Search News is back: a look at Google’s interventions

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We know: in these weeks, the general attention is focused on other fronts, and in particular on the big trial going on in the United States, with the U.S. government accusing Google of abusing its dominant position in online search, also bringing to light non-transparent behavior in the relationship between organic search and paid results, with a clear preference for the latter. However, the SEO and Search system is moving forward, and with John Mueller’s latest video, we can recap what are the latest, relevant interventions launched by Mountain View and what kind of impact they can have on our work.

The Google trial and the relationship between ADS and organic search

Before launching into the topics of the video, however, it is worth making a small parenthesis on what has already been called the “big scandal” over the search engine’s transparency – not least to avoid sounding like the dog from the “This is fine” meme from a strip by US cartoonist KC Green.

Il meme

Basically, in the course of the federal antistrust trial led by the U.S. Department of Justice, emails were revealed in which the heads of Google Advertising, Chrome and Search departments collaborated (conspired) to increase ad revenue by removing a feature that had been introduced for the benefit of users but which, precisely, seemed to lead to a reduction in ad clicks.

Specifically, internal emails reveal private exchanges between Jerry Dischler (who at the time was Vice President of Product Management in Google Ads, YouTube, and general sales activity), Anil Sabharwal (then Head of Product for Google Chrome), other senior executives such as Nick Fox (who was VP of Search and Assistant), John Maletis (Product Head of Chrome) and Hiroshi Lockheimer (Android Chef), but most importantly Prabhakar Raghavan, then head of Google Ads and now senior vice president at Google and responsible for Assistant, Geo, Commerce, Payments, Google Search, and Google Ads products.

Chrome feature rollback requested by Ads team

In a nutshell, in these conversations, Google executives looked at increasing the number of searches performed on Chrome with the goal of boosting advertising revenue, which makes up more than 80 percent of revenue for Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In the specific “incriminating” email, which dates back to 2019, the executive in charge of the Ads (Advertising) division addresses a colleague in charge of the Search (Search) division, essentially asking him to cancel a recent update because the group was not meeting its projected revenue targets. The tone of the email suggests some “apparent” reluctance to communicate that the Ads team needs to generate more revenue, while clearly expressing this need.

The update discussed in the email was indeed rescinded, and the other aspect of strong reflection stems from the fact that Prabhakar Raghavan (who, as mentioned, was in copy to the email) was at the time “only” the head of the Ads division, but in 2020 he was also appointed to head the Search division, as if he had prevailed in some sort of internal “battle” between the divisions.

The case has obviously shaken the SEO community a lot, raising various thoughts, doubts, and concerns about the transparency and ethicality of Google’s practices.

First of all, the rollback of the Chrome update shows that the company has decided to follow its own revenue rather than taking care of the user experience. Another relevant fact, this change then forced companies in practice to invest more in Google Ads for brand protection activities instead of those for attracting direct traffic. Added to this, the request to increase Chrome searches to increase ad revenue emerged after the Google Ads team had already begun to nontransparently manipulate ad prices to meet revenue targets, another “scandal” that emerged in the process.

Search marketers have long suspected that Google may be intentionally making SEO more difficult in order to increase ad revenue, despite the inevitable “facade” denials, and this information certainly is a blow to Google’s credibility and reputation, which was also based on the (oft-repeated) assertion that Google’s Search and Ads teams had no direct contact with each other, to the point of even not being able to exchange phone numbers.

This email proves otherwise and is a concrete sign of a change in or violation of Google’s internal policies.

Ultimately, the central issue here is not just that Google Ads mechanisms influence Google Search, but rather that the Google Ads team seems to have a direct and more “heavy-handed” influence on the decisions of other teams that are supposed to be neutral.

Google Search News of October 2023: highlights of recent months

Google and Search are moving forward, we said, and John Mueller is tasked with reminding us of everything that has happened in recent weeks on this front, as is now customary with the Google Search News series.

And the menu for this episode is quite rich, ranging from updates to search ranking systems to interventions on structured data, through how foreign language sites are found and other insights more or less relevant to those who manage sites.

  • News about structured data and Google

The first topic introduced by Mueller concerns evolutions in structured data, and in particular Google’s decision to discontinue the use of this microdata for displaying certain advanced results.

Taking a step back, structured data is a kind of machine-readable code that we can add to our web pages, which search engines can use to better understand the content. Google uses structured data to improve the way it shows certain search results, which are called rich results or multimedia results.

To provide a cleaner and more consistent search experience, Google has changed the way some types of structured data are displayed. Specifically, the How-To type is no longer used, and structured FAQ data appears only for well-known, authoritative, government, and health sites.

There is already an annotation within the Search Console alerting users to this change, although in practice it is not necessary to remove this structured data even if we use it on pages. They simply will not have any “special” effect and will not activate extra functionality in SERPs.

The Search Advocate also adds a general tip on the topic: it is best to be prepared to handle possible changes in structured data in general, using, for example, a CMS platform or plugin that makes it easy to add and remove this information. It is easy to assume that new types of data will be introduced, while other types may disappear over time: setting up an easy way to enter and edit structured data today will save us time in the future, Mueller recommends.

  • Updates to search ranking

The next topic takes us more directly into the SEO area of interest, as it recounts the latest updates to search ranking. Specifically, Mueller talks about the implementation of August 2023 Core Update and the Helpful Content System update, because the video was recorded before the release of October 2023 Core Update (and, in the meantime, Google had also rolled out another anti-spam update!).

As we know, major updates or core updates are significant and far-reaching changes that, several times a year, Google makes to its algorithms and search systems. Helpful Content is precisely one of these search systems, which has the specific goal of helping people find original and useful content created for people in SERPs.

With the latest changes, Google has provided some caveats about publishing third-party content on its website that is not related to the main topic of the website itself. In general, Helpful Content system uses site-wide signals, so if we host articles largely unrelated to the main purpose of the site or produced without close involvement or oversight, it might make sense to block their indexing to avoid overall damage to our site’s ranking.

  • Other interventions on Search

Work in recent months has also focused on other parts of search results.

In particular, site names are now displayed for all languages, after an experimental phase that, for example, had not affected Italy and Italian.

Site names are determined automatically by Google’s systems and structured data markup, and the official documentation offers suggestions on what to do if the preferred name is not selected or if there are other problems.

In addition, the handling of multilingual searches has been improved, and in particular, Google has worked on its language matching with user queries to more frequently and confidently show content in the most appropriate language based on the user’s language settings and location, as well as based on the user’s understanding of the query language.

Finally, Google Search can now index .csv files, news that will make “spreadsheet fans like me rejoice,” Mueller jokes.

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