About two seconds after Google Trends For Websites came out, people started noticing that one company’s websites oddly had no data available — Google’s own. Google will tell you all about the traffic to competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft but gives away nothing about itself. The same is true for the newly-released Google Ad Planner tool. It’s not right, despite Google’s weak excuse of not wanting to provide "financial guidance" about itself via the tool. Google either needs to post its own information pronto or allow any company to opt out.
The First Rule Of Google Trends Is You Don’t Talk About Google Trends
Why do searches for traffic data about google.com, youtube.com, blogger.com, and other Google properties reveal nothing? The official statement, from Google:
We have a policy of not providing interim financial guidance, and have decided not to release Google numbers in accordance with that policy. We are always open to reconsidering decisions we’ve made, but at this point, for these financial guidance reasons, we do not share Google numbers in the Trends for Websites tool.
First of all, Google’s policy has been to avoid giving financial guidance period, not just "interim" guidance. To go back to the original founders’ IPO letter:
Although we may discuss long term trends in our business, we do not plan to give earnings guidance in the traditional sense.
Financial Guidance Excuses
So let’s skip this "interim" guidance nonsense. Yes, every quarter Google does officially release some information. But even between quarters, there’s no end of Google announcements or interviews that have stats or figures that could be seen as "guidance" about the company. For example, Eric Schmidt commented recently that a stock split is unlikely but doesn’t rule it out. Isn’t that guidance?
It’s not like Google hands out traffic figures on a regular basis anyway. Here’s the press release for its last quarterly filing. Now how much traffic did Google.com get compared to the previous quarter or the same time the year before? The release doesn’t say. Can we conclude that traffic figures aren’t financial guidance period? Because if they were, I should be seeing them here.
I can understand concerns Google might have about traffic figures being misinterpreted by financial analysts to mean something about the company’s future prospects. Goodness knows folks jumped all over comScore’s paid search clicks figure when that was only partial data that meant nothing (and then blamed comScore for their own bad analysis — and some continue assuming those figures alone mean anything).
Still, there are plenty of other sources for traffic data. These will get interpreted regardless of what Google puts out there. And that leads to another point. By withholding its own traffic estimates, Google is making it harder for anyone trying to interpret figures by looking at a "basket" of reports. As a result, some might paint a better or worse picture of how Google is doing because they lack figures from an important new tool to have in the mix, Google’s own.
Lastly, while I can’t get traffic data from Google Trends, I can still find the number of people searching for Google. That rise will be seen by some as a proxy for traffic figures. So why not just give me the traffic figures themselves?
Pick your point, the financial guidance argument just feels like a convenient excuse. Let’s see Google reconsider this right now and change its mind.
Allow Opting-Out & Myth Of Private Traffic Data
With the release of Google Trends For Websites, there’s been talk that Google is somehow handing out "confidential" information about websites and should thus allow for opting-out of reporting. My response to that on Sphinn was:
Confidential? Please. You were getting it from places like Alexa, Compete and Quantcast already. And if you were paying big bucks, you were getting it from Hitwise, comScore and NetRatings. Data’s been out there for years, in various degrees of accuracy — but to say it is confidential is overreaching.
This data IS out there already, not just from Google but from a variety of other tools as I named. Saying that what happens on your web site is "private" is like saying that someone standing on a public street and watching the people who go in and out of a store and logging what they bought is violating the store’s privacy. The store is out in public view — the data is easily seen and logged.
OK, side note here. I’ve long written about how ISPs are a bigger issue to me with privacy than search engines, in how they merrily see EVERYTHING we do on the web and some secretly sell that data to web metrics companies (secretly, because they certainly don’t tell their customers this is happening, nor do the web metrics companies tell you the ISPs that they harvest from).
There are private things that happen within your website, stuff that no one can really learn without your active help. But much data ceased being "private" years ago due to the ISP harvesting along with toolbar tracking. Hence, yelling that Google shouldn’t release such information is trying to push the genie back into the bottle.
Similarly, the idea that people should be able to opt-out largely doesn’t make much sense. None of the other tools allow for opting-out of them. Google could add an opt-out, but it would just mean the data was out there in a variety of ways — especially through paid web metrics tools.
Still, I’m totally behind the idea that Google should provide opt-out as long as it continues to effectively opt-out itself. That’s just not fair. If Google stays out, then it should give any site the ability to do the same without the absurd requirement that the sites completely opt-out of being listed in Google at all.
Related Webmaster Issues
In preparing this follow-up article, I asked more about the underlying data that Google uses, especially whether the Google Toolbar was involved. Google said it couldn’t discuss its "secret sauce," which I found disappointing. But as my Google Ad Planner Launches, Offers Site Demographic Profiles post explains, I think the Google Toolbar is involved.
Also spotted today via Sphinn, Google Trends For Website results are now starting to show up in Google searches for particular domains. Of course, looking at a search for searchengineland.com, I see that Quantcast and Alexa reports for our site are also there. So why should Google stay out? Maybe they shouldn’t. But since Google already blocks regular Google Trends data from being listed, this might be an oversight. A nice change might be a OneBox/Smart Answer-style result at the top of the results that link out to ratings from a variety of providers, including Google Trends.
Opt-In Data Sharing
In contrast to opt-out, it might be nice if Google went the opposite way. Allow for verified traffic metrics, like Quantcast does. Over there, you can choose to carry Quantcast code on your web site. Do that, and Quantcast will adjust your figures based on your actual traffic, rather than guesses. And some good news: according to the Google Ad Planner help files, it’s something being considered:
In the future, we may consider ways to improve the accuracy of Google Ad Planner data by allowing owners to contribute additional data from their sites.
OK, I know there are about six sites out on the web that still don’t yet have some type of Google tracking code already on their sites (AdSense, Google Analytics, Google Website Optimizer, FeedBurner … the ways that Google tracks goes on and on). So the idea that we start handing Google even more data isn’t going to go over well with everyone. Aaron Wall notes again how the data Google already has enables them to do many things — and I’m with him on lots of it (see also my Google: Master Of Closing The Loop? post).
But consider this. Personally, I don’t want to stick 1,001 different tracking codes on my site for Quantcast, Google, FeedBurner, and so on. C’mon, Google — take the lead to start an open tracking system. Anyone can place tracking code that anyone else can use and tap into. Get all the metrics companies together and agree on some much needed standards. Oh, and shove it on your own sites so we know what’s going on there just like you know what goes on with us. Now that would be transparency.