Can we, as marketers, trust Google anymore? I don't think so.
For many years now, whenever I've been on stage, I've referred to Google as a Frenemy - someone who you need but can't really trust. Well, last week two things happened which mean, to me at least, that they have crossed the line.
Before I get into it, a little bit of history...
Google won't be evil - will it?
In its early days, Google had a mantra of 'don't be evil' to guide the company which many, myself included, took as being that this was a company we could all trust. After big businesses in the previous decades had grown to multi-billions of revenue and then been outed for doing terrible things, it seemed that this new era of digital companies would learn from their predecessors.
Over the years, Google grew and grew. From a simple search engine to one that was mapping where we were all going, being in our pockets all day long, to being the thing we speak to in our kitchens and bedrooms.
The first signs from a marketing perspective that things weren't great was back in 2011 when Google said that they would hide organic keyword referral data (the words that someone types into Google) due to 'privacy concerns'.
In 2012, they rolled the change out and within a matter of months, nearly all keyword data relating to organic listings was gone. This reeked of hypocrisy as all of this data was still available to advertisers if they paid for it via pay per click advertising in the same search results. It was a change that changed the detail of how SEO was done but thankfully didn't kill it off.
There have been many other changes done over the years to 'improve the search experience' like:
- grouping all keywords together for all devices in PPC (later to be rolled back)
- making all shopping listings paid for (when they were free to list for many years)
- the removal of the right hand side of search listings (ok, this wasn't too bad)
- being fined billions by the EU for favouring their own listings over others as well as issues around Android
- changing how keyword matching works from exact to 'exact plus whatever Google thinks is relevant' thus giving themselves carte blanche to match your keywords to searches even if you didn't want them to (to save advertisers time of course...)
- the continual merging of PPC results and SEO listings to the point now where they are almost identical apart from a small AD block to the left of the result (do you notice the difference?).
These changes, which it's hard to say were directly in the interest of the end user, caused many in the industry to highlight the issues around the 'don't be evil' motto. This eventually got dropped around 2015 from various internal comms documents as it wasn't possible to carry on with this message.
Regardless of the list above, it didn't change our industry much. Advertisers still kept on spending their dollars to bring traffic from the biggest search engine in the world and the biggest video website in the world, into their various properties. And things haven't changed at all in covid times, if anything their position of power has got even stronger. For us, as a digital marketing agency, we have to know Google inside and out despite knowing that almost any day new things can be dropped on us and our clients.
So, on to the two things that have further fueled this animosity towards Google...
#1 - Google Ads Tax
Last week, we received an email to inform us that the Google Ads accounts that we manage will be subject to an additional 2% charge. This will be added to all spend relating to Google Ads shown in the UK (as well as Austria and Turkey for some reason). At first I read it that Google was adding this charge due to the 'associated cost of doing business in these countries,' but it isn't Google adding this 2% charge, it's one that is being added by the UK government.
You might think that's not Google's fault for the UK government adding a 2% charge to our bill. But the reality, as I mentioned in my 2018 talk at our Attention! conference, is that Google (along with it's contemporaries) doesn't pay taxes.
Google pays just 0.23% corporation tax instead of the 19% that they should do
Due to the way that Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, IBM and many, many others are set up, the Chancellor Phillip Hammond (remember him in the good old days?) decided to introduce a Digital Services Tax (DST) to get some money back from the activity happening in the UK. It was a way to try and recoup some of the reported FOUR BILLION POUNDS corporation tax hole that is left due to the complex tax practises that these companies use. The tax will aim to get about half a billion back in the coming years so it's nowhere near as good as if they'd all paid their taxes but that's another story...
The 2% DST for Google Ads will be added from the 1st of November on top of all Google advertiser bills from that point onwards until, well, forever. Amazon have already rolled out the collection of these charges and have asked the sellers to pay for it already. So if you didn't already know about the DST, it's quite possible that you've already been paying it without realising.
So whether, it's indirectly with Amazon, directly with Google or other ways, your spending both at work or at home is likely to go up 2% in the next few months. Not that much you might think but when margins are coming under even more scrutiny with the UK being in recession, every penny counts as they say.
#2 - Hidden search terms in Google Ads
The day after we heard about the DST being added, we were alerted to another change in Google Ads - the removal of keyword data from Google pay per click ads.
In much the same way as they did nearly a decade ago, Google has started to hide keyword data from advertisers, this time despite the fact we're paying for ads! You *could* make the argument that hiding keyword data from SEO results was their decision; no one was paying for that data and it was Google's to hide. However, with Google Ads, we're paying for the clicks. We're selecting the phrases to bid on, the phrases not to bid on, and the ones to double down on when they are profitable.
Google has decided to hide phrases/words that don't get 'significant numbers of searches' in their search query reports. Therefore, if a phrase gets say 5 searches a month, and included in that was one or two clicks for you, you will NOT see which phrase generated those two clicks that you paid for.
According to Seer Interactive, they worked out that for some of the data they hold, this equates to something like a 20% drop in overall visibility.
That's to say, of the £100 you spend, now, you'll only know where roughly £80 of it went. The rest you'll have to assume went on relevant phrases and clicks, but you won't ever really know without a massive amount of work.
The implication here is that we have to trust Google that their matching of our keywords and phrases is correct as we now have no specific way of knowing.
We have to ask why this change has been made? What benefit does it give to advertisers? One argument is that the long, long tail of phrases aren't really worth bothering about. One click here or there isn't really going to make an account work well. And, if you look over a long enough period, you can still get the data if it becomes significant.
The other, and most likely reason, is that this is just another cut to add to the hundreds of others, that reduces transparency between Google and advertisers. We can carry on as we are for now, but expect more changes like this in the coming years, and accept that you can't go back to 'better times.'
Do we trust Google's black box?
I'll leave you with one final thought. Google's trajectory with search is one way. For them to know and for us to get a sneak peak from the outputs of their black box.
Organic search is impossible to know what phrase really drove a conversion. Pay per click is heading the same way. We've been using Google Smart Shopping for our clients for a good while now, and whilst it's producing good results now, it's impossible to really know what's driving things. We get reports on various things but don't have true insight as the Google algorithms do the work.
It's not hard to imagine a world in a few years where Google looks at your website, decides which ads it wants to create, runs them against phrases it thinks are relevant, and then charges us without knowing ANYTHING that happens in the middle. The only output you might get is that 'your bids aren't high enough' and that could be it. It'll become a channel where only those with deep pockets can play.
Google's own walled garden has new rows of bricks added to it each week. The data it collects from...
- a monopoly on search (90%+ in most western markets)
- a monopoly on website analytics (over 75% as of September 2020)
- a monopoly on web browsers (between 65-75% as of September 2020 depending on how you want to read)
- a monopoly in mobile operating systems (again in the 65-75% region on mobile)
...giving it an incredible amount of power and advantage compared to almost any business in the world. And at the moment, getting into this walled garden to check their own homework is basically impossible.
Again you can say with all of that data, and the vast amount of investment made into AI, that their machines can maybe do a better job than a trained pair of human eyes and ears. And maybe they can.
But with moves like those pulled above, and the never ending scrutiny from Wall Street, can we really trust that Google is going to act in our best interests as advertisers? Will we carry on pumping more and more money into Google Ads and other channels they own in the coming years when we have no idea how it works?
But, what are the options?
I try and think about it in the context of 'traditional TV' advertising. How many people actually watched my ad? How many people actually watched the program that my ads appear in? There are third party companies and independent watchdogs set up to regulate and check the validity of these media.
With Google, we have no-one checking their homework. And, as has been pointed out by much cleverer people than me like Scott Galloway, even if they are caught doing bad things, that's merely the cost of doing business, a minor inconvenience. A €4 billion fine might sound like a lot but when you are making nearly $40 billion a year in profit, it's not really that much. A mere telling off rather than anything to deter any change in behaviour.
Until we see proper regulation and splitting up of these product lines, it'll just be a matter of how much we either trust Google or how much businesses depend on them for their income.
Its ironic that in the same week, the BBC's weekly The Boss series covered a story about Ecosia boss, Christian Kroll, who is all about plants over profits with his purpose-driven search engine business.
Despite the efforts of people like Christian, at the moment, advertisers and their advertising budgets are sadly going nowhere. But perhaps we can start thinking about how we could make a stand against this tyranny or demand better regulation?