For two years in a row now, Google has gone back on major promises it made about search. The about-faces are easy fodder for anyone who wants to poke fun at Google for not keeping to its word. However, the bigger picture is that as Google has entered its fifteenth year, it faces new challenges on how to deliver search products that are radically different from when it started.

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In the past, Google might have explained such shifts in an attempt to maintain user trust. Now, Google either assumes it has so much user trust that explanations aren’t necessary. Or, the lack of accountability might be due to its “fuzzy management” structure where no one seems in charge of the search engine.

Broken Promise 2012: Google Shopping Goes Pay-To-Play

The first broken promise came last year, when Google took the unprecedented step of turning one of its search products, Google Product Search, into a pure ad product called Google Shopping.

Previously, Google Product Search operated in the same way that Google’s regular search engine still does. It gathered listings from across the Web, showing results leading to merchants, at no charge to them. If merchants wanted to be guaranteed better placement for a particular search, they could buy ads, which ran above and to the right of the unpaid “editorial” listings.

Google Shopping is a different creature. No one gets listed unless they pay. It’s as if the Wall Street Journal decided one day that it would only cover news stories if news makers paid for inclusion. No pay; no coverage.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. Paid inclusion doesn’t guarantee you’ll rank better or get favorable stories. But you don’t even get a chance to appear unless you shell out cold hard cash.

What Was Evil In 2004, Embraced In 2012

Shopping search engines have long had paid inclusion programs, but not Google. Google once felt so strongly that this was a bad practice that when it went public in 2004, it called paid inclusion evil, producing listings that would be of poor relevancy and biased. The companywrote, in part:

Because we do not charge merchants for inclusion in [Google Shopping], our users can browse product categories or conduct product searches with confidence that the results we provide are relevant and unbiased.

Times change, and a more mature Google might have thought twice about making such a strong statement and implied promise of how it would operate. As I said, it’s easy fodder to make fun of the 180-degree reversal that Google made here. It’s even easier when the company steadfastly tries to deflect from the reversal protesting that it’s not doing paid inclusion, by trying to redefine the term or by focusing on the fact that it has disclaimers.

Such things are weak arguments compared to a far more respectable response: acknowledge the change and explain why it was done — and do so on the main Google blog, where other major changes are often announced, not tucked away on the Google Commerce blog aimed at merchants, as Google did.

Reason? Supposedly Better Results, But….

And why was it done? At best, Google has suggested that it can’t get this type of information from merchants unless they pay. That’s not really true, in my opinion. Google ran shopping search for years without requiring payment. Did its technology get worse, over that time? It’s also hard to believe the same Google that can extract facts from pages across the Web to power its Knowledge Graph couldn’t have found a way to keep its free merchant feed submission process going.

Google also suggested that the quality of listings would get better by making this change. From its post last year:

We believe that having a commercial relationship with merchants will encourage them to keep their product information fresh and up to date. Higher quality data—whether it’s accurate prices, the latest offers or product availability—should mean better shopping results for users, which in turn should create higher quality traffic for merchants.

I didn’t find that to be the case when I explored Google Shopping soon after the change. Since that time, over the past year using the service from time-to-time, I also haven’t felt that things have radically improved. But I do know that if I search for the Xbox One, I get any number of confusing choices:

The only major retailer apparently selling them is WalMart. Beyond that, you can take your chances with eBay or smaller merchants. Clicking on the “Microsoft Xbox One” link with the lowest $499 price led me to this landing page from eCrater:

“No such product” the page told me. Well, that was a big waste of time — and an example that took me all of two minutes to find, to demonstrate that going all-paid with Google Shopping didn’t solve some of its woes.

The Impact Beyond Google

Google’s reversal, by the way, didn’t just have an impact at Google. Microsoft seized on the change to try and promote its Bing Shopping as a more pure experience, since it didn’t charge for all listings.

As best I can tell, consumers didn’t seem to care about that particular “Scroogled” message. And Microsoft, probably feeling the same economic pressures as Google — but without Google out there taking the high road — went down the new path that Google carved out.

Microsoft killed Bing Shopping entirely. In doing so, it also killed the way some merchants still got listed for free. Instead, it cloned Google’s Product Listing Ads for use within its regular Bing search results. For face-saving, it said that merchants might still get listed for free through via “Rich Captions.”

In reality, those aren’t shopping search listings. Those are regular listings with enhanced descriptions, just as Google may do within its own regular search results. We could split hairs and debate all this, but the bigger takeaway is that with Google happy to turn a once editorially-powered shopping search engine into an all-ads service, any remaining pressure on other search engines was gone.

That’s a huge shift for Google to have made for itself and for the repercussions across the industry. Who made that call at Google? Who knows, because we don’t know who is running search. I’ll get back to that, after looking at Google’s latest broken promise.

Broken Promise 2013: Banner Ads In Search

“There will be no banner ads on the Google homepage or Web search results pages,” Googlepromised in December 2005, on its main blog, to reassure consumers concerned that its new partnership with AOL would somehow change the service. Eight years later, 

You could argue that the promise was made by Marissa Mayer, who was vice president of Google’s search products and user experience at the time and who now, of course, has moved on to be CEO of Yahoo. But Mayer made that promise on behalf of Google. It didn’t somehow expire just because she left.

Reversal Of Vision

More importantly, the introduction of banners like these fly in the face of what Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, set out as their vision of how a good search engine should operate. From their 1998 academic paper outlining Google to the world:

For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine.

In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new.

I’ve bolded two key parts. A better search engine wouldn’t require an airline to buy an ad — which would have been a banner ad, at the time — for its name. Indeed, showing an ad for its name might get in the way of the consumer finding what they want. That’s right out of the Google origin story. But 15 years later, either that no longer holds true or Google is simply too embarrassed to discuss why it makes sense to do so now.

And Google won’t discuss it. Similar to the change with paid inclusion, all Google will do on this issue is give a statement that acts as if its previous stance against banners, or advertisers having to buy ads for their own names, never happened:

We’re currently running a very limited, US-only test, in which advertisers can include an image as part of the search ads that show in response to certain branded queries. Advertisers have long been able to add informative visual elements to their search ads, with features like Media Ads, Product Listing Ads and Image Extensions.

The “Why” Behind Broken Promises

Again, poking at Google for its obviously broken promises is child’s play. To me, the far more interesting and important issue is why these promises have been broken and who is making the call.

The simple answer to the “why?” is that times change, and Google was foolish to have made promises that it couldn’t keep. If you need more examples of this, review Google’s long-standing “10 Things We Know To Be True” page, where it’s clear Google no longer thinks “it’s best to do one thing really, really well – we do search,” nor does “democracy on the Web” work whenpeople have to do crazy things like disavow suspicious link “votes” they receive, lest they get blamed for wrong-doing.

The more complex answer is that things do change and require companies and products to adapt. Maybe it does make sense that Google shifted to a paid inclusion model for shopping search, despite its earlier stance against this. Maybe Page and Brin were naive to think that a bad search engine wouldn’t sell giant graphical units to brands for their own names, especially when brands themselves seem willing if not eager to buy.

But these were still dramatic changes in Google’s philosophy. You’d think they caused some internal debate. Was there anyone at Google saying that if giant graphical units at the top of search results are useful to searchers, then maybe Google should be offering those for free, to ensure a consistent experience for those searchers? Was there anyone at Google saying that maybe a shift to paid inclusion was a bad move for shopping and other search products, because it opens up every search product to that possibility?

I assume there must have been some debate. I sure hope there was. But if there was, Google hasn’t felt it worthwhile to explain these decisions in the way it once might have in the past, to the consumers and others who might care. Issues that were big enough to make loud, public statements about seem to deserve at least some public acknowledgment of a change of heart.

The “Who” & Fuzzy Management Of Search

It’s also unclear that if there was debate, who had the ultimate say over the decision. That’s because search, at Google, is a leaderless product.

It’s pretty clear who runs some of Google’s product areas. Sundar Pichai sits above hardware (Nexus products; Chromecast, Chromebooks) and software (Chrome, Chrome OS, Android). Salar Kamangar runs YouTube. Vic Gundotra runs Google+ and social efforts.

Who’s the person in charge of search products? You’d think that’s Alan Eustace, as he’s in charge of “Knowledge.” You’d also think that was a simple question for Google to confirm. But the company, despite me asking several times, wouldn’t do so — nor comment at all on this article and the issues I outlined within it.

Eustace was named the vice president of knowledge in 2011, as TechCrunch reported then about Google’s management reorganization. That means someone like Amit Singhal, who oversees Google’s search algorithms, should report to him. But does Johanna Wright, who oversees predictive search (think Google Now) out of the Android-side of Google’s house, also report up? How about Susan Wojcicki, who oversees ad products?

Ads aren’t some product that run independently of “Knowledge,” not when Google Shopping is indeed a consumer-facing search engine that people turn to for “knowledge” about shopping choices, nor when Google has long prided itself on the fact that its ads sometimes can be as useful to knowledge seekers as its unpaid listings (and this is true).

So who’s in charge, especially when the ad-side wants to do something that the search-side might not like. Again, Google had no comment about all this. Perhaps it runs up the ladder to Page for a final ruling. But it underscores, at least to this outsider who has watched Google since it started, that no one is really in charge of search. Instead, everyone seems racing forward in various areas — shopping, predictive search, Web page search, mapping — with no clear vision nor any clear ringleader about where they’re going.

Maybe Fuzzy Works?

The lack of a central vision doesn’t mean failure. I  wrote about the Google Hive Mind when the company turned 10. At 15, the Hive Mind may still be working fine, when it comes to search. Indeed, things like Google Now and Google Conversational Search are downright amazing. When search happens on multiple platforms (desktop versus mobile), and people have so many different needs (news, shopping, research) and interact with search in so many different ways (typing keywords, speaking a query, opening a map) trying to have a grand master plan might be foolish.

But the problem with fuzzy is also the lack of accountability. If Google does make a major change or goes in a new direction, who made that call? And who is going to explain it?

That’s the disappointing thing to me, with Google’s two-years-in-a-row of broken promises. Google made a huge deal that paid inclusion was bad, as a way to pitch itself to consumers and others as being better than the rest. It specifically used shopping search as an example of this — then years later, did a complete reversal with shopping search.

With banner ads linked to brand names, Google spoke against this as part of its origin paper, specifically using an airline as an example. It went on to say there would never be banner ads on Google. Then there are, even for an airline.

If these things were important enough to use as selling points, or to address to reassure consumers, then they should be important enough for Google to better explain why it made reversals. Reversals aren’t bad; it’s the failing to explain why you changed your mind that is.

And when there’s fuzzy management, when there’s no clear vision of where search is going as it once was espoused by Google, perhaps no one feels like they need to step up to do this.

The Star Trek Computer — After This Commercial Message

Actually, Amit Singhal has long expressed a Google vision of search, that of the Star Trek computer that seems to have an answer to everything. And sometimes, as with Google Now coming back with answers before I’ve even asked, it feels like we’re really getting there.

But here’s the thing. You never saw Captain Kirk ask the Enterprise’s library computer for an answer and be told it wasn’t available because someone didn’t pay to be included, or that it would be provided but only after a giant image was first displayed, even if that didn’t necessarily help with Kirk’s need.

The library computer wasn’t a for-profit operation, with many stakeholders involved. But that is Google today, and that’s how Google is going to be in the foreseeable future. The simplistic vision that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had back in the day when they started a search engine no longer exists.

Perhaps the Google that builds search through fuzzy management also no longer feels the need to explain some of its decisions as it once did. But to me, that’s a part of the old Google that should continue to operate.

It might not make good PR in the short-term, to explain your reversals, to explain why you make the admittedly hard-decisions. But that’s good PR in the long-term, to ensure the trust you’ve built with users over time isn’t allowed to slowly erode.

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