As we entered 2011, there was a growing unrest about the amount of spam within the top, major, search engine results (Google SERPs are purely one example). To the point where there an increasing number of news stories began, to the point where Matt Cutts blogged about webspam

The main stories were about:

a) The failure of comparison sites to offer valuable consumer reviews

b) A domination within Google results of scraped content and/or Adsense-filled pages

c) Internet user frustration at the non-performance of The Search Engine that has become a household term globally.

What had Google done wrong? Potentially nothing. And potentially everything. There have been lessons learnt since the days of Dogpile, Altavista, Excite, Lycos, GoTo etc; yet, people were beginning to wonder whether the real winning proposition that was Google – less to no spam plus relevant results plus advertiser benefits above and beyond a simple listing – had vanished during the rise to global and economic dominance. Quality results? Um….where? Certainly not in the majority of searches for the top two pages on far too many popular terms.

Google endeavoured to address the problem with a change in the Google search algorithm, as blogged by Matt Cutts. This was then followed up in the US with a move to reduce the number of results containing pages from Content Farms.

There is a lot riding on the success of these updates. Whilst many SEO agencies and internet marketing companies focus on achieving long tail, niche results for clients these days, the reality is that many are also allowing clients’ budgets to be squandered on high bid PPC campaigns simply to beat spam. The spammers use very cheap labour, whose entire days are spent focused on getting first page SERPS for breaking trends, top keywords etc. Will the latest updates help Google prevent the spammers success – it remains to be seen.

The effect to date has been the undermining of the quality perception of Google in consumer eyes. What we are seeing is a growth of established brands  – often first to market, often some time ago – such as Amazon, Dabs, Play.com etc, vs. search engines. These brands have spent nigh on the last decade building up a portfolio of products, suppliers, reviews, offers, delivery options, and, hence, reputation. Add to that great search facilities that keep a visitor churning within that particular site to find the products required whilst staying onsite for that brand, rather than externally, and you see a loss in market share for the search engines. Minimal perhaps, but if you rely on Google for your traffic, you really must consider alternative avenues.

We may be seeing a massive growth to include consumer recommendations, to accept purchase decisions made according to your social network, the acceptance of reviews and ratings (or even Wikipedia) influencing consumers, plus a user kickback against spam and drivel on the SERPs, but what we are not seeing is a suitable response (as yet) from the search engine(s) to take this people power into account. We have been seeing a lack of quality control in the SERPs that is seriously undermining the core business – search.

And there are alternatives not just on the horizon, but in existence. For instance, if you look at Blekko’s raison d’etre, you will see how companies entering the search engine market stand to take a share, purely by asking, and answering, what consumers want. Simplicity and single focus, rather than endeavouring to be all things to all men, may yet win out…..

2011 may see search engines reassessing their USP, the real-time Web, the importance of consumer vs advertiser, the economics of the search industry, and the need for engines to serve the  retailer/advertiser/business rather than serving, primarily, the CFO, accountants and shareholders.

We are back to the age old reality of doing business: satisfy your customer first and foremost. Are the majority of search engines failing to do so? We welcome your thoughts.

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About the author:

A practising internet marketing consultant since 1996, Lindsey Annison helps companies improve their website marketing, online PR and information architecture. Lindsey is also a qualified adult education lecturer and author. As co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign, she has been instrumental in the provision of high-speed internet access to rural areas in the UK. Lindsey is also a past winner of Silicon.com's Outstanding Contribution to UK Technology