In Response To Google

Edward Zitron 6 min read

Google has chosen to send a response to my article to Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable. Here is my response.

(1) On the March 2019 core update claim in the piece: This is baseless speculation. The March 2019 core update was designed to improve the quality of our search results, as all core updates are designed to do. It is incorrect to say it rolled back our quality or our anti-spam protections, which we've developed over many years and continue to improve upon.

Calling this “baseless speculation” is equal parts unfair and ahistorical. To quote Google, as quoted by Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land, Google’s March 2019 was “not the biggest update [Google has] released,” and in that article, Schwartz even suggests that this update might have been a case where Google “reverses the previous core updates,” which resulted in a Google spokesperson saying that it was“constantly improving our algorithms and build forward to improve,” which is most assuredly not a denial. In the event it is a denial, Google should be clear about it.

Furthermore, I linked to several sources — including Roger Monti of Search Engine Journal — who on March 14 2019 referred to the March 2019 core update as “behaving like a rollback of previous updates.” Monti also quoted Brett Tabke of WebMasterWorld, who said, and I quote, “I think we may be seeing a rollback of a few of the last updates.” Monti also published another article called “Data Confirms Why Google March 2019 Update Feels Like a Rollback” on March 16, 2019, which referred to an indepth report from SEO tool company Sistrix that found that “75% of winners were previous losers…that means that 75% of the websites that improved in rankings in this update were sites that lost rankings in previous updates of 2018.” 

While Monti claims that “this may look like a rollback, it’s highly unlikely,” he also adds that “whatever changes were made appear like a rollback.”

Google can play semantics all it wants, but if changes were made to an algorithm that increased traffic to previously-suppressed sites, how does one interpret these changes as anything other than a rollback, especially when these sites were suppressed in previous updates?

The one party that could actually clear this up with meaningful data and thorough explanations is Google, and it has instead chosen to vaguely and unilaterally state that I was incorrect. This is both deeply offensive to the people that report on the Search Engine Optimization industry for a living, and those affected by the opaque and mercurial updates made to Google Search.

Furthermore, in another email revealed as part of the Department of Justice’s antitrust trial, where Jerry Dischler on 5/3/2019, Jerry Dischler asks Anil Sabharwal, then the Vice President and General Manager of Chrome on an email including Prabhakar Raghavan, Nick Fox, Ben Gomes, and several other Googlers, whether it was “worth reconsidering a rollback,” and that he didn’t want the message to be “we’re doing this thing because the Ads team needs revenue” in a sentence referring to the ads team asking the Search and Chrome teams to do stuff to increase revenue.

In fact, one of the previous emails that Dischler sends — specifically one where he adds Prabhakar Raghavan — refers to Google’s ads division having “two objects in all of these discussions,” one of them being reversing the “sudden query-driven revenue loss that they saw in Q3” of 2018. 

While these emails are to do with both Chrome and search, they show Dischler’s willingness to suggest rollbacks in search, and his — as part of the executive team on Google’s ads side — willingness to push around the search team.

(2) As we have stated definitively: the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems.

I take several issues with this statement.

  1. Google has never “definitively” stated anything about the organic results in search, and — like many tech companies — keeps a relatively tight lid on how search works.
  2. Google is also once again playing with semantics here. While the “organic results you see in search” may not be affected by its ad systems, the emails revealed by the Department of Justice show that Google Search is affected, influenced and required to act at the behest of the advertising and finance divisions of Google.
    1. In an email from Ben Gomes to Nick Fox and Shashi Thakur sent 11:10am on 2/6/2019, Gomes states that “we” (referring to search) “are getting too involved with ads for the good of the product and the company.”
      1. In the same email, Gomes says that search was “getting too close to the money.”
    2. In the same email chain, in an email sent at 9:56PM on 2/5/2019, Nick Fox tells Gomes and Thakur that “[his] guess is that all these requests aren't going to subside. Given that (a) [they are] responsible for Search, (b) Search is the revenue engine of the company, and (c) revenue is weak, it seems like this is [their] new reality of [their] jobs.” The requests in question were referring to those made by Jerry Dischler, then the Vice President and General Manager of Ads for Google and Kristen Gil, then Google’s Vice President Business Finance Officer. 
    3. In Gomes’ drafted email to Prabhakar Raghavan from 3/23/2019, Raghavan — the head of ads at the time, talking to the head of search — says that “the full year plan is a bad miss and will need drastic steps on the query side,” a statement that suggests that while Google’s advertising “systems” may not affect results, the people in power in ads absolutely did. 

As an aside, you will notice that Google’s response also never once raises anything around Prabhakar Raghavan, the subject of the article. 

Testimonial Examples: 

I found it peculiar that Google responded with unlinked and uncited testimonies “from the DOJ trial that puts these misleading claims in context.” I will now go through each quote.

From Ben Gomes' testimony:

• "From my perspective, queries had always been a tricky way to measure growth, because there are changes you can make that actually reduce the number of queries but are good for users. So I never liked the notion of pure queries as a growth metric, but we also needed to agree on, like, what was the right growth metric. And so this was a discussion about exactly what could be a good metric."

• "I think this metric of using just queries is not one that optimizes appropriately... Ads also wants users for the long run, they also want long term business."

• "We have no way of growing queries directly unless we do a better job with search."

• "I was proposing things we would never do, like turning off spell correction. I could never imagine us doing that."

• "We were putting a significant effort into ideas that we thought would increase the amount -- satisfy more user needs and increase the amount of usage we had in search. Those two things are not necessarily at odds."

These quotes, if anything, directly illustrate the issues that Gomes raised in the emails I’ve cited, specifically the concern about more queries not being a good metric for Google Search to aspire to. The people asking for “more queries” were from the ads side of Google, and Gomes’ testimony doesn’t add any further context, other than that he “could never imagine” turning off spell check on Google — something I did not suggest Google had done. I was, in fact, quoting Gomes’ emails.

From Jerry Dischler's testimony:

Q: Do agree that the search team and the ads team are working together to accelerate monetization velocity, correct?

A: "The ads team would be accelerating monetization velocity. The search team is only accelerating monetization velocity to the extent that they tell the ads team about what new research they're building."

Q: "church and state separation," can you just further describe what that means? 

A: "What I mean is that the organic team does not take data from the ads team in order to affect its ranking and affect its result. The organic team operates independently."

These quotes do not refute anything I have said. The third answer, however, shows yet another attempt by Google to play with semantics. Dischler says that “the organic team does not take data from the ads team in order to affect its ranking and affects its results,” and that the “organic team operates independently.”

This is a deliberate obfuscation of the structure of Google, and is an attempt to get around the truth — that Dischler and the ads side of Google have repeatedly pushed around the search team, as evidenced by the previously-cited email thread revealed as part of the Department of Justice’s antitrust trial.

On 3/5/2019, Dischler stated that he was “super proud of our pure approach at Google and don't want to poison the culture of any team, and this is why I haven't pushed harder. I also don't want the message to be '’we're doing this thing because the Ads team needs revenue.’ That's a very negative message. But my question to all of you is — based on above — what do we think is the best decision for Google overall?” 

Dischler continues, asking the CC’d Googlers whether it’s “worth reconsidering a rollback” and requests “scrappy tactical tweaks” that they “know will increase queries,” before suggesting a change to search that “increases the vertical space between the search box, icons and feed on a new tab to make search more prominent.”

I do not know what Google is suggesting about the “organic team” “taking data from the ads team.” It is ahistorical — and, as the emails reveal, untrue — to suggest that the organic search team “operates independently.”


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