post into the address bar I’m taken, via a Google search, to the Washington Post site. Christ, I only have to type face into the address bar for Google to assume that I want to go to Facebook. So why, when I actually use Google, should all these hurdles be placed in my way?
I don’t want this post to turn into a rant, so I won’t even get on to the fact that this could deprive retailers of the ability to highlight special offers & the like, which would normally be shown against internal search pages; or the fact that, for this to work, all the pages of a site have to be indexed, so it will penalise sites which have not been optimised (I know that there’s barely any excuse for that anyway, but that’s not the point); or the fact that, shock horror, sometimes Google’s results aren’t the best way of finding things – after all, internal search systems often allow a user to filter results by date, price, category & lots of other things other than a secret algorithm.
I love Google – I really do; it makes my online life better is so many ways. And I guess that’s why I get so disappointed when they screw up like this. The only thing I hope is that users never take to this function (a result that wouldn’t surprise me) and it withers on the vine.
Pirate cupcakes by slushpup on Flickr