Issues at the Heart of Google’s Business Model

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There is some darkness at the heart of Google’s services, and my own tendency to dramatic hyperbole notwithstanding, I intend to highlight these structural problems in the search engine world, to make sure my clients and readers are aware that the money they invest in search engine marketing and organic search may be partly or completely wasted. Abuse continues to run rampant across the digital space we call the internet. To learn even more about SEO and how it affects your site, check out our Search Engine Optimization and Marketing page.

First, is the ever-present algorithm abuse. As I’ve written about many times, manipulative search engine tactics clutter the web with garbage, mostly, and are constantly evolving to thwart the new adjustments Google and Bing are making all the time to ferret out and penalize these types of activities.

Google drives new bad behaviors trying to fix old bad behaviors, and so far, the cycle goes round and round with no end in site. These structural problems can be bad for our businesses, as I intend to highlight here.
[x_custom_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″]Negative SEO[/x_custom_headline]
“Wait,” someone will sometimes object, “Google’s focus on rewarding good websites with great content and penalizing link farms and other manipulative tactics can only help the well-intentioned small business owner, right?”

If only.

Within weeks of the Panda and Penguin updates a few years back (those notorious Google algorithm updates that caused the largest one-day shake-up of search result rankings in Google’s history) we saw our first opportunists exploiting the penalty system! How does one exploit the penalty system exactly?

You will know the answer if you’ve ever received advertising around “Negative SEO” or “Google Penalty Services”. There are service providers that are now selling their abusive methods that worked a few years ago, as a process to be applied to your competitor!

Sign your competitor up for link farms, bad forum and blog comment placements, and other known-bad tactics, and watch your competitor be penalized by Google.

Brilliant! If you’re an asshole. This insidious practice is so far beyond the pale, that it sheds new light on the type of people who have been trying to game Google’s search results all along. There are no scruples. Nothing sacred. Just, “Hey remember that awful stuff we were doing to trick Google? We can still make money doing that after Penguin and Panda! Sell it as a business-harming tactic to apply to one’s competitors!” Everyone in the asshole-room high-fives at this brilliant idea, and innocent people continue to be harmed routinely.

Thanks for that, fellas. And ladies. (Sorry. My sexist intuition blames guys for this, for some reason.)

There are myriad anecdotes on this type of practice. WP Site Care had a great post about negative SEO last year explaining their own story. There are remedies highlighted in the article if you’ve already become a victim of this type of tactic, but for small businesses relying on their few qualified clicks per month, it doesn’t take much to send them right down the tubes.
[x_custom_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″]Click Fraud[/x_custom_headline]
Right along-side negative SEO, we see Pay-Per-Click abuse.

Almost since the start of PPC, Google has highlighted the work they do to prevent “click fraud” for their paying customers.

The story goes that you have started a new PPC campaign, and your competitor finds out, and gets their staff to click on your ads to “burn through” your daily budget.

The most obvious version of this is indeed easy for Google to catch, and they’ve publicly stated many times that they filter out “bad” clicks coming from the same IP multiple times, for example.

They also highlight that PPC users can go into their own accounts and deliberately filter out IP addresses or even IP ranges from ever seeing their ads.

Great!

Except IP address is an unreliable signal. There are many ways to mask or even change IP addresses often enough, that a small network of motivated individuals can still wreak havoc on small campaigns. Sure, if you have a $10,000/day budget for Ad Words, no amount of hi-jinks is likely to throw off your total qualified traffic enough to close your business.

But what about the folks with $10/day budgets? In many cases, that’s only a handful of qualified clicks per day. It would take almost no effort to burn through such a campaign budget, from a few PCs, in very little time.

Alarmed yet?

Because the abuse gets even more subtle than an obtuse, fraudulent clicking frenzy. Let’s pretend that Google’s work here is enough to make campaign click fraud a thing of the past (I laughed out loud when I typed that).
[x_custom_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″]Non-Click Fraud[/x_custom_headline]
What is non-click fraud? Well that’s my name for a relatively new tactic; one that promises to be harder to detect, but every bit as harmful and disruptive to the small-business owner.

Essentially, non-click fraud exploits Google’s PPC algorithm that calculates your cost per click. Because Google wants advertisers that are adding value to their search ecosystem, and because they want to discourage advertisers from buying up PPC ads that have little to do with their business, but a lot to do with their competitors business, they increase the total cost per click if your campaign appears to be less relevant to searchers. And by having triggers that can drive up the bidding cost in a campaign, Google left the door open to artificially drive up a campaign’s cost per click (CPC).

An example would be searching for a term you know your competitor bids on. By simply revealing the ad, Google ticks off an “impression” for your ad. It was shown and maybe seen by a user, hence it’s an impression. When a user is shown your ad and does not click, Google makes a note that your campaign may not be a valuable thing to display users for that search. It’s subtle, but hundreds or thousands of impressions generates more meaningful data, and can really lead to increased expense on a campaign.

A terrific article from Workshop Digital outlines how to identify this type of fraud, and steps you can take to stop the practice. The problem I see with fighting this tactic as a small-business is the same problem I see in preventing click-fraud. Small businesses aren’t going to be able to afford full-time resources to detect and thwart these tactics. It may take weeks or months for non-click fraud to be easily detectable, and if you follow the steps in the article above, the bots doing the work probably need only a few tweaks to get other long-tail keywords to trigger your ads.

To be fair, there are many anecdotes of Google being fair and even proactive in refunding campaign funds that were used up during a fraudulent situation. But what is also true is that the smallest campaign telling this great story about Google customer service and refunds that I was able to find was a $1000/day budget. It would certainly be easier to detect foul play when you have thousands of searches and clicks to evaluate.

Here again, the forensics tends to fall apart pretty quickly for the folks buying just a few clicks a day. And a few clicks a day can still cost hundreds a month. I know of no small business owner who would be happy knowing he’s wasting $350 month, but that the fraud leading to that waste would be hard or impossible to prove…

So what is the answer?

Stop advertising on Google? Increase your spend to make fraud much harder to achieve? Ugh.

If one or two mom and pop operations stop their $300/month budgets, Google wouldn’t even notice. But if there is a sea-change in our collective confidence in Google’s ability to protect the little guy trying to play in the big sandbox of Google, they risk shedding whole segments of their clientele, leading to potential losses in the billions. I’m sure Google understands this problem, and I’m sure they are working diligently to thwart fraudulent behaviors as much as they can.

For now, the key is very close scrutiny of your incoming traffic, and several of the steps outlined above can make that a manageable process. But there will be real work involved, no matter what.

I hope I’ve shed some light on ways you could be wasting your ad dollars, and a few things you can do to prevent this type of fraud.

But I have no illusions that small businesses are truly empowered to thwart this activity, nor should you.

Bill lives and plays in Fort Collins, Colorado.After a fulfilling career for a Fortune 50 company, Bill founded Colorado Web Design in 2012 with a passion for creative digital solutions for business.Bill likes to manage a wide variety of projects and tasks for his clients in the digital space. The creative elements of website design, application design, and marketing are enough to keep anyone busy and engaged, but wiping the slate clean over and over at the start of new projects comes with its own challenges."I like to start with really good client communication sessions. The rest is easy if you get started in the right way."He plays tennis, bikes, and hikes and then undoes all of that with too much delicious food and TV watching.

About Colorado Web Design

We've been building websites for Colorado businesses since 2002. We are a small team of dedicated individuals who love the challenge of each new marketing project. We live and play in northern Colorado.

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