The New York Times over the weekend published a clever feature by reporter Joe Nocera on Google’s search advertising practices.
Nocera chronicles how Sourcetool directory site proprietor Dan Savage is struggling to return his earnings from Google to form after the search giant jacked up Sourcetool’s AdWords minimum bid requirement from 5 or 6 cents to $1. Allegedly, Google told Savage his landing page quality was too low.
Sourcetool was effectively being priced out of the market by Google’s search algorithms, which the company changed to weed out sites like Sourcetool.
Scenarios such as what Savage is going through are nothing new when it comes to site owners leveraging Google to make money. Search Engine Land and search engine marketing and search engine optimization sites frequently report on algorithm changes after Google AdWords customers notice the changes and complain.
So why is Savage’s case special?
Well, Nocera reported, Savage sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice expressing his concern for the way Google — and its algorithm — was treating Sourcetool. Nocera noted:
“Savage came to believe that there was something more nefarious going on than a subpar landing page. Google, he believed, didn’t like his Web directory because it was a search engine itself — though much more narrowly focused than Google’s search engine — and Google found it a competitive threat.“
Savage is fighting an uphill battle. Whenever users’ experience letdowns in the AdWords program, Google tends to hide behind the search algorithm as the reason their business is suffering. It’s never a human, but always the algorithm making a read on a site and determining who gets to pass Go and collect x amount of dollars.
I have to wonder about the level of human involvement at Google.
Why is Google frequently altering its algorithm? Google says it does it to improve the user experience, but why does it seem that customers such as Savage who help make Google money get the shaft?
Does the team behind Google’s search engine look for certain patterns or sites it deems as being too successful (and competitive to the company) and change the algorithm to curb customers’ earnings?
Is Google deliberately freezing these site proprietors out under the guise that the search algorithm is reading the sites as having poor quality? That’s not what I call acting in good faith.
More importantly, how do you prove such a thing? If you’re the DOJ, you probably need to a hire a search algorithm expert to determine how Google’s programs work and then look for ways to test the theories about anti-competitive practices, which may be what Savage hopes to accomplish by tipping off the Justice Department.
Nocera said Savage hopes his voice will be heard by the DOJ, which is scrutinizing Google not only for anti-competitive practices, but for whether or not it should bless the proposed Google-Yahoo search ad deal, in which Google’s paid search keywords will run alongside Yahoo search. Nocera wrote:
“Google’s conduct is plainly consistent with acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization, Mr. Savage’s lawyer wrote in his letter to the Justice Department. He added that Google has achieved and maintained its market share through anticompetitive exclusionary conduct.“
But I expect Savage and anyone else to have a tough time getting Google brought up on antitrust charges. There are too many gray areas in the law, and Google has skillfully hid behind its “impartial” algorithm claims for a decade.
Perhaps ammunition like Savage’s letter and the DOJ’s hiring of Sonny Litvack, along with the protests of the Association of National Advertisers and, as of today, the World Association of Advertisers, will help.