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The Organic Web and Overzealous Advertising

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When was the last time you ‘Googled’ something? An hour ago? Two? There’s a certain romanticism behind the world’s leading search engine having started as a simple solution to one of the online community’s largest problems – finding quality information. Anyone that’s familiar with Google’s brilliantly innovative algorithm understands just how challenging it is to take advantage of it for better search result placement. The confines of the structure Google imposes on a site’s ranking actually ensure that webmasters out there are doing their jobs, updating content and encouraging others to link to their information; and more recently, even registering their domains for more than a year or two!

So what happens when companies become frustrated with organically positioning their sites in the rankings? AdWords. According to their site “Google generates revenue by providing advertisers with the opportunity to deliver measurable, cost-effective online advertising that is relevant to the information displayed on any given page. This makes the advertising useful to you as well as to the advertiser placing it. We believe you should know when someone has paid to put a message in front of you, so we always distinguish ads from the search results or other content on a page.”

Considering that Google is generating Billions per quarter and that they’re still perceived as the web’s universal resource for locating accurate information, it’s safe to say that they have taken an actual problem for both consumers and advertisers and solved it simultaneously.

Why, then, have I used the term “overzealous advertising” in the title of this post? Surely I’m not referring to the small, unobtrusive list of paid advertisers on the side of any given page or the 2-3 paid results above the “organic” list. No, the menace I’m describing presented itself to me during a sales call in late August of this year. I answered the telephone to find myself being pitched by a young, aggressive salesman from the west coat who was telling me about an incredibly innovative way to advertise on Google which had been previously unexplored.

The company, which will remain nameless, prides itself in creating a custom plug-in compatible with Internet Explorer browsers which actually displays a framed website above all of the content associated with a Google search! Shocked by the nature of this, I decided to try it out, installing the plug-in from a very non-descript page on a poorly designed marketing site that still didn’t explain the gist of this idea. Once installed, I searched for an obvious term and sure enough – a framed window roughly 500 by 300pixels in size appeared above Google’s logo, paid advertisers and organic results. The novelty of the idea must have clouded my often critical mind for data presentation, and I politely left the conversation saying I’d consider investing a small amount in this type of advertising.

Upon digesting this idea and discussing it with several friends and associates (one of whom actually met this company), I realized there are several major, underlying flaws in the concept and execution of this model.

  1. This concept completely undermines the value of Google’s results, both paid and unpaid. By Company X advertising the idea that they can hijack Google by offering a plug-in and paid-inclusion program is not only devaluing the search mogul, but most likely infringes on some major copyrights.
  2. Who really has this plug-in? Their estimates were that “600,000 people are installing the plug-in every week,” but they are also the ones selling the product, so they could just as well have told me that all of India and Europe has downloaded it. When we discussed the propagation of this technology, they informed me that they were getting “close” to having a deal with Microsoft to make the plug-in a standard in future IE Browser releases. My friend and business partner, Richard, informed me that he was aware of three years worth of discussions between Company X and Microsoft, but that there had been no actual agreements or resolutions. Also consider that Mozilla just celebrated their 100th million download of Firefox, a new browser rivaling IE, which Company X never mentioned in their call.
  3. Consider the conflict. Say that Company X actually gets Microsoft to agree and they make this plug-in a standard in future browsers … what is Google’s reaction? Does anyone realistically expect them to stand for such a low-brow hijack tactic?
  4. Brilliance by design. Google is not only renowned for the value of the information they offer, but for the clarity and ease of their design. In a March, 2005 seminar, information presentation guru Edward Tufte described Google News as one of the most information-rich websites in existence, explaining that their format truly maximizes the space of the screen in relation to the amount of data a user can view. With Company X’s plug-in loading above Google’s results, the page would stand to lose 40-50% of its potential for delivering paid and unpaid resources; something that current AdWords users would surely not applaud.

After a barrage of loud and chaotic design over the last decade, at a point of transition when web designers and information architects seem to truly be ‘getting it’ by designing cleaner sites that rely much more heavily on text and information efficiency, does this platform of hijacking an appreciated and respected information resource have any actual relevance or value? I certainly hope not.

Author Alex Fedorov

Alex is a strategic thinker with a gift for information architecture, known for his ability to wireframe complex workflows and multiple states of applications at the speed of light. He is passionate about clean, data-driven design.

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