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Google’s Search Engine Optimization Start Guide and Why It’s Bad for Innovation

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Google has always been coy when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO). And understandably so. Google must balance its need for Web sites to be formatted such that they can be properly crawled and indexed with its need to keep people from manipulating the search process.

The result is muddled. Other than basic documentation on its Webmaster Site, Google does not generally comment on specific SEO practices except through its de facto public face of search, Matt Cutts. Matt also offers general guidelines (don't cloak, do create high quality content, etc.) but steers clear of many thornier issues such as "gray hat" SEO practices.

Last week, Google released its Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. On the surfaceIs Google Evil? it seems harmless — a simple guide for Web site owners to follow so they can rank well on Google. But further analysis reveals something more pernicious. What Google is doing is offering Web sites a powerful incentive to strictly adhere to Google's guidelines if they wish to benefit from Google search traffic (and what Web site does not).

However, Google's guidelines do not necessarily yield what's best for Internet users and do not leave much room for innovation around Web site design. For example, Web sites built in Flash or Adobe Flex may not perform well by Google's guidelines, yet they may provide a superior user experience. As a result, technologies that have not been widely adopted (some that we may not even have heard of yet) may be stunted in their growth because Web sites have such a strong incentive not to deviate from Google's basic SEO guidelines.

So what to do? We the community of Internet entrepreneurs must do more to disrupt Google's comfortable market share and force the behemoth to innovate through competition. Only by kicking Google out of its comfortable position atop the search market will the Internet be able to realize its innovative potential.

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About Jeremy Berman

  • Maybe Google is not that ready for that kind of innovation that is why they are limiting the sites to follow their starter guide. Maybe someone needs to be more aggressive in promoting their pages with the aid of new innovations that they have.

  • Hi Jeremy, I’m one of the people at Google who communicates with webmasters. I disagree that by publishing our guidelines we’re limiting innovation on the web. Using innovative and new technologies is GREAT for the web and we’d love to help promote them. However, many of these technologies severely limit any and almost all attempts to extract information and to make it available to other users (say through a search engine). Having a website that is purely powered by AJAX (for example) may be great for the users, and we certainly have our share of such sites, but they will by design be close to impossible to index for search engines (not just Google). If you don’t mind that the content is hidden from search engines (GMail comes to mind), then using these technologies may result in a great user experience, which in turn might be enough to keep users coming back and to have them promote your site to others.

    If however it is important that users can find your content through search engines, it’s important to know how search engines work and how you could make your content available in a way that makes it easy for us (and other search engines) to extract the information from your site and to refer users directly to that information. There are lots of ways of doing this that still allow for a great user experience, but knowing that you need to do this is the first step.

  • It’s not Google search or seo that bothers me, it is AdWords.

    Google doesn’t even follow simple logic or common sense in deciding what is relevant and what is not.

    I’ve run campaigns with ads that directly reflect the landing page and still had ads marked down and bid prices marked up on the grounds of poor relevancy.

    Literally hours spent on the phone with the uninformed, arrogant and basically stupid people who work at AdWords have done nothing but force me to listen to drivel and driven up my blood pressure.

    Do no evil? Those days are long gone!

  • Tony

    This is an interesting point…it seems Google is beginning to do the web what Microsoft did to the desktop.

  • Its great to have content from an authoritative source and if seo was a level playing field with set rules it would prove useful, however with google themselves bending their guidelines to retain custom from key players i suspect its practical worth is limited.

    I’ve deconstructed this guide into some simpler points on my blog

  • Tony

    And this is the problem with Google’s blackbox approach. They may issue “SEO Guidelines” but when it comes down to it they will make whatever decision suits them and we are all meant to trust them. There was a very good article about this in the New York Times.

  • I have to agree with John Mueller on this, Some of the most innovative websites I ever found on the internet where almost always started with a Google search. Plus it serves as a great place to start research for many new webmasters to begin the process.

  • Thanks for your comments everyone. It’s not that it’s impossible to build an innovative website using Google’s SEO Guidelines. The trouble is, Google’s Guidelines (and Google’s dominance in search) strongly incent websites to innovate in a specific way that is ideal for Google but may or may not be ideal for the rest of the world. So even if Google truly has the world’s interests in mind, the marketplace is generally going to do a better job choosing technology winners than any single actor (this is a similar argument for why the US government should not subsidize specific alternative energy technologies, but instead should just tax carbon and gas thereby creating a larger market for all alternative energy technologies).

  • I think saying their guide is bad for the web is a bit of a stretch. Their dominance might help suppress innovation a bit, but this guide is a good thing. It’s a step toward more transparency of the algorithm, which will help everyone by levelling the playing field. If everybody knows what works, many people will be able to avoid paying expensive SEO’s (like us:) and be able to rank much higher. We’ll still have plenty of corporate work to do, so everyone should be happy. Oh, and Flash giving a better “user experience”? Puhlease 🙂

  • Jeremy

    Brian, I think you’re right that the larger threat to innovation is Google’s dominance. But one could view the presence of the SEO industry as a market inefficiency and the guide as a document that calls further attention to, and lends greater validation of, that industry. That is, in a more efficient internet (with better ways to find information) website owners might not have to expend resources worrying about anchor text and nofollow links.

  • SEO Specialist

    I think you have a point but it does not necessarily mean that they are limiting web innovation. For me their limitation would rather make webmasters and SEO’s to think far more new ideas of a creative sites but still follows the guidelines of the SEO.

  • Jeremy

    SEO Specialist – thanks for your response. I agree with your analysis, but I think that by creating such a strong incentive for webmasters and SEOs to design sites in a certain way, Google is essentially, from the top down, “directing” the path of innovation in website design, which thereby limits the scope of what innovations might otherwise occur.

  • I mostly agree to your post. In fact I have a post about Google’s increasing power in my blog in Spanish. The irony is that my webs also try to follow Google guidelines. The AdSense guidelines for content are important too, since any web that wants to include that Google service (a lot of them nowadays), must agree to the kind of content that Google dictates.

  • I’ve had impression that Google, lately, tried to make it harder to SEO, as it delays the benefits of link building and keep certain results in a sandbox. I never thought that Google itslef might need a SEO, as it provides a more “crawlable” structure of web documents. From this prospective, I totally agree with you.

  • izmir reiki

    I have to agree with John Mueller on this, Some of the most innovative websites I ever found on the internet where almost always started with a Google search. Plus it serves as a great place to start research for many new webmasters to begin the process…

  • If your primary site was designed in Flash/Flex, it’s best to have a search engine friendly version of your site (i.e. Non-Flash). It might take a little longer and be a little more costly, but in the long run you’ll realize it was all worth it.

  • Joel Casarez

    I’m not really sure what we can do. Hopefully with Yahoo and Microsoft teaming up it will heat up the competition!

  • James M. Pendelton

    I’ve read the guidelines provided by Google on how to rank well in there search engine, it’s just like the same with the other search engine rules but there’s a little bit modification. Google nowadays really love fresh and original content