Google rewrites its rules

The search engine makes several high-profile moves in marketing and search.

Thad Rueter

Google Inc. is poised to gain more power in digital marketing and mobile commerce thanks to recent changes the search engine giant has implemented.

While Google has yet to release complete details about those changes, and online marketing experts say they don’t yet have a full view of what it will all mean to consumers, marketers and e-retailers, the moves do indicate ways in which Google intends to influence e-commerce.

Google is already a giant, of course, and it is growing. It will command about 33% of revenue in the worldwide advertising market this year, up from 31% last year, eMarketer projects. Google’s share of worldwide mobile web ad revenue will reach nearly 53.2% this year, the market research firm says, up from about 52.4% this year.

Behind but growing fast is Facebook Inc., set to take in 15.8% of mobile ad revenue this year compared with 5.4% in 2012. For all worldwide ad revenue, Facebook will have 5% this year, up from 4.1% last year.

The recent changes, according to Google and online marketing experts, are these:

• A drive to build what one expert calls a “super cookie” that would track how consumers browse and shop online. This technology would presumably strive to upstage traditional cookies installed on consumers’ browsers, with Google owning the tracking data.

• Rolling out encryption for all searches, which makes it more difficult for online marketers and retailers to track the effectiveness of keywords in organic search.

• The official introduction of the Hummingbird search algorithm, which search expert Danny Sullivan, writing on the SearchEngineLand.com blog, likens to switching out an engine in a classic car.

The first change, regarding the technology that advertisers use to better target online shoppers, is the one that confounds marketing experts the most, given the lack of information from Google.

“We believe that technological enhancements can improve users’ security while ensuring the web remains economically viable,” says a Google spokeswoman. “We and others have a number of concepts in this area, but they’re all at very early stages.”

That has left marketing experts to rely on educated guesses about Google’s plans, though a common theme for those who spoke with Internet Retailer is that whatever Google does, it will do it very well, and own and then sell its data.

“By creating a new form of tracking, Google would basically be replacing the standard on which many ad placement and tracking codes are based,” says Steve King, director of product strategy marketing for marketing services provider Strategic Internet Marketing (SIM) Partners. “Google would control this functionality and could charge advertisers to get access to this information.”

How the new Google tracking technology would differ from the pieces of software code that reside on consumers’ browsers—cookies—is unclear. “I don’t think that’s what it is,” says Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, an online privacy group, saying the technology likely will differ from traditional cookies.

Still, he calls the potential technology a “super cookie.” He says Google likely would use it to track consumer interactions across multiple devices and via the entire Google platform, and tie into the GPS technology on mobile devices that tell Google where a consumer is when that consumer does a search or shops online—or buys using the Google Wallet payment service.

“This is all about retail,” Chester says.

(Speaking of search and Google, Internet Retailer is running its annual search marketing survey. You can take part by clicking here. Participants may receive a free copy of Internet Retailer’s Social Media 300.)

The Google tracking technology would better reflect today’s e-retail reality, says Josh Dreller, director of marketing research for digital marketing firm Kenshoo Ltd.

“Cookies are not a great way to track consumers across devices, which becomes a bigger issue as phones and tablets garner more and more screen time,” he says. “So, even though cookies are a core component of the online advertising industry’s infrastructure, the writing has been on the wall for some time that a new, better solution needs to evolve. Google’s entry into this area could mean a major step forward for online marketing.”

Google, in fact, has made at least one other recent move designed to reflect the way consumers are increasingly shopping via multiple types of computers. Its Enhanced Campaigns, unveiled earlier this year, enables retailers to customize ads across many devices and for other variables such as time of day and location in a single AdWords, or paid search, account.

The potential Google tracking technology—the “super cookie”—likely will revolve less around a user’s identity than trends centered around that consumer, says Ken Wisnefski, CEO of search engine optimization and services firm WebiMax. “The data and analytics will become more controlled by Google,” he says. “This will reinforce and further [Google’s] already massive dominance.”

And, he says, a Google tracking product could mean trouble for a retargeted advertising provider such as AdRoll. For its part, AdRoll does not yet have enough information to judge the impact of Google’s potential move, an AdRoll spokeswoman says. “With that said, we welcome any standardized way for users to gain increased transparency and control over what data is used for ad targeting purposes,” she says. 

As for the second change, search marketing experts this week said that Google is fully but quietly rolling out its SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption for all searches. Nearly two years ago, in October 2011, Google said it would do so. “As search becomes an increasingly customized experience, we recognize the growing importance of protecting the personalized search results we deliver,” wrote Evelyn Kao, Google product manager, in a blog posting.

"We added SSL encryption for our signed-in search users in 2011, as well as searches from the Chrome omnibox earlier this year," a Google spokesman said Friday. "We’re now working to bring this extra protection to more users who are not signed in.”

What encrypted search means is that marketers and retailers will know that shoppers come from Google via organic search results, “but won't receive information about each individual query,” Kao wrote. “They can also receive an aggregated list of the top 1,000 search queries that drove traffic to their site for each of the past 30 days through Google Webmaster Tools.”

Online marketers and retailers will certainly notice the change, and may end up diverting more of their budgets to paid search, which will provide more details about how consumers are getting to e-commerce sites and buying, experts say. “Losing Google’s keyword-level reporting will have a significant impact on how organic search performance is tracked, optimized and analyzed,” says Ryan Mayberry, SEO director for search engine marketing firm iProspect.

IProspect encourages marketers and retailers to better integrate organic search keyword data—for instance, how often visitors who search for a term interact with an e-commerce site—with data from paid search campaigns and other search engines, along with historical comparative keyword and conversion data.

Finally, the third recent change for Google involves a change to its mathematical formula for ranking and placing search results, a move that affects some 90% of all searches, Google says. The change is called Hummingbird, and experts, along with Google officials, describe it as the biggest revision to the company’s search algorithm since 2010’s Caffeine update—or perhaps even since 2000, Wisnefski says. Caffeine enables Google’s crawling technology to take in the web in smaller bites than the previous system, resulting in quicker updates to its search index. 

Here’s the good news for e-retailers, according to experts: Hummingbird was quietly introduced about a month ago—surprise!—which means that if retailers have not experienced a decrease in search traffic since then, Hummingbird is probably not going to cause one, at least not for the time being.

Here’s the other news, though: Context appears to be much more important in Google searches than before. While previous Google updates emphasized web page quality, including the quality of links, and fresh, original content, Hummingbird goes beyond that. That’s because Google’s update aims to improve search results by taking in the context and full meaning of what a consumer is searching for.

Here’s how it works, according to what King knows now: Searches for “cheap hotels” would result in affordable hotels “as opposed to hotels of low quality.” That will require retailers to revise web page content to reflect such a context, which will help in rankings. “This rollout seems to target mobile searchers, since these are the users that are least likely to do multiple ‘refinement’ searches,” he says. “Google has a lot of historical information, but as new items or events change the context of searches, the algorithm will change accordingly.”

Google officials also said during the Hummingbird introduction this week that search update will go a long way toward accommodating searches done by voice, which likely would be longer phrases than those consumers type. Google indicated the change was driven in part by consumers becoming more comfortable with searching by using longer questions.






Behavioral targeting, consumer data, e-commerce, Google, Hummingbird, marketing technology, paid search, personalization, SEO, top10stories2013