Posted on August 31, 2016
Google already won. As the most dominant search engine in the world it has unprecedented control over each individual’s access to information. While most people already knew that, some forget that Google is also among the world’s largest data brokers, listing services, and news providers. Google may now be too big to fail and too ubiquitous to worry about whether its actions anger users or bother legislators (many of whom still do not understand search engines’ role in contemporary communications). Two recent events—the company’s decision to essentially begin charging for accurate keyword data and a European Union proposal to charge search engines for news headlines indexed in their results pages—underscore how Google can do whatever it wants and nobody in power has any idea how to stop it.
Last week, Google changed how research is done in any field involving online communications, and specifically in SEO and digital marketing. The company significantly reduced the amount of free data available via its popular keyword planner tool. This is a big deal. In order to enjoy access to keyword planner you have to be a Google customer, which wasn’t the case before. Technically, full access to keyword planner now requires account holders to have active AdWords campaigns. Using the search engine, Gmail, or YouTube is not enough — you have to be paying Google every month to be considered enough of a customer to use its keyword planning service.
So why the outrage? First, because keyword planner has always been free. People will always resent having to pay for something when it previously cost nothing. Technically they can still use keyword planner without paying, but now the tool returns ranges instead of round numbers for each search term:
As you can imagine, the difference between ‘2,900’ and ‘1k-10k’ is huge. That switch—from being able to pull precise search volume to an estimate that could be off by 10,000— has digital strategists fuming. Suddenly we’re planning campaigns using data points with massive ranges when we had been working with exact figures our entire careers. More importantly, how do we explain to clients why we aren’t so confident in next month’s projections beyond the nearest 10k, when we’ve previously provided much more precise estimates?
Thankfully—for now, at least—there are ways to bypass Google Keyword Planner’s recent restrictions by using reputable third-party software. Still, these tools rely on Google’s data, and the restrictions Google is implementing for individual users are having a trickle-down effect on these tools. One of these third-party providers recently sent its customers a letter explaining that it had no real idea what was going on, acknowledging the current situation is less than ideal, and asking for patience while it works on a solution. Most of these third-party providers have recovered from Google’s changes after a long four-day adjustment period. But, the problem for people working with this software everyday, is that in a more specialized sense they each serve a different function as part of a holistic keyword research strategy. For example, some programs are ideal for on-page SEO and competitor research on specific URLs or domains, while others are designed for ecommerce applications or to find specific ‘long tail keywords’. Most people that work with keyword data regularly consider Google’s Keyword Planner a primary source; it is by far the most trusted source for volume and competition levels, which can be applied in almost any SEO context. Making people pay for keyword planner honestly would not be worth writing about if it was only used for Adwords campaigns. If the tool was only used for ads on Google results pages, advertisers would be monthly customers by default. Even if that was not the case, the impact of less targeted ads within the search engine would only be felt because of Google’s near universal reach. It would not really impact people’s lives. Things are different because just as ‘Google’ has become shorthand for searching the internet, it’s Keyword Planner is behind just about any task that involves building audiences online, and Google knows this. In a world where users interact with far more than just ads, keyword research— which helps us understand the words people use to navigate between online entities—is incredibly important to any businesses’ digital marketing efforts, especially in helping companies study how customers talk about products.
Google likely annoyed just as many digital marketing professionals with its excuse for blocking Keyword Planner as it did with the block itself. Google explained that it revoked Keyword Planner to stop bots from accessing keyword data. There are voices in the SEO/digital marketing community who feel ‘bots’ has become standard Google nomenclature for so-called black hat SEO practices,some of which do involve robots. However, many more do not. These aggressive techniques attempt to expedite the long process of changing search results by catering exclusively to ‘technical’ or ‘computer’ algorithmic factors, instead of providing content of actual value to humans. Things get hazy when you remember keyword research is by no means a black hat tactic. The truth is, there are already a number of mechanisms in place to prevent these black hat techniques from undermining Google’s value as an information aggregator for real people. This is why practitioners are skeptical of Google’s rationale. Remember, Google’s Keyword Planner was considered the best primary source for search volume and some corresponding demographic data. While it was a tool originally developed for search advertisers, it has many applications way beyond advertising. Digital strategists have long relied on Google’s Keyword Planner for things like content optimization or technical SEO analysis. Most suspect Google made this decision to increase revenues, knowing nobody outside of the SEO community would raise an eyebrow if it blamed it on ‘bots’ or ‘black hats’. The argument that bots were using Keyword Planner to a serious extent is thin. Because it enjoys broad market dominance from a position of highly specialized knowledge, Google doesn’t have to care. There is simply no entity with the necessary combination of reach and authority that users could use instead. To someone working in the digital analytics business, the Keyword Planner decision is incredibly frustrating and a sure sign of Google using its influence to limit anyone’s ability to effect change within its platform without buying ads. That said, justifying what would otherwise be a very unpopular decision with ‘bots’, makes Google seem diligent and is a brilliant public messaging strategy.
Forcing people to pay for keyword planner will have noticeable consequences. Without reliable data, marketers are less likely to be able to craft strategies that legitimately increase their site’s positioning in Google. This will force them to spend more on ads to increase traffic, and decrease their ability to influence how their properties appear in what is, by far, the world’s largest source of information. Thus, Google has greater control over what appears online than ever before. This means marketers need to pay to play. It’s great news for Google shareholders, but troubling for people concerned about the level of influence one corporate entity yields over our access to information.
Google built its incredible market share on extreme competence and a vastly superior product compared to competitors like Bing, Yahoo, and Ask. It is a phenomenally successful company that doesn’t owe anyone anything. However, extra responsibility seems like a fair consequence for unprecedented success. The ideal time to seriously debate its place in the world and if we as a society should place restrictions on companies deciding how information is disseminated likely passed already. That conversation still needs to happen. Search engines should be required to disclose some details of how the general public interacts with its platform, so that businesses can plan accordingly. Though they are the ‘gateway’ to information, without content creators or publishers there would be no need for search engines. Working with them can create a better experience in the long run for developers, marketers, and even Google. That’s not to mention how the Internet is much more entrenched in daily life than when Google first started and especially for new technologies, some kind of regulation is required for the greater good, if they become as popular as Google. Unfortunately, most laws attempting to regulate Google, or almost anything to do with the Internet, rely on thinking from a pre digital age. In the past, implementing online regulations has done more harm than good in terms of access of information..
For example, Tim Worstall of Forbes magazine does a great job explaining how lawmakers have no understanding of the economic benefits search engines provide publishers. Consider the EU’s recent proposal to charge search engines for displaying news headlines. When Spanish regulators tried to force Google to pay publishers of the news headlines it indexes, Google refused and shut down Google News in the country. Now there is no Google News in Spain. As a result, publishers are suffering way more than Google, having lost referral traffic and the advertising revenues that come from said traffic. Now the proposed legislation could force search engines to choose between headlines, likely for monetary reasons. This effectively creates a scenario where digital news goes to the highest bidder, which seems like the opposite of what the law intended.
Beyond the publishing industry, these laws could have longer-term consequences. By forcing search engines to pay to list news results, lawmakers are creating barriers to competition and strengthening Google’s stranglehold on the search market. Now, any new search engine trying to establish itself has an expense Google did not have to account for when building its audience.
The EU’s proposal is the culmination of smaller attempts to give publishers more influence in Spain and Germany. These attempts did not work. The fact that European regulators have now tried three versions of the same arrangement between search engines and publishers, despite it failing twice, suggests they may not know how to strike the right balance between cracking down on powerful search engines and protecting domestic interests. This ignorance allows the current situation to continue, where Google can do things with far reaching applications without notice, discussion, or material consequence.
No entity exists to determine what information, if any, Google must freely disclose so the general public can best manage websites in an environment where it influences most of the relevant traffic. One is probably coming soon. People are noticing Google’s disproportionate influence and are growing wary. In the meantime, legislators struggling to make sense of search engines combined with everyone using them being made to pay for their best data source, the importance of applicable SEO knowledge has never been more apparent. Until the next major change, messaging online will be about accepting Google will do whatever it wants and learning how to leverage that towards your goal.