Today’s episode is all about the future of Google in the long-term and the consequences for users and marketers worldwide. My guest is Barry Adams, an SEO Consultant at Polemic Digital, co-chief editor at State of Digital and public speaker at conferences such as Learn Inbound and PubCon. Listen to our conversation about the future of internet, the tough questions that marketers will face, and what you should do about it.
listen to this episode
- The history of Google and SEO
- Overblown marketing hype
- Google positioning itself as an essential utility
- Educating others about Google’s business model
- How Google gathers data
- Responsibility and bias in search engine results
- The fake news phenomenon
- Barry’s recommended resources
Louis: Barry, I know you for a while now. The first time I heard from you was at a digital marketing conference in Dublin a few years ago. I was surprised by the fact that, I remember vividly, you were the only guest speaker who actually seemed to be honest and seemed to be speaking his mind without fearing any consequences. I remembered you from there and then I followed you on Twitter and here we are today.
Before going into the who are you, a little bit more on what you do, there is one company that you hate and dislike above all of them, right? Don’t say the word just yet. This company generated $90 billion in revenue last year, in 2016, mostly from advertising. It has colonized more countries than the ancient Romans. You described it as a beast with a ferocious appetite that will kill any industry. There’s no love lost between you and them. Obviously, I’m talking about?
Barry: Google, obviously, the bane of my existence but also the company that enables me to make money. I have this public persona of being a Google basher but I’m also a bit grateful to an extent because they enable me to make a living doing search engine optimization and helping websites become successful through Google primarily through organic results, because I don’t like giving money to Google.
I don’t necessarily have a beef with Google as much as I have a beef with the public image of Google out there because when they first arrived on the scene, they were described as sort of a good guy company with this “don’t be evil” informal mantra and just trying to do things slightly differently, sort of the [00:01:47] Microsoft of today because Microsoft is always seen as this big being of a company that just did whatever it needed to do to win.
The Google corporate culture sort of started as a total opposite of Microsoft corporate culture, much more laid back, much more friendly, much more open, inclusive, much more transparent. Ironically, these last 10, 15 years, the rules have reversed and now, Google has already become the bad guy in the story that just bows over any competitor, takes over entire industries and leaves the wake of destruction behind without any real thought of the repercussions of what they’re doing. Whereas, Microsoft is trying to position itself a bit more as a friendly giant that just ticks along nicely, tries to help users, finally has an operating system that’s pretty decent, and seems to be moving away from being a general dick in the marketplace.
Louis: You mentioned in the start that you’re making money thanks to them and you have to be grateful. Do you think you’re making money thanks to them or do you make money because of them in a sense?
Barry: Maybe I make money despite of them because if it wasn’t Google, there would have been other search engines. I started doing SEO as a hobby for my own website when Google was just a twinkle in the eye. Then this stuff was easy, you put y text and y bracket on and you use keywords to tag. Actually, Google sort of forced the entire search industry to clean up and strive to be better because the early generation search engines were terrible, absolutely terrible. But then, the web wasn’t that big at that stage so they could afford to be terrible.
Google really pushed the envelope but if it wasn’t Google, someone else would have done it. None of the technologies that Google use are protectively new and innovative because we tend to forget that a company like Yandex in Russia started at around the same time using a very similar approach to indexing and ranking web pages that Google has.
Google just managed to get there first than the rest of the world, combined with the good guy image, their happy persona of a lovable company and managed to snatch up 90%, 95% market share in most of resting Europe. I think that is what annoys me the most. They are basically a default monopoly in most countries that I work in.
They have certain responsibilities that they just don’t acknowledge as a monopoly. When they decide for example to go into, what I saw the other day was job listings, job listings directly in search results that they scrape from other websites. Google is very good at it. They take over a certain information niche and just keep the audience for themselves.
Job websites can build up a lot of jobs and a lot of reputation over a long period of time and puts a lot of effort into making a great website, then Google comes along, calls that information, scrapes it basically, and presents it in their own search results, allowing them to monetize it and not sending any traffic or sending minimal traffic back to the job site. They’ve done this before with local websites, with movie websites, all kinds of different information niches and e-commerce niches. They even tried it with insurance comparisons and finance comparisons. They’re just trying to make money, you know?
Google stopped being a good guy company in 2004 when it went public and then had a legal obligation to maximize profits and that’s what they’re doing right now. I don’t really blame Google to that extent, I just blame the rest of the world for not treating Google like the money-hungry shit monster that they’ve become.
Louis: What should we do as people? How can we blame ourselves for a company that we don’t have any choice but to use them most of the time?
Barry: Exactly. You can try using Bing, but no harm to Microsoft, it’s a terrible search engine. The thing is, in previous decades when certain companies have taken over a specific niche to an extent for it to become a default monopoly, the same thing happens. A nation-wide regulator steps in and regulates the industry, sometimes even breaks up the company. It’s what happened to AT&T, it’s what happened to IBM. It’s what happened to Microsoft too in an extent in the late 1990s where they got a real shit ton of legislation against them, in both America and the European Union. Right now, in America, Google is just being let off the hook.
Google arguably has more power and abuses more power than Microsoft ever had at the hayday but they get away with it because they spend more money on being the most [00:06:27] manufacturers. I think they have Washington’s first or second largest [00:06:31] company. In the European Union, fortunately, we seem to have a little bit more sense about that but because the Americans aren’t cooperating, they’re just letting Google off the hook, the Europeans have to fight the battle on their own. Because Google is still an American company, that’s going to be a very tough fight and there’s a lot of propaganda put out there to help defend Google’s practices under the ban of Silicon Valley innovation.
Google hasn’t really innovated in 10, 15 years. They just buy companies that innovate because they are so big and so powerful. It’s just the standard defense of another company can come in and be better at it than Google and then the winner can become the new Google. That’s just not true anymore. Google has become so big, it’s actually a huge critical mass that they’ve achieved. They will just buy out competitors or if they can’t buy them, make life impossible for those competitors so that they just die out.
There needs to be a higher level intervention to prevent that from happening, be that in form of a regulator on a nation-wide level or continental level or be that of a mass movement of consumers. The latter is very improbable because like I said, consumers have this image of Google as a good guy company. The verb for searching stuff online has the fucking name on it, right?
Now, I’m hoping that it’ll follow the same vein as what happened to companies like Hoover where the brand name becomes the verb and then the company sort of disappears from people’s radar but I don’t see that happening with Google because they are such a huge dominant presence on the web. It’s not just search engines, they are, in essence, an advertising company, its data mining, its users people farm. We, as people, are their cattle and we’re being farmed, our data’s being farmed and sold to advertisers. They are so prevalent in every aspect of the internet. It’s probably hard to imagine the web where Google doesn’t exist or has a much more diminished power.
I think at some stage, some regulators are going to have to put on some severe steel testicles, pardon the implicit sexism there, and say that we need to break Google up because they have too much power. The search arm needs to be separated from the advertising arm, and maybe even the advertising arm needs to be split up into different advertising businesses because they have too much power over the whole web. If you go down there, we just have to look at companies like Facebook as well who have almost as much power and Amazon who are also pervasive in people’s online presence and Apple which despite the fact that iPhone is not selling as well as Android, Apple has a hugely dominant play on the mobile market.
Louis: If you combine the advertising revenue from Facebook and Google, the market share is more than 99% as of the date we’re recording which is May 2017. It’s unreal to think about that, especially because 15 years ago if I’m not mistaken, those two companies were not born. They took 99% of the online advertising revenue market share in less than 15 years which is fucking crazy. Before going into a little bit more detail on how we can, as digital marketers, embrace that and fight against Google or find ways to at least live with it, I just want to go back to you a little bit. As you mentioned before, you started SEO the year when France won the Football World Cup, which is a long time ago.
Barry: I still remember that.
Louis: Me too. It’s my first memory as a child.
Barry: Home advantage you know, it does wonders.
Louis: Yeah and they got poisoned, the president got poisoned and all of that. Come on, let us win for once, fuck sake. Right, you’re the founder of Polemic Digital for the last three years and you’ve been a regular speaker at Pubcon, BrightonSEO. You’ve been a lecturer at the Digital Marketing Institute, Queen’s University in Belfast and also, the editor of the State of Digital. You have plenty of experience there. I’m curious to know, if you have to select one thing outside of Google that we just mentioned, if you have to select one thing that really annoys you in digital marketing nowadays, what would it be?
Barry: I think it’s what annoyed me about digital marketing since the beginning. It’s this chasing after hypes. One day, it’s inbound marketing. The next day, it’s growth hacking. Then, it’s influencer marketing. It’s just a lot of bullshit, as you know. That’s why you invented the podcast in the first place. It’s just people chasing after quick wins and there are no quick wins. The golden age of becoming an internet millionaire have come and gone. If you didn’t launch a business in the year 2000, you would just forget about it. It’s over. It’s now hard craft. It’s knowing what to do and doing it well over a long period of time. There are no more easy solutions.
We, as fickle species and always chasing after the latest and greatest, we want that silver bullet. We want that magic formula, that unicorn dust that we can sprinkle over our website, get a million visitors a day and become millionaires and retire to the Bahamas. Because that’s what we see other people are doing, not realizing that no, that’s not what other people are doing. Those people are either born with a lot of wealth or they got really fucking lucky, winning the lottery, they want to know 100 million chances to make a fortune online. Nearly every one of us just grinds along as we do, we have to do it the hard way by doing good things over a long period of time. That probably annoys me the most, that people just keep chasing after these hypes and don’t learn from their mistakes.
It’s just hitting next and if you do that you’re going to become hugely successful. Oh no, wait, this other thing if you do next, and then you’re going to be hugely successful. Wake the fuck up, people. It’s just good hard craft. There’s nothing particularly magic about it, just doing the right things over a long period of time.
Louis: I don’t think I can say anything more than that. That’s well summarized. There’s another thing that I heard that you were speaking about a few times about websites in particular. You have a strong point of view about websites nowadays and those digital marketing agencies building those fancy unicorn type websites. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Barry: Yeah. I get this from multiple perspectives but I’ll start with what my ideal scenario is because for me, a website ticks three main boxes. The first thing is it has to look good because there’s certain aspects of trust and authority inherent in a good web design. It needs to look professional. It needs to have aesthetically pleasing design element so that people enjoy engaging with the website or at least aren’t turned off by the design of the website.
It also needs to be functional. I probably should have put that first. Websites need to achieve its purpose. If it’s an ecommerce website, people need to be able to buy products, add them to cart and checkout with little hassle as possible. If it’s a lead gen website, people need to be able to find the information and fill in the forms as quickly as possible. It needs to be functional.
That is where most web agencies actually stop. But for me, the third part is just as important as the other two and that is the performance aspect of it. The website needs to be able to perform and by that, I mean it needs to be able to get an audience because a website without an audience is just a car sitting in a garage somewhere. It might look pretty but you’re not going to do anything with it. It’s not going to achieve anything.
That is where I find too many problems in websites being launched by web agencies that really ought to know better. A functional and beautiful website is not the finished product, that is just the start of the journey. The website then needs to be able to get an audience. That means there needs to be all kinds of elements into that website to enable it to get traffic from search engines, either paid or organic. It needed to be integrated to social media platforms for content promotion. It needs to be able to build landing pages, integrate with email marketing efforts. You name it. Those things need to be in there otherwise, it is not a website, it’s a show piece. That is what my main drive is.
On the other hand, I understand it from the perspective of the web agencies because I used to be that digital director on the other end, trying to keep an entire army of web developers employed because the client doesn’t always see the need for that because that sort of performance element stuff is what’s under the hood.
That’s not always directly visible to the client and therefore, they don’t necessarily want to pay for it. You can use that as a sort of USB, as a web agency, that this stuff comes in by default. We do that as standard. But it also means you tend to be more expensive than your competitors. Too many clients make those decisions on which agency to go for based mostly on price rather than on the quality of the output.
I fully understand the conundrum that web agencies have. What really fucking pisses me off is when I start having these conversations with my client’s web agencies, they don’t even acknowledge the fact that these performance elements are missing. In fact, they don’t even realize that it’s an issue in the first place. That’s where my patience just runs out. I can fully work with an agency that has acknowledged that these performance elements might not be present because of whatever budgetary reasons or functional reasons, as long as they realize that some stuff has been left out for whatever reason.
Agencies that don’t even realize that that’s a problem, I have no patience for those anymore. In fact, I want them to go and die and disappear because they are just churning our shit websites that clients believe will make them really rich or make their business successful, which end up not accomplishing anything. Which then in turn, dissolutions with client about what the internet and the web can achieve for them and you create this vicious circle of disappointment and negative attitude and people willing to spend less and less money on it. We should be doing the exact opposite, creating a positive ecosystem that reinforces the ideas that the internet can really achieve great things for a business to excellent web experiences that drive traffic and help businesses grow.
Louis: From my small experience as a consultant, what I found to be the toughest thing actually from an agency point of view or consulting point of view is that your client will ask you things. They will ask you, “I want this brand. This shiny website with the slider on the home page, I want that and that, and I want this beautiful pop up coming up straight away. We want that so you have to deliver that or else I will bring the money elsewhere.”
It’s obvious from an agency point of view that needs money that you’re like, “Well, actually, we can do that. It’s okay. We can develop that or design that. It’s actually easy to do.” Is it the right thing? No. But what happens is that most of the time we don’t say no because we’re just way too happy to take the work.
This is what I was trying to fight against as a consultant where we were questioning every single choice. Going back to the customer and asking them, “What do you actually want? What types of things are you looking for?” AB testing and user testing things before putting life but that generates an awful amount of work, like extra work, it’s much more difficult to do than just saying yes to everything. If I have to choose one reason of why this is happening, why so many agencies are building bad websites, I would choose this one.
Barry: I agree with you. It’s sometimes not worth fighting those battles because you have to keep an agency running. You have to get to work and if you keep saying no, the client is going to go to a web agency that just says yes. That’s how we end up on all these shit websites. There isn’t really an easy solution to that problem. It’s just a slow, steady maturation of the industry where hopefully people like myself and you will quite be happy about it so often in public forums that people will feel ashamed to build and launch websites like that and that they want to elevate their own profession to a higher level.
I know some web developers, some of them are really good friends of mine who are at that level. To work with those people is an absolute delight because it’s a fantastic two-way street where I come up with a suggestion for improvement and they come back with a more elegant solution that addresses the core problem better than I could ever think of. Those people really understand the need for high-performing websites. We’ll do our best to make it happen.
Generally, I see clients who have their own in-house development teams being more receptive to this because those in-house developers have a stake in making that website perform. Whereas agencies, they just want to get paid and move on to the next project because they literally cannot afford to overspend on every web project, to make the client happy, to make angry SEOs like myself happy.
They just need keep the work coming in because they’ve got salaries to pay. Whereas in-house developers I think, have more incentive to really try and dig the most out of an existing website and try to get it to perform on optimal levels and they want to learn as well. They want to see what they can do to make it better and understand what goes into that so that next time, they don’t make those same mistakes.
Louis: I want to move on to what we discussed at the start of the episode which is about Google and how to deal with these companies. I’m curious to know, first of all, where do you think Google is going? I’m not talking necessarily about version two or three of the AMP project, Accelerated Mobile Pages, I’m talking more in general, the big picture. If you have to think about the next 5 or 10 years, where do you think Google is going to be in those times?
Barry: I think Google wants to become a background noise to an extent. They want to become an electricity supplier where you never want to switch away from. What you see already happening to an extent with home assistant devices like the Alexa, Amazon Echo and all those different platforms is that it becomes integrated in your daily life.
Google wants to become that sort of ubiquitous search machine where you just interact with it in a very natural way without actually thinking about it. It’s not about opening a browser on your mobile or on your desktop anymore and going to google.com or whatever, it’s about just asking questions to the ether. Google wants to become that default provider of that experience. Whether or not they’ll succeed is a very different story but that’s where they want to go because that’s where technology, in general, is headed.
If a company like Google can become such an integral part of our life that you literally cannot imagine it without the company, that’s when they have won. That’s when they become a crucial utility. That is where the technology is headed.
Google is trying its very best to position itself that way. I actually think they’re probably behind on that a little bit because A, there’s some privacy concerns about Google’s home assistant which haven’t yet been fully addressed and which are turning some of the early adopters off and making them go to something like the Amazon Echo, which because Amazon isn’t an advertising company, they’re an ecommerce company, they have less incentive to mining your data and less incentive to invade your privacy. The same with Apple. Apple’s a hardware company at its roots. You feel more confident talking to Siri realizing that you can opt out of any data mining because Apple’s core business model is not people farming, whereas Google’s core business model is people farming.
Google wants to become that ubiquitous search provider. I’m not entirely sure if they can be or if they do, they will face some really stiff opposition. Google doesn’t really shy away from that. They have a pretty good shot at it. They’ve got some of the smartest minds in the world working for them, which is one of the other aspects that depresses me about them. Literally, the smartest people on the planet are working and finding ways to make people click more ads. That just really fucks me off.
That’s what Google wants to be. That’s where technology in general is headed. I think that’s the only real existential threat Google faces at the moment. If they can nail that, if they can push Amazon and Apple and Microsoft out of that space and become the dominant player there, then it’s world domination 2.0 and we can all kiss our asses goodbye really.
Louis: Pretty great future in front of us. As digital marketers, should we fight Google? If so, how? Or should we just obey by the rules and move along?
Barry: I think fighting is probably a bit futile. I’d say I’ll argue for education. Most people sleepwalk into this dystopia and not realizing what is actually happening. When you explain it to people, you say, “Holy crap. This is actually what’s happening.” Most people don’t understand. They don’t understand the technology. They don’t understand the business model underlyings, search engines like Google. They don’t understand what Facebook is doing with all that data, they just want to share pretty photos of dogs or sunlit beaches and how nice their food looks on a plate that they could share off with their friends. That’s what they want to do.
I think education. We, as digital marketers, have a certain responsibility to educate our clients and our friends and our relatives about this, that yes these services are all great but if you’re not paying for it, you are the product. You are the cow being milked here. Have a bit of thinking about that. What are you actually comfortable with?
Some people will say they can have anything they want but that too is a dangerous threat to walk on because—I’ll give you an example, there’s a lot of studies that show that when people who realized they’re being watched, they behave differently. The moment that people realize that everything they do online is being watched, they will behave differently.
That sort of pervasive surveillance capitalism, as [00:24:44] calls it, is literally changing the way we behave, it’s hampering our freedoms in very identifiable yet subtle ways and we have to be careful that we just go along with that tide that technology is bringing us without stopping and taking shortcut and thinking, “Hey, hang on a second, is this really what you want to be doing? Do we want to create this commercial surveillance apparatus that governments and companies can tap into to harvest our data and do whatever the hell they want with it and even manipulate us to a large extent?”
You saw that with recent stories about election manipulation where companies like Cambridge Analytica and those sorts of businesses, there’s strong evidence that there were some percentage point swings. For example the Brexit vote, the Trump election as a result of those companies using data mining and behavior targeting to influence swing voters. That is really scary stuff. The infrastructure is already there and people don’t necessarily realize that that is what actually is happening, that is what this internet enabled future has actually brought us as a side effect of all the extra cool things we got to do.
As digital marketers, our responsibility is primarily in education. Teach people how this stuff works and make them aware of the dangers that it poses and not just the cool stuff that comes with it. I suppose it doesn’t come naturally to digital marketers because we profit from it. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you while I’m chewing away at the hand that feeds me. It might actually lash back at me at some stage but I feel I have such civic duty.
A lot of other people, a lot of other SEOs in the industry share this with me, they have a sort of civic duty that yes, it’s cool that we’re making a living out of this, but there are side effects to this technology that endanger the basic principles of a free, open, democratic society that we don’t necessarily want to ignore.
Louis: From all of the stuff that you’re saying, I gather that by educating people, especially the younger generation, you’re kind of hoping that those people would be even more educated about the problem of privacy and all of that and therefore by consequence, a lot of them will start to rebel against it more and more and that it will hopefully lead to the EU, the US, and other countries regulating those big companies that are literally playing with our lives and the politics and stuff. Is it kind of what you’re getting at? You’re hoping that by educating people in return, they would fight against them in bigger numbers?
Barry: That is the idea. Through education, you create awareness. From awareness, there will be activism. The people growing up in a native digital environment will become the lawmakers of the future. We can’t really change the minds of the old established political elites at the moment but we can make sure that they are replaced in due course with a new political elite who does understand the problem and is aware of the dangers that it poses.
It might take awhile to get there but if we don’t educate them, we’ll never get there. It is about building up that momentum, building up that awareness, building up that grass roots activism may be to an extent, help make current politicians aware and make sure that the next generation of politicians will be more empowered and informed to be able to effectively fight against these types.
The companies themselves don’t do it for nefarious reasons. Google, I’m pretty sure, isn’t setting out to be empire 2.0. They just want to make money. The thing is, the side effect of them wanting to make money creates this negative atmosphere, this panopticon of surveillance capitalism that is actively eroding our freedoms and empowering political movements to manipulate masses on an industrial scale. They need to take some responsibility for themselves.
The moment people within Google and within Facebook themselves realize that, “Hey, hang on a second. What we’re doing here can really have some bad impacts in the long term.” That’s also when we start winning the battle. But they won’t necessarily do that, unless they get confronted with the negative output again and again and again because 1 person piping up can be ignored, 10 people piping up, you just hit block, if it’s 1 million people shouting at them then maybe they’ll start to take it seriously.
Louis: Remind me of the sentence in their mission statement, statement that they took off after they went public?
Barry: “Don’t be evil.” They took that one away. They subtly left it out of the mission statement. I think they realized that making profit and being not evil are mutually exclusive. Every profit-making company has to make more compromises. I make more compromises myself as a profit-making company. I fully understand them leaving it out. It’s just the public hasn’t quite got onto that yet.
Louis: For listeners who don’t necessarily know exactly how Google works and gather all data, can we just run through briefly the type of information they get from where?
Barry: The search engine is the obvious bit. Every time you use the search engine, they know exactly what you search for and they know which website you click on. That’s the easy bit but that’s just the beginning of it. Gmail, they know exactly who you’re emailing, how often you email those people. They don’t necessarily read the emails, they have automated systems that extract topical information from those emails but they don’t actually read your email messages themselves. Just the matter information, who you send those emails to and how often you send those emails, they have all of that. That of course is an advertising company.
There’s a lot of websites, millions and millions of websites that show advertising powered by Google’s doubleclick ad network. Every time you visit one of those websites, they will know. Every time you read an article in a news website, they know which article you read. Every time you open an email and click through from that email to a website, they know that you’ve clicked on that.
They will follow your movements throughout the web even when you arrive on websites that don’t use Google advertising because they place those cookies in your browser from when you did visit a website that uses Google advertising, they will follow you on the web. They will know every single website that you visit, every single article that you read, every link that you click on the web, every video that you watch on YouTube because of course YouTube is owned by Google. Then of course, if you use a browser like Chrome, they’ll know everything that you do anyway.
Then of course the Google account, your login for Google has all of that information combined in the backend. They follow you on around everywhere, every account that you use, that email address which you signed up with. There is almost nothing that they don’t know about you, what you do online. Combine that with Android that tracks everywhere you go, every app that you download, everything in your contact list, everything in your messages, where does it stop? I would actually challenge you to find something that Google doesn’t know about you when it comes to the Internet in general. That’s probably a scary story.
Louis: It’s scary. It means that by combining all of those data, they are able to really create profiles, as you mentioned in your example before, they’re able to know whether or not you’re going to vote for Hillary or for Donald. They are able to know whether or not you’re on the fence and you don’t really know which one. They are able to know everything that that they need in order to sell your data, sell your profile to advertising companies or company advertising to you.
If you think about the way Google is showing you results and you’re searching for specific sentences such as ‘who should I vote for?’ Something stupid like this, even if it’s an algorithm, they have a way, they can choose the pages that are in the top 10 and number 1, 2, 3, 4. These pages up there that they are showing, that could genuinely influence somebody to do the wrong thing. I don’t know if they fixed that but there was a sentence that you could search on Google, but one of them was ‘Was the Holocaust real?’ The first or second result were actually negationist website saying no, it never existed.
Barry: Exactly. Can you imagine a teenager wanting to learn about holocaust and being exposed to that? Did Holocaust happen? Then the first website, “No it didn’t happen and this is why.” People believe these stories of course, because the way they present their information seems very convincing and just ignores the entire source of evidence that the Holocaust did actually happen, let alone the bloody eye witness statements. The Nazis owned very extensive records because they were good bookkeepers, those Nazis.
I actually did that search for myself when I first heard about it. For me to see that search result, the first five results were all pretty much all holocaust denial websites. I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry and upset with Google as I was in that moment. That was only a couple of months ago. I have a long colorful history of arguing with Google. Don’t start arguing with windmills really, because it’s totally futile. That was the most visual pain and anger I have ever felt towards Google. Even now, when I just remember that, I feel actually upset about it because for me, that was a betrayal of the most painful kind.
Google has a responsibility as an internet search engine to show the highest quality results, as far as they can determine, factually accurate and represent reality. They let us down every single day. To let the world down on a search term that is so important and something we, as a species, cannot afford to ever forget, that for me, was just brutal and unacceptable on so many levels. I think people in Google should lose jobs over this. They should lose bonuses over this. They should lose dividends over this. Whatever that makes them feel that pain themselves because they don’t actually realize. That’s just a fault in the algorithm, oh yes you’ll fix that but don’t leave that sufficient PR fallout against it. Totally and utterly unacceptable.
As the world’s largest search engine, they need to take responsibility over the information that they show. The failure to do so, especially on such crucial topics, is utterly unforgivable and needs to be rubbed in the face at every fucking chance. When I meet Googlers at conferences from now on, I have already committed myself to reminding them however subtle, that they let this shit happen.
The nice guys, John Mueller and Gary Illyes, nice people, public faces of Google towards the SEO community, but I’ll still remind them because I want them to feel bad about this not just now but 10 years from now, I still want them to feel bad about this, that they let this shit happen and didn’t fix it until there was sufficient PR negativity against them that they felt forced to fix it. They shouldn’t have to wait for some journalist to write an article about it. They need to monitor this shit actively. They’ve got the money for it. You talked about them yourself, $90 billion in revenue. The numbers are obscene, how much profit these people are making.
So little acknowledgement of the responsibility that comes with that power. For me, that was such a powerful moment that certainly, to an extent, have indicated my anger with Google that I felt all these years. They are a fallible, flawed, monstrosity that we’ve created with our own active participation in the system. We now need to take some ownership with that and say it to Google, “You know what? Yes, you harvest our data, we keep using your search engine tens of thousands of times a day, it’s time you take up some of that responsibility and stop just looking at profit and start looking at the impact that you can have on society.”
Louis: This is where I disagree with you. Maybe you didn’t express it the right way but I believe that companies can do both. They can make profit and have strong moral ethics. Basic example would be Patagonia, all that kind of other companies I can mention, right?
If they want to survive in the long term, I firmly believe that any company should really make sure that people trust them, trust them for real. I think Google is going into a very slippery path. Obviously, the path is not that slippery yet but if they don’t invest more of their resources into those ethical challenges, if they don’t invest more money into making the world a better place, the right way, not trying to take data from anybody and use that against their will, I think they’re going to be in trouble in the near future. There’s this report, I don’t know if you read it, the Edelman report about trust and the state of trust in the world.
Louis: One of the number one thing that makes people trust companies is whether they treat downplays right, whether they actually fight for what’s right. It’s starting to be more and more important. As we know from the presidential election in the US recently and other things and all the fake news and all, people crave for trust. They need to trust people, companies, government and politics. I think that this is what’s happening, if they don’t, as you said, if they don’t start to cope on, it might bite them back in the ass pretty quickly.
Barry: I hope you’re right but I have a much more cynical view about that. People don’t need to trust companies. Companies just need to present themselves as trustworthy. However, they actually do what they say they do or do it in such a way that it makes a difference is an entirely different aspect.
Some of the biggest companies in the world that have been around for 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years or more are inherently bastardly companies that do nasty things every single day but nobody bats an eyelid because they’re just background noise.
For consumers, consumers want to buy into companies that they think do good things and can return their way from companies if companies are perceived to be like you said, are trustworthy. That’s just the PR exercise. We, as people, don’t necessarily want to trust the company, we just want our own world view to be reinforced. We want our own world view to be affirmed by the content that we read and the businesses that we engage with everyday. Whether or not that worldview is factually accurate is entirely beside the point because it’s about our feelings, not about facts.
Companies can and do, all the time, prey on that inherent human weakness, where what is true is irrelevant as long as it makes us feel good about ourselves. Google does this, Facebook does this, every company that you see on TV advertising, every radio advocate, they all do this. It’s about how you make people feel, not what you actually do in the real world. We, as a species, we just haven’t evolved beyond that and I don’t think we ever will because it’s just so inherent in the human condition.
I hope that we become more aware of this and awaken to it to a certain extent but my inherent level pain of the human race makes me very cynical person in that regard because history has a tendency to repeat itself and what we’re seeing right here is a slightly different repetition of what’s happened 70, 80 years ago which happened 60, 70 years before them and tends to go in a cycle. The cycle speeds up a little bit but every couple of centuries, the same shit happens again because we forget. We forget, as species, we make the mistakes as a little surge of uplift, a positive movement and then we forget again and go back to the same old mechanisms that we have.
The only difference in this particular scenario is that in the last 150 years, technology has caught up with that and speed up the cycle and make companies grow quicker and be able to exert influence in a shorter time frame and also fail quicker as a result but in the end, the cycle is still the same. We still get fucked as people because we invite ourselves to be fucked by companies and politics and countries and organizations of all stripes. It’s just how the human condition works.
Louis: I wouldn’t be that cynical about it. I understand your point of view. I think that because of internet, because of the way internet is, I think there’s a bright future about those companies manipulating people.
Barry: What about fake news then? How do you explain fake news? If the internet is such a liberating force, why do more and more people believe the Earth is flat?
Louis: That’s a good question and I think this is why I wouldn’t blame people for it because exactly as you said, we are wired a certain way, it’s in our DNA. It’s not an excuse to say that. It’s the truth. Billions of years of evolution have led to this moment. I don’t think we can blame people saying you should have known better because exactly as you say, it’s inherently in our DNA and the way we are. I think it’s up to the companies to cope on and find mechanisms to fight against it. I think we’re going to get better about it. Those companies, we learn how to display the truth instead of fake news and it’s going to get better. We’ll see, but I’m a little bit more optimistic on this.
Barry: I hope you’re right.
Louis: I think it’s a very new problem and therefore it will be fixed. I’m pretty sure it will.
Barry: I hope you’re right. I don’t expect you to be right because people love to see those little conspiracy theories that they have to see them confirmed and the internet has enabled that to happen. No matter how much science, data, and facts you throw at people, they’ll ignore. 99.99% of it will disagree, we have to focus on the 0.01% that they agree with because it confirms their world view.
Everything from climate science to whether or not the Earth is round to political view points to how economies should work. People ignore what they don’t agree with and latch on to what they do agree with because it makes them feel better. We’re not a species that has evolved to think rationally about things, we’re evolved to think emotionally about things. That’s always going to be our main Achilles Heel.
Louis: Well at least we’re able to debate about that which is a good point.
Barry: That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Louis: It’s a good thing for us, for species. We’ll see where it goes. To get out of this debate, it could be a little bit depressing. If you think about it before you go to sleep, you tend to not go to sleep at all for the next few hours. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 5, 10, or 20 years?
Barry: I think too many marketers just keep ticking boxes because that’s what they’ve always done. I think good marketing efforts starts with really understanding who your audience is and genuinely understanding the problems and challenges that your audience faces which your company, your product, your service, can address. I, too often, have conversations with clients where they don’t really understand what the audience is and what the audience wants from them. They just have a product and they’re trying to sell that product. Whether or not a product fits with what the market wants is almost beside the point. Launch the product, we sell it. There it is.
You need to reverse that good marketing at its heart. It starts with the audience. Always start with your target audience, with your customers. Who are these people and treat them as people. Don’t just call them users or personas. These are actual people. Understand that their human beings who want to interact with you or maybe, they don’t want to interact with you, who have certain needs and requirements, certain informational needs, certain product needs to help make their lives easier in whatever way, shape or form. You as a marketer have a responsibility to deliver value to those users. Most companies do that the exact other way around where the incentive is to bring value to the company regardless of what happens to the user.
The customer at the end of that equation is sort of an afterthought, that all we have to make sure is that they don’t write negative reviews about us. It has to be just good enough to enable somebody to make a profit off of it. That hopefully will become more and more unacceptable as times go on, thanks to this transparency movement as well and companies wanting to do better because the younger generation sort of demands it off the market. Hopefully, that trend will continue where companies will have no choice but to actually think about their customers first.
It’s such a lame mantra, customers first. But most companies would say that but they never actually do it. It’s just a mantra for them. Really putting your customers first is difficult because you have to talk to your customers all the bloody time. To think about what they really want, what they need, what are their desires, what are they interested in, what is the actual problem that they’re facing, not just the thing they’re trying to sell but the actual problem that they’re facing and how can you, as a company, help with addressing those problems.
The companies that do that really, really well—people keep a throne to Apple and I’m sort of getting sick of it but they are true to an extent because the iPhone, when they first arrived on the scene, it wasn’t the first feature phone with a touch screen ever invented but it was by far the best, and it solved the problem that customers didn’t realized they had. Basecamp, again, you’ve interviewed the founder earlier, that too is a prime example of solving a problem people don’t necessarily realize they have until you showed them the solution.
The same with Gmail. I like pissing on Google every chance I get but I love Gmail because it solves the problem for me I didn’t realize I had until I started using Gmail. That powerful inbuilt search functionality and the threading of conversations, I just take it for granted now but before that, using email especially over several years where you end up with a huge archive with tens of thousands of emails is excruciating. Now, I just don’t even worry about it anymore because it just takes care of itself. It’s about understanding the actual problems that customers have and then building them the perfect solution that may or may not be innovative as long as it’s intuitive and actually helps people’s lives become better.
Louis: What are the top three resources you will recommend to digital marketers out there?
Barry: I don’t know. I think there’s so many fields in digital marketing. I’m an SEO guy so I read a lot of SEO books. I don’t necessarily recommend digital marketers working in social media, working in paid advertising to do the same because you’ll A, lose your will to live and B, it doesn’t actually make you a better digital marketer. I think the key is always to find people in your niche that have good opinions and trustworthy opinions and follow them on Twitter, Facebook or whatever profile they prefer. Also, to occasionally step out of your comfort zone.
Some of the most valuable people that I follow are not necessarily digital marketers. I follow Thomas Baekdal, I think his name is. He’s a media analyst because Oliver put a lot of newspaper clients. He has really interesting opinions on the media. Paul Boag is a designer, a web designer. I follow him because he likes to piss all over everything that other people do including SEOs like myself. Sometimes, we need people like that to challenge us and do things differently.
Follow the people in your specific niche that are good and do great work, follow people outside of your niche that have good opinions because sometimes you need a fresh perspective, and don’t follow hypes. Don’t just chase after the latest hype craze but always look at what your audience is doing and try to take it to them. That would be my three main tips for marketers.
Louis: Awesome. Well, Barry, you’ve been a pleasure to talk to and I’m going to lose sleep over what we’ve just discussed for the next two weeks but that’s what usually happens when I talk to you. Once again, thank you very much.
Barry: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.