Google Stealing Content and Hijacking Traffic? A deeper look.

written by aext on February 10, 2010 in Web Development with 17 comments

Recently, a blog post by Michael Gray called “Is Google Stealing Your Content and Hijacking Your Traffic” caught my attention. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s the low down: The blog suggests that Google is “stealing” traffic (and thus revenue) from other companies by providing more information to its searchers upfront, instead of requiring searchers to click through and see the content themselves, among other claims.

I understand where Michael Gray is coming from, but to say that what we see from Google is unique or condemnable compared to traditional practice, common practice, or web 2.0 ethics is far from reality. Here I will challenge that frame of thought then cover a few very common examples of widely accepted and lauded businesses who practice similar techniques.

First, an analogy

Google is basically the yellow pages for websites. Most yellow pages list businesses by category. Those businesses which pay a fee (or several fees) are alloted a specified space in which they can place any text, imagery, etc that they desire. Businesses who opt not to pay are still listed but usually they are only able to display their name and phone number. Businesses who wish not to appear in the yellow pages can call and request removal from the lists.

Likewise, Google allows websites special allotted spaces to those willing to pay a fee. Everyone else, is further down the list. Those who wish not have their websites indexed can do so by adding the proper robot.txt data. The only difference with Google is that each website is given full control over what information is displayed, from the title to the description, regardless of whether they’re paying customers or not. (This is done by supplying the proper meta tags.) Even more controls are given to webmasters who choose to use the tools provided by Google Webmaster Central.

Website owners need to take the oportunity

If the yellow pages offered you a free ad for your launched website, no doubt you’d take it! Especially if it was the most popular yellow pages in the area and it required nothing in return. You’d be just lazy not to take advantage of it.

The same goes for you and Google. Google is offering you the opportunity to create your listing how you want it (with a few exceptions), as well as ways to optimize it, ways to track it, ways to manage it, and many other tools to help your website succeed. All these are free and should be taken advantage of.

Businesses on Google win

Setting aside the fact that without search engines traffic, all websites would be severly affected, I’m willing to bet that adding phone numbers, hours of operation, and so on actually helps improve customer flow to the business. (And as a side note, just like in regular Google listings, you can easily edit or opt-out of Google’s Local Business listings.)

First of all, if someone is just looking for the phone number or address of a location, chances are: they’re trying to get there, now. And people have their options: phone book, call 411 (in the USA), or do an online search. Can you guess which one is free for the consumer, easy to access, “save-able”, gives you directions, doesn’t place you on hold, and gives the opportunity to find out more information about the company? DING! DING! DING! You guessed it: Search! (GOOG-411 would come a close second for its free connections and SMS notifications…even though it’s not a part of the list.)

You see, believe it or not, Google is helping these businesses with customer satisfaction. If a potential customer is trying to get some form of information for a company, the customer wants the least amount of steps possible to find it. Every extra effort it takes to get to the customer’s desired destination is one step closer to becoming aggravated with the company and giving up.

Also take this scenario, for instance: A couple wants to go to The Wild Chicken in Loomis, California (“Where’s Loomis?” you say? …thats a song**). We want to make sure that it’s open so we do a quick search for: the wild chicken loomis ca. For the purposes of the argument, we’re going to pretend that no local listing information, including map and numbers, was provided. First result is:

main1 – 12:34am
Wild Chicken Coffee Tea & Specialty Drinks 3640 Taylor Road Loomis, CA 95650 … Corporate Office: Wild Chicken Coffee, Inc. P.O. Box 2309 Loomis, CA 95650 … – Cached – Similar –

Awesome. I don’t need the address, I need the hours of operation. So I tap the link (because I’m using my newly purchased iPad) and I’m greeted by a nice big box filled with a familiar blue lego. Yes, you guessed it. This site is completely flash. Great. Now I have their address, but not their phone number. I’m running late so I don’t have time to search anymore and I can’t go to two places (in case they’re not open). I guess we’ll just have to go to Starbucks ’cause I know that they’re open. Bam! Business lost.

Enter the real world: Do the same search on Google and you’ll get their address and phone number. Want to know one more funny thing? Bing shows the same amount of data too! Why’d you not include them in your little fit?

** Regarding the “Where’s Loomis?” joke: Sorry, lame humor. It’s only funny to those of us who grew up there, I guess.

Aggregating data

Another claim made is that Google is somehow “stealing” business from other websites by aggrigating information from many places into its own platform.

Wait, what? Isn’t this what web 2.0 is all about? Open and free data is (supposedly) good, right?

Google is not “stealing” from these places, they’re quoting. Just like you and I do when we quote information in blog posts. They even give full links back to the original site, like good people do. I haven’t asked, but I’d bet that these sites get more hits now that Google shows data from these places and links to their sources.

Plus, many of these sites offer their own APIs allowing people and businesses to tap into their data freely. Just the same way FriendFeed taps into Facebook and Twitter. I’m not even going to mention how Yahoo and MSN integrate with other services. Even CitySearch, a site you cited, aggregates reviews from other websites! (See here, and under “User Reviews” click “Around the web”.)

A few modern examples

Speaking of Twitter. Acording to Michael Gray’s arguments, you’d better not use any 3rd party app to access your Twitter stream. Applications like Seesmic, HootSuite, TwitterFeed, etc are all “stealing” data and thus traffic from Twitter.

How about Facebook? This one is a little closer to Michael Gray’s example against Google. Facebook loads YouTube videos and Flickr photos (and so on) so the enduser doesn’t have to click through. Facebook even lets you comment on them giving the user no reason to actually click away to the originating website. Heck you can even access the Twitter stream and search Google from Facebook.

I’m sure you’ve got the point, but for good measure, here’s a great example: Digsby, Pidgin, and Meebo. If you’re not familiar with any of these, they’re instant messanger programs which allow you to connect to virtually every instant messanger out there (Yahoo, MSN/Live, Google/Gmail, Facebook, MySpace, AIM/ICQ, etc) but all under just one program saving you computer resources. So instead of being forced to use AIM and see their ads, Digsby allows you ad-free instant messanging while they earn money by using your idle computer time for research (among others). This one is probably the best example, because they’re heavily relying on all these different services, profiting from them, and paying nothing to Yahoo/Google/MSN/AOL/etc for using their messaging platforms at the core of Digsby.

In conclusion…

It’s really easy to read blog posts like these and immediately wag your finger at Google or whoever’s being targeted (usually the “evil big corporations”) condemning them for things which are standard practice in the rest of the business world and widely accepted in the consumer world. In fact, it probably just makes us feel better because we all love to find ways blame others. But here is where I challenge readers not to be sucked into this kind of mind trap. When you read these kinds of things: use your critical thinking skills, do your own research from more than just one or two sites, and ask well respected people for their opinions. The most important part is this: If you don’t agree with what you find, pay attention to it. Figure out exactly why they disagree with you instead of just blowing them off. You might not change your mind, but you’ll be all the more wiser for it.

To Mike: I generally love your posts (anyone who is running WordPress should take a look at this post; if you’re running a local business check out his post on free promotion), but this time I believe the facts are against you. If, after reading this article, you still don’t agree. That’s fine :) Feel free to write post refuting me! I’m always open for other points of view.

To our readers: If you haven’t taken a class in critical thinking, enroll now. Critical thinking is one of the best (and hardest) classes I’ve ever taken. It challenges you to break away from normal ideas and respond to what you read/see with a proper level of understanding.

One last thing: What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with Mike? Join the discussion below but be polite, respectful, and backup your opinions with facts (and sources). :)