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Debunking Google’s “Original Content” Mantras

January 31st, 2011

We note with interest Google’s recent announcement that it has changed its search algorithms to further target “sites that copy others’ content and sites with low levels of original content” (Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Search Quality, 28 January 2011)

Is this simply a commendable attempt to punish spam and reward the authors of original content, or does it mark an escalation in Google’s ongoing disadvantaging of rival vertical search services?

Google recently used similar language to try to justify Foundem’s three year exclusion from Google’s search results:

Google says it "de-indexed" [Foundem] because much of its content – about 87% – was copied from other sites, which it says leads to automatic downgrading in its search results. (The Guardian, 30 November 2010)

But, as Google is well aware, copying, organising, and presenting the content of others is a defining characteristic of any search service, including Google’s own.

The following extract from Foundem’s submission to the European Commission speaks to the heart of this issue:

Google – the Godfather of Spam?


The Original Content Fallacy

Google tends to emphasise the value of content, while downplaying the value of service. Its “original content” mantras are convenient for Google, first, because Google requires 3rd party content to hang its ads on, and second, because these mantras help to foster the view that rival search services have little inherent value.

Accusing a search service of having little or no original content is like accusing a library of not writing its own books. While accurate, it is clearly missing the point of the valuable service that a library provides. Besides, the same accusation can be levelled at Google. But when KinderStart did just that in 2006, Google’s attorneys objected vigorously:

“According to KinderStart, Google’s search results function solely to link a user to third party websites and contain no original content. But Google’s search results are original content, expressing Google’s opinion of the relative significance of websites”, Google Attorneys, 2006[1].

Clearly, exactly the same argument applies to Foundem or any other legitimate search service. Moreover, by gathering all of the relevant information about a product, flight, house, or job from dozens of suppliers and presenting it all on one sortable and filterable page, any high-quality vertical search site clearly provides a valuable service, whether or not it authors any original content of its own.

Google’s relentless obsession with original content—whether feigned or genuine—has serious consequences:

· It inevitably leads to cases like Foundem’s, where the appeals of an unjustly penalised search service can be repeatedly ignored by a succession of Google employees—all indoctrinated with the false belief that only original authored content adds value.

· It encourages legitimate sites to overreach their area of expertise to write ‘fake’ reviews, ‘fake’ buying guides, and ‘fake’ blog posts, in the pursuit of this Google-mandated original content. To the uninitiated, this may sound like crazy talk (surely this fakery is rare), but the production of essentially ‘fake’ content and the acquisition of essentially ‘fake’ natural links has become the mainstay of mainstream SEO.

Google is Conflicted about Web Spam

Another unfortunate consequence of Google’s increasingly relentless focus on content over service is the proliferation of Web spam.

Thirty percent of Google’s revenues come from its AdSense programme[2], which extends the reach of its advertising network across millions of third party websites and has played a crucial role in Google’s meteoric growth. AdSense allows any site (spam included) to efficiently monetise its traffic by simply copying and pasting a few lines of JavaScript. This ease of integration, coupled with the fact that Google does little to vet its AdSense publishers, has made AdSense one of the driving forces behind the explosion of Web spam. So much so, that the acronym MFA (Made-for-AdSense) was coined to describe the millions of spam sites, comprising “original” but low-quality content, that are thrown up every year simply as vehicles for Google ads.

“If Google wants to organize the world’s information they shouldn’t fund a large portion of the world’s information pollution.” (Aaron Wall, November 14 2007[3])

It is important to realise that Google has a serious conflict of interest with these Made-for-AdSense spam sites, because it has a substantial stake in their revenues.

It is also worth noting that Affiliate marketing is one of the few viable alternatives to AdSense as a means of monetising Web sites. Most sites looking to monetise their traffic can choose between revenue-bearing AdSense ads or revenue-bearing Affiliate marketing links. Currently, both methods are used by legitimate and illegitimate sites alike.

Despite Made-for-AdSense spam sites outnumbering thin-affiliate spam sites by some considerable margin, Google harps on relentlessly about “thin-affiliate” sites but barely mentions the far more prevalent problem of Made-for-AdSense sites.

Google is Also Conflicted about the Quality of its Own Search Results

The vast majority of Google’s revenues come from users clicking on the sponsored links to the right and above Google’s search results[4]. But users don’t go to Google for its sponsored links.

Users only really look to sponsored links when their search results don’t have what they’re looking for. For any ostensibly free search engine, there is an inevitable tension between the need to produce good enough search results to attract users and the need to ensure they are bad enough that users regularly resort to clicking on the sponsored links to find what they are looking for.

If Google’s search results were perfect, its revenues would plummet. It is inconceivable that this inconvenient truth has not occurred to Google’s strategists. It is therefore sensible to question Google’s motives whenever it claims that preserving the quality of its search results is its top priority.

Google tries to characterise its business model as somehow purer than that of vertical search because it does not earn revenues directly from its organic results. The reality may be quite the opposite. There is something inherently peculiar about a business model that is characterised by the need to be good but not too good. And this, of course, is hugely exacerbated by the distinct and persistent lack of healthy competition among horizontal search engines.

- Foundem EU Submission, August 2010

Debunking Google’s Search-Within-Search Fallacy

“Google is a search engine. A search engine’s job is to point you to destination sites that have the information you are seeking, not to send you to other search engines”.
(Danny Sullivan, The Incredible Stupidity Of Investigating Google For Acting Like A Search Engine, Search Engine Land, 30 November 2010[5])

This spurious argument is never far away when Google (or its unofficial spokespeople) are defending Google’s disadvantaging of rival vertical search services.

The following extract from Foundem’s submission to the European Commission addresses this issue:

Of course, horizontal search engine results like Google’s should not feature the search results of other horizontal search engines. It would be a recursive nightmare, for example, if Google featured Bing, which featured Google, which featured Bing, and so on. Fortunately, this scenario is as unlikely as it is undesirable.

The real question is whether horizontal search engines like Google should feature results from vertical search and price comparison services. The answer is clearly ‘yes’, first, because they can, and second, because users routinely search for these services on horizontal search engines. For a horizontal search engine to deliberately exclude these services would be to deliberately frustrate many of its users.

Indeed, by routinely inserting its own vertical search services into prominent positions in its Web results through Universal Search, Google now emphatically endorses the view that vertical search and price comparison services are often exactly what its users are looking for.

- Foundem EU Submission, August 2010

In conclusion, original authored content is not a legitimate requirement for a search service. Search services such as Google and Foundem are not intended to provide this kind of original content; they are intended to efficiently search and summarise the content of others. Yet, according to Google, it penalised Foundem for allegedly failing to meet this spurious requirement – a requirement that none of Google’s own search services fulfil. The notion that Google can penalise a search service for a lack of original authored content has very serious anti-competitive implications for the future of innovation in search.

[1] http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/kinderstart12b6googlereply.pdf page 17

[2] http://investor.google.com/financial/tables.html

[3] http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/anti-google-claims-to-reply-or-not/

[4] http://investor.google.com/financial/tables.html

[5] http://searchengineland.com/the-incredible-stupidity-of-investigating-google-for-acting-like-a-search-engine-57268

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