Dear members of the Google Search team, its VPs, board members, advisors, shareholders and anyone with a couple of minutes to spare.
I write this letter in the forlorn hope that somebody within the vast Google network may pick up on this plea and relay it to somebody who counts or cares.
NB: This is an opinion by Richard Vaughton, director at DiscoveryHolidayHomes.
Like many companies with shareholders that started out as much loved entrepreneurial driven enterprises a time comes when that deep well of good will and desire from the founders, to change things for the better, to make a difference, is overshadowed by the financiers, its shareholders and new management.
Now I am afraid that Google has lost its way and the personal businesses it helped to grow and nurture from small seeds are being harvested by the corporations that can afford to manipulate Google Search and leaving barren soil behind!
A few years ago the Google search engine and its plethora of tools was seen as wonderful opportunity for businesses and the general public to engage in a cost effective, secure and connected manner.
No end of new businesses arose off the back of Google and the web’s rapid development.
Jobs were created, cross market partnerships developed; individuals in third world countries could access foreign custom, disabled individuals had new horizons, hardware and software started blending across the international digital tunnels.
The world had new horizons and the conglomerates had to up their game! With Google the search engine of choice and with 70- 90%+ market share across key countries you are the only game in town!
With great power there must also come great responsibility!
Don’t get me wrong, there is still much to admire about Google and as a company we use no end of the premium tools to help run our business.
There is however one area of Google’s vast and growing empire that gives rise for serious concern and this is its foundation, "Google Search", the most used and admired search engine on planet Earth and in fact, our solar system, unless Jupiter’s moons are hiding a quantum search tool.
What is wrong with search?
Quite simply it is not a tool that any longer allows enterprise to grow and flourish; it is not seen as a playing field leveler or even an opportunity for smaller companies or individuals to leverage, without very deep pockets!
It is now a directory of large public or soon to be public companies, who dominate every inch of our screens. I am sure we have all walked down many high streets with all the same chain stores and brands.
This is Google Search today across many of the world’s markets.
Gone is the opportunity to explore and unearth gems and engage with individuals on the world’s largest stage where a digital high street could have a thousand specialist shops with ease.
There are sophisticated ways and means to search and uncover the unusual, the new and the people who care and services that actually work. But directionally, "Search" heads to the money instantly!
It's where you want them to go, not necessarily where they want to be!
Unfortunately, you clever chaps in Google search team have missed a rather important concept relating to the structuring of results and providing the best answer for real people whose daily lives are filled with endless and mindless companies who see humanity in digital form only.
In so doing the end result of nearly every search in mainstream industries is large brands that pay their way to the top via an industrial level of work and natural corporate financial net "back chatter".
I’m not talking Google Adwords, they are out of many people’s reach nowadays. I’m pointing to organic listings. The ones under the very, very lightly coloured Advert boxes at the top of the page, to the left of the adverts on the right and above the related searches at the bottom.
As with most companies we are bombarded with emails and calls from search engine optimisation businesses, link building companies, guest blogger requests, and all promising great results.
Now I am not expert, but I try to follow sensible advice and understand most of the basic rules and the need for relevance and of course referrals in terms of link building from strong domain authority websites.
Lets face it though, with so few slots its a money page now, not a joy to visit any longer!
One business model the internet has been very good at developing and will illustrate the scale of the problem however, is aggregation of fragmented markets into single marketplaces. Take hotels and the industry we are involved in: “Vacation Rentals”. It works like this:
- Spot a fragmented market
- Invest a lot of money
- Create a brand and pull in a vast number of advertisers from the entire disparate fragmented sector.
- Acquire other businesses and bolt on and remove competitors.
There is nothing special in this and in the early days of the Internet they were called directories or listing sites and anybody who visited them could obtain details of the businesses advertising and call or email them directly.
Not so bad at this point, as we have long had telephone directories.
Obviously search positions were important and a great deal of money went into marketing and achieving top slots for directories on Google!
Evolution of search
As time moved on these directories became "marketplaces", meaning they wished to represent the product and transact money, this proves an attractive proposition to shareholders as data is controlled, cash management opportunities arise and margins can be better.
Add in "directional on site selection" and pushing best margin product and the cauldron is now bubbling, shareholders are excited and the traditional directory can move the words around at will and watch you moving through it!
Now what is wrong with this? In its simplest form, it means the big bags of money control the opportunity not the product.
You can’t necessarily find the right product anymore, you find what they want you to find. Google just facilitated the demise of countless businesses by search prominence on the main avenue to commerce.
It sounds like supermarkets all over again, except it’s worse. I have to drive to a supermarket, but can see the other shops on the way, who interestingly are having a comeback for all these reasons.
So how has this sad and frustrating situation occurred?
Firstly any invested companies get voluminous amounts of words written about them in the financial press.
Then there is secondary analysis, journalists repeat, rewrite and distribute and this naturally promotes the business in product press and the avalanche continues.
Google loves this, national newspapers linking, social media in a buzz, journalists and product writers being paid to create content and low and behold the company sits aloft and proud of all the others.
These companies then apply financial and technical control over the businesses they have harvested to come on board and suck their working margins into the digital vacuum and off into the founders and shareholders pockets.
The product suppliers suffer or the purchasers pay more. The cute looking fur ball that worked as an open directory has now turned into a full grown bad tempered grizzly!
Each market can often accommodate several or more such businesses and a product supplier may now need to be on all of them, becoming lost in a plethora of competitor’s products.
The online marketplace knows nothing of these products and cares little, provided they pay up or the products sell in volume to feed the grizzly machine.
The supplier has to be on the marketplace as they stand no chance of ever being found on a search engine anymore.
These companies use the aggregation income to pay for position (think booking.com, which takes 15% and pays for the top slot on thousands of hotels) or via funded organic positioning due to a company’s size and net noise.
Refining this argument somewhat and taking a single examples such as HomeAway, who list over one million holiday homes, will show the extent of the problem.
Their competitors such as TripAdvisor and network and Priceline’s range of marketplaces mean that 9 times out of 10 one of these marketplaces will be the choice for a guest seeking a holiday home, to reach first via "Search".
The actual homeowner is now trapped and at the mercy of shareholder greed as they start to insist on anonymity between owner and guest, booking control and money management.
Their guest may actually may want to book a villa with an owner, have chat over the phone, ask if they can turn the pool temperature up a bit, see if the wheelchair is a problem or if the pillows are allergen free.
"Good Lord", I hear the company board saying, "that’s data and control leakage, we can’t have that! What if the owner actually receives money, it’s our guest after all, not theirs. Unless there is a problem with the toilet of course."
The process in each of these hospitality businesses is always the same:
- Aggregate volume
- Tier pricing
- Remove direct contact
- Become a transaction marketplace
- Engage reviews
- Raise prices to the most popular inventory providers
- Dominate "Search"
- Enforce best price policies to the guest. Focus on Brand and pretend you own the product!
Even the monopolies and government bodies who control dominant positions are now taking note.
We get very annoyed and disappointed at this attitude from growing marketplaces, but they are driven by shareholder expectation, they are not charities and in the rush to build huge market caps, they have lost sight of what they are representing.
In many cases individuals or small companies that have a tenuous hold on the very fabric these marketplaces represent.
So quite interestingly the guest who has relied on Google to sort his problems and assist in his own search has been guided by Google’s very own algorithm to a hotel or holiday home that is not necessarily the best for him, at the best price or with the best amenities who often stands no chance of communicating with the accommodation provider until he has booked!
Pay up and hope for the best as the business has no product knowledge, location familiarity, in depth business knowledge, controls or quality control in place!
I have absolutely no doubt that many people who read this will say, that this is life, the big boys will always squeeze the life out of the small guys. Well it’s true of course, and Google also does this by auctioning limited space.
In Google’s own words:
"Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Please see some other philosophy statements below as well.
Its has now come a long way from that!
There are hundreds of thousands of individual cries in the wilderness now as not only have their local enterprises been under greater financial pressure, the aggregators demand technical synchronicity or intensive administration; read more time and money, the slope gets slipperier and the products less variable and interesting.
Is there a solution?
The clever chaps in your company would have much more idea than me, but maybe these companies' site authorities or strength can be challenged through relevance.
So what if the New York Times travel section quotes an aggregator site, you can bet they have never been to that villa in Antigua!
So what if Bloomberg has an article or 50 on a single company, why would this help the business position its properties in Google Search above other more meaningful ones.
It's not relevant at all to me finding a holiday home. Its just shows how much money I will have to give up to book one to the giant middle grizzly.
It also always amazes me that if the company comes first on search for an industry, why does Google rank its thousands of products as well as this just dilutes opportunity and the equivalent of free speech in commercial terms.
Google could even have a "exclude public listed company" filter or simply list them once for their single chosen industry.
Okay, Google ranks individual page strength, but this is probably one of its core issues and therefore the problem will continue to escalate as these monster corporations stretch further into Google Search!
There is one final point that may make a difference to Google revenue! Google Adwords relies on conversions from clicks!
These reduce as a percentage as the large corporations I have been bleating about refine this top target as well. Plus prices per click go up!
Soon the only advertises will be these large corporations and the small guys will have to rely on them entirely rather than a good mix of marketing.
Google will now have issues as control of specific open marketplaces dwindles and the brands no longer need to pay so much or need Google Search.
Plus the consumer may just look elsewhere and try other search engines, as all he may see are the high street brands, the ones he was overjoyed to have dodged when the web was in its infancy and when Google Search revealed a whole myriad of exciting new places, people and products!
Anyway I now have that off my chest, I need to get back to writing some blogs, restructuring the site, asking my guests for reviews, increasing my G+ network, upgrading Facebook, sending some tweets, translating our content, meeting owners, fixing the light switch and paying the ever increasing bills to the front page owners of Google.
NB: This is an opinion by Richard Vaughton, director at DiscoveryHolidayHomes.
NB2:Google letter, laptop frustration image via Shutterstock.