At one point, Google was proud to offer up its search results and services without any sponsored content. That seems to be changing in a pretty aggressive way, though. Google is apparently compensated by the vendors that appear in its Flight Search and Hotel Finder vertical search engines.
So here's what that means: Last year, Google launched Hotel Finder and Flight Search, seemingly to compete with Kayak or Hotels.com. Both now appear prominently on Google's main search results page. At the time, it seemed like Google was just running roughshod over every industry, gathering up precious information while it trampled over the once-profitable fields sown by competitors that couldn't afford to operate on the slim margins Google does.
Now, though, there's another layer: Google is collecting money from vendors its search engines point users toward. The results seem to be the same as pure "organic" results, just now companies are paying Google for the referral. So if you grab a Delta flight through Google Flights, Delta will kick back a percentage of your ticket price to Google. Totally fair! But it also goes against the Google's fundamental principle that search results should always be organic and transparent. Here's the disclaimer/explainer that Google shows users right now:
Which looks even worse when you line that up with Google's statements in its IPO filing in 2004:
We do not accept money for search result ranking or inclusion. We do accept fees for advertising, but it does not influence how we generate our search results. The advertising is clearly marked and separated. This is similar to a newspaper, where the articles are independent of the advertising. ...
We apply these principles to each of our products and services. We believe it is important for users to have access to the best available information and research, not just the information that someone pays for them to see.
Now that's changed, and naturally, the EVIL flags are being run up the mast. Except that for a giant entity of Google's scope, this is inevitable and obvious clearly something that had to happen, especially in the context of DUH. Yes, Google is going through some changes—and that means a real reevaluation of what and who it is as a company. And paid search placement is a precious thin line to tread—right now, there's no discernible impetus for companies to continue paying, so this could quickly, conceivably turn into a pay-to-be-included scenario. But right now, right here, this is just good business. In fact, it would almost be weirder if they didn't.
Here's the thing: All of Google's direct competitors—Facebook and Twitter especially—have full paid inclusion that's at times far less transparent than Google's. It's just how business is done at this point. Google changing its mind doesn't mean that it's a harbinger of destruction on the world. Companies change their minds all the time. This is just Google acting like the corporate monolith that it has been for some time now. [Marketing Land]
Chris Madden is a New York-based illustrator and designer. You can see his work here, follow him on Facebook and Twitter.