David Goss

Standing still with The Times

Posted in Uncategorized by dvdgoss on January 14, 2010

Given a choice of which newspaper to read, I’ll always go for The Times. I really hate most papers, and the people who read them, but I’ve always seen The Times as informative, considered and well-written.

As it turns out, that’s not always the case. Whilst flicking through today’s edition I spotted an article entitled “Google is failing consumers by profiting from scam websites” in the Money section. It begins with the suggestion that scam websites are “dominating” Google’s pay-per-click search listings and goes on to basically say that Google don’t care whether websites are bogus as long as they make lots of money, and that users shouldn’t take any notice of the pay-per-click section – they should choose from the organic listings instead.

As journalism goes, it’s pretty wide of the mark. Aside from factual inaccuracies and skewed statistics, it’s obvious the writer simply doesn’t understand how this medium works, or why thousands of genuine online businesses such as the one I work for use it.

Yes, there are fraudulent websites online. And yes, pay-per-click is an easy way for them to attract victims. But there’s no reason to make sweeping generalisations. The article itself quoted that, on average, 5.93% of PPC advertisers were found to be untrustworthy. This hardly constitutes domination of the medium, and the products mentioned as examples of higher risks are GHD styling irons and Ugg boots – both of which are brands notoriously afflicted by fakery. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of PPC advertisers are genuine businesses.

Besides, the organic listings are not all sweetness and light. In many industries (designer clothes is one of the worst) the higher ranking sites have used some sickening SEO techniques to achieve their page one prominence. Body copy is saturated with keywords to the point where reading it aloud would cause you to die of embarassment. Preposterously long text-only lists of “top products” assault your eyes from all sides of the page. Entire site maps are shoehorned into the footer. These sites may rank highly, but their user experience is shit.

To avoid playing this ridiculous SEO game, businesses can turn to pay-per-click. In the short term, it gets them instant and highly targeted traffic and provides a steady stream of sales. In the long term, their PPC campaigns will be honed for maximum efficiency whilst their well-designed, user-focused and semantically-coded site will eventually win out in the organic listings (so long as the content is right). In short, pay-per-click works, and it also keeps Google’s products free.

Of course, these concepts are probably lost on the writer of the Times article. It’s no coincidence that Google was singled out as the culprit even though the article itself states that Microsoft’s PPC network has a higher concentration of fraudsters. News Corp, parent company of The Times and headed by the charming Rupert Murdoch, very publicly dislike Google and want to block it from indexing any of their content. Google, though, will suffer no real damage from the attack. As ever, it’s small and medium sized businesses who use the medium that will lose money.

Unfortunately, my point of view is not likely to find much support, even if it’s expressed more publicly and articulately by someone with more influence. This brings us to the root cause of the problem: people. Nowadays, lots of people hate companies, especially really big ones like Google. They think that such profit-hungry companies are to blame for all the world’s ills and should be outlawed. Some might call these people “communists”, but I prefer the less political and more direct “morons”. So let’s say one of our morons clicks a pay-per-click ad and is subsequently conned by the bogus website at the end of the link. Someone like you or I would just suck it up and move on, or maybe try going after the people behind the bogus website. The moron, however, is angry and rather than admit their mistake, they will look for someone to blame. The obvious target is Google, a really big company who they hate and who gave them the link in the first place, so that’s where the anger is directed. The media and consumer organisations feed off this anger, and give it more public momentum so that article like the one in The Times are taken seriously.

Next time you come across one of these people, don’t give them the time of day. Or, if you have to be polite, at least give them the wrong time so their day gets messed up. Don’t worry, they won’t know you’re lying – they’re a moron, after all.