Has Google Declared War on Small Businesses and Publishers?

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Aaron Wall, an accomplished SEO and the founder of SEOBook, posted an informative and somewhat controversial blog post yesterday regarding the display of ads and Google properties within the search results. The blog post contained the following image of a Google search engine results page for the query “HD Monitor”:

Google Adwords SERPs page

Even though Aaron said he was using a huge monitor, only Google ads and links to other Google pages appeared above the fold.

During every quarter of 2010, Google’s revenue growth was equal to or less than that of its partner sites. However, starting with the first quarter of 2011, Google experienced a rapid turnaround and it revenue growth quickly grew to over double the revenue growth of its partner sites. Is Google’s increasing revenue percentage due to SERPs like the one above?

2010 Revenue Split:

  • Q1 Google sites grew 20% and partner sites grew 24%
  • Q2 Google sites grew 23% and partner sites grew 23%
  • Q3 Google sites grew 22% and partner sites grew 22%
  • Q4 Google sites grew 22% and partner sites grew 24%

2011 Revenue Split:

  • Q1 Google sites grew 32% and partner sites grew 19%
  • Q2 Google sites grew 39% and partner sites grew 20%
  • Q3 Google sites grew 39% and partner sites grew 18%

The revenue numbers indicate that Google has started strategically directing the traffic it controls to sites they can profit off. Although Google has profited nicely from this “minor” change in the algorithm, the hundreds of thousands of small businesses and publishers that are currently making their living at affiliate marketing have paid a steep price.

In addition, Google recently took aim at the SEO community with the following ad:

“Forget about SEO. To be visible in Google today, try AdWords.”

In November, I had the chance to see both Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal present at Pubcon. During that session, Cutts told the audience that SEO is a type of marketing that appeals to human nature. He said that while SEO will change and evolve, it will never go away. Cutts encouraged the audience to be proactive and said, “You do not want to go where search engines are; you want to go where search engines are going to be.”

So based on trying to “go where search engines are going to be,” I think the following question is fair:

With the lack of “real estate” for organic results, the disparity of income between Google properties and partner sites, and the recent AdWords campaign telling people to “forget SEO,” where exactly is Google headed?

[Sources Include: SEOBook & ZDNet]

David Angotti

David Angotti

After successfully founding and exiting an educational startup in 2009, I began helping companies with business development, search engine marketing (SEM), search engine optimization (SEO),... Read Full Bio
David Angotti
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  • Glenn Ferrell

    I think it is fair to say that the usefulness of Google as a search engine will disappear if these types of results become the norm. Were I searching for something and got nothing but ads above the fold. I would search somewhere else.

    At that point SEOs won’t have to worry about optimizing for Google. They’ll simply optimize for whatever has taken its place.

    • James Holloway

      That’s exactly what I attempted to say, but you said it better.

  • James Holloway

    Firstly, great article, and thanks for pointing this out.

    I own a small web services business just outside London, and I find this news to be rather discouraging for both my own business and my businesses customers, both of which are relatively small.

    If the direction Google is headed is towards increasing revenue at the cost of organic search results, then it’s forgivable to think that it may well be less useful to it’s users when they execute a search query in future.

    Although the example given doesn’t really compromise the integrity of Google, in the sense that the results are still relevant to the search, could it be that eventually Google will favour irrelevant adverts over relevant content?

    It appears that Google is slowly achieving it’s goal of re-shaping the way people use the web, through methods like this – and don’t forget they’ve initiated the re-writing of webpage titles to what they ‘think’ is more relevant, in some cases.

    Nobody can condemn them as doing something ‘wrong’ as such, because it’s up to the user which search engine they use and up to Google to decide how to display results. That said, it’s certainly unhelpful to small businesses such as mine and my customers and possibly another contributing factor to the reduction in the use of Google, as explained in an SEJ post yesterday.

  • Matt Cutts

    This is disingenuous of Aaron and Tom. Google is all about trust and returning what users want. If we determine algorithmically that users want lots of ads we will put ads. We have no reason or incentive not to be fair when it comes to ads or Google properties. For quite a few queries we do not place ads because no one is buying ads for those search terms, unfortunately.

    Trust is the other major determining factor, and we’re very transparent. Some sites do not even have an address listed, yet we have everything, including the credit card numbers for adword advertisers. That is a strong signal for us to list them ahead in organic search as well.

    For those hurt: as part of the middle class myself, I feel your pain but please do not fall for conspiracy theories. Listen to my videos, keep up with my 30-challenges and hope. We care.

    Bonus 🙂 my next challenge I’ll TRY to go without no chef-made sushi for 30 days.
    Now i have to go and do some end of year tax and estate planning. Don’t you hate that too?

    • Paul

      Sorry Matt. This Google response is disingenuous. To start with, an algorithmic determination that someone wishes to see ads is ridiculous. No one wants to see ads, except when they are explicitly looking for ads (which is almost never), and which the user should decide, not you.

      Google has totally messed up the validity and trustworthiness of the search results that we get now with trying to filter what I might want today based on what I wanted yesterday, ensuring less accurate, less useful and less relevant results that just a year ago. Whether the results are trash because your filtering isn’t working, or because you are deliberately serving up you own stuff, it doesn’t matter. When people notice that the results are less relevant, they look for reasons and they look for alternatives.

      Stop worrying about whether there’s a conspiracy theory, and start worrying about the quality of what gets served. Google became dominant because it used to be the best at this, and was perceived to be impartial, if imperfect. Today, you’ve given people lots of reason to believe that you’re no longer impartial, and the results are much further from perfect.

    • James Holloway

      “If we determine algorithmically that users want lots of ads we will put ads.”

      I have never heard anybody say, “You know what I really want when I’m browsing the internet, more adverts!”.

      Since SEO is now being undermined by Google, I hope Mike is right about there being a replacement for Google, and I hope it comes soon.

  • John Rizzo

    Even in local search you need to be leveraging a google platform to get the prime real estate, whether google places organic, adwords or adwords express.

    Great read overall. Thanks for the feedback

  • Mike Haydon

    Facebook replaced Myspace, Google replaced Yahoo, and I’m sure Google’s replacement already exists. Yahoo’s days were numbered the instant it started filling above the fold with ads. Thankfully Google has a history of being smarter than Yahoo, so maybe they can reverse it before it’s too late. Just shows it doesn’t pay to put all your eggs in one basket.

  • Gabriella Sannino

    Great post. I have to agree with Glenn on this one, so I won’t blah blah blah my .02ç but I had to laugh at Matt’s response. Seriously? Come on Matt… this sentence “For quite a few queries we do not place ads because no one is buying ads for those search terms, unfortunately.” is typical Google business speak. Basically, you would take the money for the search term & who cares about the small business. Money is key here. No hard feelings, I’ve been saying this for quite sometime now. Google is in business for Google. Period. Capitalism is alive and well.

    • Glenn Ferrell

      Ah – but a great debate ! I just did a search on “hd monitors” and now it only shows 3 ad results at the top and all of the other ads (with images) have been (more humanely) relegated to the right sidebar. Perhaps Google’s algorithm has gotten so sophisticated that it understands Aaron and David’s articles 🙂

  • alex

    Great blog. I have been preaching a proactive approach with your SEO and Google for four years now. Earlier this year I post an article on my site “Where is Google going and why?” explaining my approach to SEO. Personally I know where they are going and all my client are benefitting from it. I also say that the internet is ready for a new Search Engine and all you would have to do is set it so it beats Google. They are just like any other business, except they are the internet overlord, and must make profits for the benefit of their stock holders. So everything they do is about insane profits. Frankly there should be a movement called “Occupied Google” because it is insane at how much they make. My blog on this subject is at

    • Coach Katerina

      @alex- really?? What is wrong with making profits? Without profits there is no reason to stay in business. What is wrong with insane profits? Who are you to determine how much is too much profit or anyone for that matter? Do you own stock in Google? If you did, you would sell your stock if you did not make a profit on that stock. If you don’t own stock , that is decision but don’t seek to punish companies in which you don’t own stock in.

      Google is getting worse and worse at Search. I do hope there is a better company coming along. I was hoping it would be Bing but I am not sure they have what it takes to truly understand quality search either. But as far as SEO goes, our clients are kicking it out of the park with their results. SEO is alive and well for now and as long as it is, we plan to capitalize on that as much as we can and MAKE PROFITS:)

      Google does not operate in on capitalism. There is a huge difference between real capitalism and cronyism. Google operates in the cronyism paradigm in bed with our governments. That is not a free market system.

  • Raj

    I cannot believe Matt said, ” if users want lots of ads we will put ads “. What was he thinking?

  • Anon Googler

    Missing from this post is the fact that our search results are OPINIONS, our opinions:

    Matt Cutts said this years ago: “When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

    If we think that Google Local, Google Products or our affiliate marketer partners are better than all other sites, we’ll put them there. You can go to whine to Obama or you can get proactive and consider other sources of traffic, Adwords included.

    Search is now an afterthought, we soundly own that market but we need to heavily monetize it to support Android and other amazing things we’re doing.

    So SEO /spammers and freeloaders: Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

  • James Holloway

    If Google is meant to be providing a search engine that produces relevant results, then those relevant results should be returned, regardless of who’s paid what to put them there. That said, it’s their business, they can do as they please, which is exactly what they are doing.

  • thinkdisruptive

    I have to believe that Anon Googler is just trying to stir things up and not a real commenter. Mostly because I didn’t think that anyone at Google was stupid enough to say

    “Search is now an afterthought, we soundly own that market but we need to heavily monetize it to support Android and other amazing things we’re doing.”

    If that is the real belief and attitude at Google, then they are sowing the seeds of their own disruption. Advertising generated by quality, credible search is the core. If the core rots, everything else falls away too. Android isn’t a gift because Google makes so much money from search technology, but a moat to protect the search franchise. If the search results become generally recognized as a crap sell-out, it won’t matter how deep and wide the moat is, people will go elsewhere.

    We may be at the avante garde of those noticing that Google isn’t what it used to be. I remember being at the avante garde telling everyone that there was something better than Yahoo and other alternatives that didn’t sell search placement to advertisers, and that was simpler and cleaner and a breath of fresh air. Remember when that was, Google?

    Even though I don’t believe that Anon Googler is a real person, I’ll direct this at Google nonetheless. There was a time when everyone thought Yahoo couldn’t be toppled from their perch. No market is sewn up permanently. Disruptions happen. Remember the reasons why.

  • Luis Hernandez Jr

    I think that Google has declared war on SEO companies. PPC has the power to make SEO irrelevant.

    Almost immediate return on investment, measurable, limited only by a budget, and little need to rewrite your whole site with hopes of ranking better.

    I think Google is simply trying to get rid of the “middle man” here. It’s actually brilliant, if you think about it.

  • Gabriella Sannino

    In all fairness, I was alerted this am not only by “The” Matt Cutts [

  • Jeremy C

    Unfortunately this dosen’t surprise me. I believe there are many things that can be done to prevent this sponsored overload ha. What about the Google Product search results in a tab on the left like “Image Search” or a filter option on the main search page.

    But really that pink “Sponsored” section on this search is ridiculously large. Tsk Tsk google, you know better than that. I understand the majority on online advertizers are shooting for Google real estate, good thing im not promoting “hd monitors” via PPC ha.

  • Xavier

    “I think that Google has declared war on SEO companies” — No, war on small businesses because SEO would not truly exist without stores like Jenny’s Little Shop. Penalty-proof Walmart has 1.4 million employees spamming Facebook, Twitter and forums, whereas small stores don’t.

  • Ravi

    It is not a declaration of war exactly. For Google, they have two primary stakeholders to please – Users and Shareholders. If the former are fine with whatever they get from Google (through organic, paid, other properties, etc.) then Google will be fine with it too. If their metrics show otherwise, they will obviously change their approach. But now as a public business, they will continue to push the boundaries for revenue gain.

    Users still outnumber businesses overwhelmingly. So, unless the bulk of their users came to Google to promote their business instead of search for something, Google does not have to think or care about SEO particularly. Even if the entire SEO industry stopped optimizing for Google, it hardly matters.

    Because even the best SEO is focussed on the individual sites, not the search experience as a whole. Only a better search experience from another company can threaten or disrupt Google.

    • Glenn Ferrell

      Ravi – you make an interesting point. Businesses are stakeholders as far as ad revenue is concerned, but if Users are happy, the revenue from Businesses is a foregone conclusion. Therefore Google can treat the situation as though there are only two stakeholders with which to be concerned (users, shareholders.)

      The one “gotcha” in this explanation is relevance. User’s will not be satisfied unless results are completely relevant. Businesses won’t pay for ads unless they appear high on the page. They are certainly not going to pay for an ad that “might” be placed high on the page – depending on the relevance of their content. And if “relevance” breaks down, the Users go to some other Search Engine.

      If Google gets too greedy, relevance goes down the toilet.

      I think the best solution is minimal ads at the head of the SERPs (2 or 3) – with no images, and put the rest of the ads in the right sidebar. I could certainly live with that, both as a user, a business and a shareholder (I’m all three.)

  • Blake Waddill

    Interesting that Google is being more aggressive about monetizing SERPs and cutting out others. At some point, people will start to abandon Google if they stop getting results they want. If Google continues to make searches happy, technically, they are doing exactly what they claim to do.

    Couple of other thoughts: the size of the monitor doesn’t matter as much as the resolution. My laptop is a 17″ and 1920×1080. I have a 22″ monitor that displays 1600×900 when hooked up to my laptop. A monitor 5″ smaller is displaying more than 15% more content. That doesn’t make what Google is doing any less… evil?

    Finally, people will always have a need to search therefore, there will always be a need for SEO. While SEO effectiveness of SEO may change over time, the fact that people will always need to search for information will keep search relevant forever.

  • Keira Desbiens

    What I noticed lately is that searches are less and less relevant.
    I often need to go into the third page to get something that makes
    sense to my search. Don’t know if its SEO companies or Google
    who is messing it up but its getting very tiresome.

    Seeing as a lot of crap high rated pages have terrible quality content,
    I’m inclined to blame SEO’s for Google’s results going down the drain.

    With SEO messing up results, often Google’s paid advertising is more relevant than
    the search itself! Because it cannot be manipulated through backlink building or whatever
    floats the SEO boat lately.

    Almost all search engines these days return 10x worse results than in 1999, when SEO
    was just starting. I for one hope that SEO companies get kicked in the behind by completely
    transforming search engines into irrelevant mess.

    • James Holloway

      I think you’ll get your wish within the next two years, Google will be a completely irrelevant mess by then at this rate.

      I’ve found that Yahoo and Bing tend to produce more accurate results lately, regardless of paid advertising and so forth.

      As Christina said, Consumers will vote with their feet, so to speak, and simply use a different search engine, and I don’t see this as any bad thing.

      • Glenn Ferrell

        And perhaps Bing will see this opportunity and seize it.

        Right now, where Bing and Yahoo really lag behind is indexing. They crawl and index pages much more slowly than Google — and index fewer pages.

        To be relevant, current and provide a rich search experience, they are going to have to focus some attention on more rigorous indexing. That is one place where Google has “set the bar” 🙂

  • Christina

    I’m not that worried. Consumers are not stupid if they don’t like what Google is doing they will use another search engine.

    My brother who is a small business owner and doesn’t know a thing about search engines, thought all results on the first page were paid for. He also thought anyone in the first position had paid a ton of money to be there. So he always skips the first page of Google.

    Its a real eye opener when you talk to people outside of SEO and the search engines.

  • Real Estate SEO by Dave Keys

    I saw the same above-the-fold result as Aaron did. Completely Google controlled results. Now, certainly “HD monitor” is quite a commercial commodity that is cheaper through “brand” clearinghouses than small local dealers, but I see results not too far from this in other searches too. Even in a decidedly localized, direct marketing venue like real estate where I specialize in organic search, in many major markets like “Los Angeles real estate,” organic results only occupy about 25% of the top of the fold, the rest is Google menus and PPC. This is true whether I’m signed in or “incognito.” This means that if a client wants real results for their organic SEO, they’d better be in the top 3 or 4 organic results. Any other positions require a scroll to be seen. Most smaller real estate brokerages and virtually all independent agents cannot afford the kind SEO investment it takes to rank at the top so they’re forced to do without or pay for PPC. To quote an SEOBook reference, “Those who coddled Google & gave Google the benefit of the doubt now have egg on their face,…” = me.

  • Real Estate SEO by Dave Keys

    More ads? Oh yes- like the Salem landowner in the witch trials who uttered “more stones!”

  • Helmuts


    I don’t suggest using adwords to any of my clients. Many cases show that using adwords make you loose the natural ranking.

    Another thing – monitors are sold mainly by huge companies (and most of them will be listed in search results). so, had to choose different keyword


  • SEO Training in Pune

    Me too, never suggest Adwords to my cleints. There are some reasons for that. Interesting that Google is being more aggressive about monetizing SERPs and cutting out others. At some point, people will start to abandon Google if they stop getting results they want. If Google continues to make searches happy, technically, they are doing exactly what they claim to do.

  • Mick Lehr

    Organic rankings; it reminds me of Las Vegas. The “House” has the advantage. The Search rank depends on the Panda and Penguin algorithm changes each month.

  • Phil

    Google wants to make the big bucks and shows as many ads as possible. I can understand this point but it doesn’t help users in any way, and that’s why they will be careful. And for the same reasons SEO and organic rankings will continue 🙂