At long last, Google owns DoubleClick. In doing so, the company has done something else that many people would have never believed possible. Become an SEO. That’s right – Google’s in the SEO business now, selling services through DoubleClick’s Performics to people who want to rank well on — um — Google. Conflict of interest? You bet. And worse from an image perspective, the purchase puts Google in the paid inclusion business, something it dissed as evil back in 2004, when it went public. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem with Performics as a company and have good friends that work there. But Google shouldn’t own it. The Google announcement yesterday should have said that Performics was being quickly spun off. Larry, Sergey, Eric, Google! Please do the right thing and make this a priority. Below, more on why this should be done, plus the official Google stance, so far.
Performics is a long-time leader in the SEO and search marketing space. It provides paid search services (getting you listed on search engines like Google itself through ads), as well as "natural search" or search engine optimization work:
Using robust technology, the DoubleClick Performics’ team scientifically optimizes existing client sites to create new, dynamic, crawler-friendly sites highlighting brand, nonbrand and long-tail keywords. Our experts methodically optimize copy and content for each page to boost page rankings. DoubleClick Performics understands the importance of creating an NSO culture at your company, and one that is not necessarily dependent on the bandwidth of your IT department. Our customized solutions combat existing issues and leverage Web 2.0 technology to boost rankings:
There’s nothing wrong with SEO. Even Google tells you this. But on that same page, Google also says:
While Google doesn’t have relationships with any SEOs…
Now it does — it owns an SEO. And therein lies the problem. Even if Performics is kept completely separate from the Google search team, there’s the impression that Performics might have some special "in" with Google’s non-paid search results. After all, Google owns it! It’s also not hard to imagine that despite all the best intentions, some new sales rep might pitch that Performics has some type of in. That a bad thing. FYI, Performics already touts its relationship on the paid side, as do many other search marketing firms.
It just doesn’t feel right. To me, it’s the same thing as if the New York Times owned a PR company, where much of that company’s main work focused on getting articles to show up in the New York Times. It’s a conflict that will hurt Google’s trust. It’s a conflict that’s going to cause many in the SEO community to constantly poke at Google. If you think the paid links debate over the past year has gotten rough or mean at times, I don’t think you’ve seen anything yet, as SEOs digest that Google is both competing with them and harboring such a conflict.
It’s not like Google didn’t see this coming. The issue was raised way back when the DoubleClick purchase plans were first announced. But the response then that it would be "business as usual" made me feel that the conflict simply was being lost in the main focus on the DoubleClick ad serving business. The suits doing the deal, if you will, to me simply didn’t get that Google’s core trust was being put at stake.
Let me bring it home to the suits using a financial document they should be familiar with. That’s the Google IPO registration document of April 2004. In it, Google addresses the issue of paid inclusion several times.
Back then, paid inclusion was a big deal. Big deal. All the major search engines but Google practiced it. Paid inclusion is where someone can pay to get their pages listed in the "natural" or "free" results. Unlike paid placement (AdWords, Yahoo Search Marketing ads, Microsoft adCenter), you are not guaranteed that your listing will show up for any given term. Instead, it’s like a lottery. You can buy your way into the main search index where you hope that your number will come up. Supposedly, paid inclusion is not supposed to provide any ranking benefit, though with the remaining search engine that runs such a program — Yahoo — it is a way for you to cloak optimized content within the rules and assure that your content automatically is given a quality score rating boost.
Google was the lone hold-out against paid inclusion at the time and often used this as a marketing point to help promote itself. Not only was it used for marketing, but Google’s co-founders strongly believed the practice was wrong. That’s why in the letter from the founders that formed part of the IPO filing, they called it out several times. Below, key sections where this was done, with the parts about paid inclusion bolded:
DON’T BE EVIL
Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company.
Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.
We will do our best to provide the most relevant and useful search results possible, independent of financial incentives. Our search results will be objective and we will not accept payment for inclusion or ranking in them.
Objectivity. We believe it is very important that the results users get from Google are produced with only their interests in mind. We do not accept money for search result ranking or inclusion. We do accept fees for advertising, but it does not influence how we generate our search results. The advertising is clearly marked and separated. This is similar to a newspaper, where the articles are independent of the advertising. Some of our competitors charge web sites for inclusion in their indices or for more frequent updating of pages. Inclusion and frequent updating in our index are open to all sites free of charge. We apply these principles to each of our products and services. We believe it is important for users to have access to the best available information and research, not just the information that someone pays for them to see.
Froogle enables people to easily find products for sale online. By focusing entirely on product search, Froogle applies the power of our search technology to a very specific task—locating stores that sell the items users seek and pointing them directly to the web sites where they can shop. Froogle users can sort results by price, specify a desired price range and view product photos. Froogle accepts data feeds directly from merchants to ensure that product information is up-to-date and accurate. Most online merchants are also automatically included in Froogle’s index of shopping sites. Because we do not charge merchants for inclusion in Froogle, our users can browse product categories or conduct product searches with confidence that the results we provide are relevant and unbiased. As with many of our products, Froogle displays relevant advertising separately from search results.
Paid inclusion bad. Not just bad, but evil. It’s listed in the second sentence of the Don’t Be Evil section! And Performics? It’s a big business for them — and now Google. From the Performics site:
Using superior technology and experienced practitioners, DoubleClick Performics’ Paid Inclusion tool seamlessly integrates content into Yahoo!’s natural search results to improve site visibility. Our copywriters prepare listings that maximize rank and clickability for brand and nonbrand terms, eliminating reliance on a spider to index site pages.
Online shoppers who visit a comparison shopping engine (CSE) spend 24 percent more than the average online consumer. DoubleClick Performics has superior relationships with the top CSEs, enabling advertisers to expand reach, improve relevancy and cost effectively connect with more consumers.
Working together, DoubleClick Performics will distribute your single feed to multiple sites, facilitating quick and simultaneous updates across properties. Today, we manage programs for more than 150 clients across 18 CSEs. Our vertical experts utilize advanced technology to enhance program development through a proven methodology: DoubleClick Performics is thinking forward about data feed distribution and optimization:
OK, so we’re not talking paid inclusion on Google itself. We’re talking selling inclusion into Google’s competitors, both in general search and against Froogle/Google Product Search. But does that make it less evil? If Google was so against paid inclusion in 2004, should it in 2008 now be in the business of selling it to anyone?
The debate about paid inclusion has largely died down, and former Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone got no real traction trying to revive it last year. Maybe this part of the Performics purchase may not matter except for those who want to call Google hypocritical on the count.
But to me, the conflict of owning an SEO firm remains. Yes, I know that Microsoft owns one, gaining Avenue A/Razorfish as part of its AQuantive purchase. That never sat right with me, and I wish like Google, Microsoft would divest themselves of it. At the same time, yes, stop selling branded SEO services through other companies. You own the pie; do you really need to sell the pie cutters too?
And the Google official stance? Here’s what I received yesterday:
We intend to spend the next several months assessing all of DoubleClick’s products and services including those offered by Performics. In the near term, we intend to operate Performics as a stand-alone business unit consistent with its past practices. Upon the completion of our integration planning with respect to Performics, we will be in a better position to announce our future plans for this business.
A purchase initially worth more than $3 billion, and Google still hasn’t assessed that Performics poses such a huge conflict to own? Disappointing. Google should have announced a spin-off yesterday. I’d hope they’ll rapidly move forward with doing that.