August 16, 2012

Is Google turning from a search engine into a publisher?

From left, Incisive Media Global VP Mike Grehan, Matt Cutts of Google, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land and Brett Tabke, who runs PubCon (Photo by Search Engine Land).

Webmasters push back against recent changes at Google

Target audience: Businesses, brands, marketers, search specialists, SEO experts, Web publishers — anyone with a business website.

JD LasicaBy and large over the years on number of fronts — search, mobile, open source, public policy — Google has generally worn the white hat. They’ve played the good guys in this still unfolding Internet saga right from the start. Back when search was still young, as I wrote in 2001, Google decreed that there must be a clear demarcation between search results and sponsored links, and it has been thus ever since.

So it was somewhat jarring to see the cool reception that Google’s Matt Cutts — probably Google’s biggest superstar behind Larry, Sergey and Eric — received yesterday at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Francisco. Cutts laid out a rosy portrait of the company’s Knowledge Graph, unveiled last week. Search on “chiefs” on Kansas City and you’ll get a different result than if you searched out the Chiefs rugby team in Australia or New Zealand. (For the possible downsides of this, see my interview with Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble.”)

But Google is doing more than just personalization, and audience members took to the microphone to push back. Their objection came down to this: By all appearances, Google’s recent moves seem to be moving the company away from its search roots and more into the role of an online publisher, a one-stop shop, a commercial Wikipedia.

Google’s entry on Tom Cruise, part of its Knowledge Graph initiative.

As one questioner put it — and you may have noticed this trend — when you do a search on Tom Cruise now, you don’t just see link to his Wikipedia page, his website or other sources, you see a content capsule right there in the search results (see image at right).

And not just good ol’ Tom. Do a search on best hotels in San Francisco and you’ll see a spate of choices that Google ranks before Frommer’s or Trip Advisor. When you search on hotels or other items, the results you get, well, depends.

Cutts (one of my Twitter heroes) responded with the example that users searching on 2+2 want to see “4” and not sent off to a calculator page. Fair enough. But these examples are an order of magnitude removed from that. These are commercial recommendations, often culled from the sites of the content creators Google is essentially removing from the equation. Instead of a virtuous circle, you get Google as a Virtual WalMart.

As Cutts acknowledged, “When you want to get a review, when you want to get analysis, when you want to get someone’s opinion. I don’t think it’s Google’s place to be offering opinions about a particular laptop. Look at the spectrum of value add and the more you add, the less likely you are to run into these issues.”

Zooey Deschanel: “Is that rain?”

But the masses were not mollified. “Where’s the line then?” asked Brett Tabke of WebmasterWorld. “Everybody in here is wondering at some point when Google is going to cannibalize my content … Google is getting into all of our businesses.” A few dozen people applauded. Jabbed a member of the audience: “How many of us should be concerned that if we get on Google’s radar that they’re going to add another tab for our category?” Ouch.

Cutts countered that within the company’s Search Quality meetings, revenue considerations don’t come up at all. “Instead, the question is, Is this good for the user?” Google engineers occasionally dip into old code and compare Google search results from 2000 to today’s results and today’s are vastly superior, he said.

“I acknowledge that there’s tension there,” Cutts said — the tension between Google wanting to serve users’ needs and webmasters wanting traffic to their sites. “If we sit still, there will be another company out there that will launch some awesome voice-activated program — I don’t know, call it Siri — when Zooey Deschanel looks out the window and asks, ‘Is that rain?,’ and we’re not able to answer questions like that, then people think that we’re bad and they won’t come to us. … When people type in, How tall is Tom Cruise? or How old is Tom Cruise? and we don’t answer them, they’ll go to that other search engine.” (Wolfram Alpha powers Apple’s voice search, Siri.)

Cutts is right: The marketplace is pushing Google to deliver results fast, faster, fastest. Now they have to make that business imperative work without undercutting the publishers that provide its lifeblood.

“Look, the users have to come first,” Cutts finished up, “but we absolutely realize the Web is websites, with owners and webmasters, and it needs to be a good value for everyone or the whole ecosystem falls apart. And then everyone goes to apps or walled gardens, and that’s not a good thing.”


Matt Cutts: Google Updates Will Be Jarring For A While (WebProNews)

Matt Cutts: “You shouldn’t put a lot of weight on +1s just yet” (State of Search liveblogging)JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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3 thoughts on “Is Google turning from a search engine into a publisher?

  1. Matt Cutts means well but he is not included in Google’s strategy sessions, people inside Google barely know who he is. Which is why you should take with a fistful of salt anything he says about GOOG’s plans and intentions.
    Google has been killing small businesses since the Panda update early last year, the carnage has been huge and largely unreported (except by me and a few others).

    •  @foremski Tom, thanks for pointing that out. Panda has certainly been off the radar screens of most traditional publications in 2012, and it’s a bigger story than has been reported. 

  2. The understanding is that the big changes to penguin will come in at the end of the summer.. As Ed Dale says the Dark times cometh.. biznetworkguy