How many times have you heard Google claim its most recent update is designed to improve user experience? We hear this claim so frequently, it’s fair to call it Google’s M.O. However, when Google refers to users, is it really referring to advertisers?
The truth is, for many users—particularly small business owners who seek local visibility on Google—their best interests often do not align with Google’s. At the end of the day, it’s a corporation, and its bottom line is all about revenue. You have to expect Google to be self-serving on occasion. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
In this blog post, we’ve outlined some of the most recent examples of how Google doesn’t always have your best interests at heart. While you may think we’re just venting here (and you wouldn’t be totally wrong), we want this to function as a kind of PSA. It’s a reminder to always take Google’s actions with a grain of salt and a strong dose of skepticism.
Now, let’s rant.
1. Google Only Allows Businesses to List One Phone Number for Every Physical Location.
On Google Maps, there’s often a major discrepancy between a company’s real-life operation and Google’s strict guidelines.
For example, Google only allows businesses to list one phone number for every physical location. But as many business owners know, that may not mesh with the way a company actually operates. There are countless reasons to have more than one phone number for the same primary address, particularly if you have different branches or you serve multiple area codes.
However, it’s much simpler for Google to create an algorithm that only allows a 1-to-1 scenario. Google wants to prevent spam wherever possible, and allowing for too many human variables would overwhelm its algorithms. So, essentially, instead of creating a system that’s influenced by how businesses operate in real life, it’s trying to create a system that influences how businesses operate. As you may know firsthand, this means a lot of headaches for business owners.
2. Google Maps Service Areas Are Often Too Rigid for Businesses Without a Storefront.
Google also makes it difficult for local service providers to operate out of their own homes (which many repairmen and handymen do). It’s not impossible, as Google does allow these types of businesses to list a service area instead of their home address, for privacy’s sake; however, the implementation of these service areas is not always helpful for businesses.
For example, a handyman who lives 20 miles outside of a big city may not have the option of listing themselves as serving that city, even though that’s where they primarily do business. This restricts their visibility precisely where they want to be visible.
Again, this comes back to Google seeking to crack down on spam and simplify its algorithms. It’s too much work for Google to accommodate all the legitimate ways companies do business. Instead, it sometimes draws a hard line and creates another obstacle for you.
3. Google Now Allows Ads to Crowd Out Real Content on Webpages.
In spring 2017, Google announced it is lifting its restriction on 300×250 ads appearing above the fold on mobile webpages. In other words, big advertisements may now crowd users’ screens before they even see any of the content (headline, images, or text) on the page.
According to Google’s official announcement, this update will be done in a “user-friendly way” that won’t “annoy, distract, or result in ad performance issues.” However, that seems unlikely, as Google itself previously restricted this exact ad placement due to concerns about user experience.
Indeed, in a TechCrunch article outlining the new guideline, Sarah Perez points out:
After all, this restriction was originally put in place because it was not user-friendly. A medium-sized rectangle, by its very nature, will push much of the page’s content below the fold, as the ad itself takes up a good chunk of the screen.
Clearly, Google’s concern isn’t user experience. If it were, it would prevent paid ads from overtaking content. Instead, Google is favoring the desires of paying advertisers over its users.
4. Google May Edit Your Business Listing Without Your Knowledge or Consent.
When Google decides a piece of information on your listing needs correcting (based on data it collected elsewhere or input from other users), it just automatically makes the change. It’s up to you to check your listing regularly and catch any edits that aren’t actually true.
Compare this to how Facebook operates: When another user suggests a correction to your page’s information (e.g. phone number or store hours), it notifies you first. It asks whether you want to make this change instead of making the change unilaterally.
Our guess is that Google makes these changes on its own because it wants to provide users with the most up-to-date information possible. However, if it also wants that information to be accurate, then it should probably wait until it receives verification from business owners. And let’s not forget the impact this has on businesses. Competitors can sabotage other businesses by suggesting different phone numbers or addresses, and Google will be an accomplice.
5. Google’s “Featured Snippets” Directly Take Away Traffic From Top Search Results.
First, let’s clarify what a featured snippet is. You’ve most likely seen one in your own searches. When a user asks a question in Google Search, Google pulls the answer from a webpage and presents it to you. In other words, it gives users what it thinks they want, without users having to click anything.
From one perspective, featured snippets are super convenient. However, a couple problems exist. First of all, the snippets often take an “answer” out of context and deliver flat-out misinformation.
Second of all—and this is more troubling for website owners—a recent study by Ahrefs shows featured snippets take a substantial amount of traffic away from the rest of the search results. According to Barry Schwartz’s article on Search Engine Land:
Without a featured snippet, the first result gets a 26 percent click-through rate. With it, it only gets a 19.6 percent click-through rate, and the featured snippet gets an 8.6 percent click-through rate.
This is a clear attempt by Google to keep users on its own website. Not many people click on the snippets because they believe they’ve received the information they were looking for. And, of course, they don’t bother scrolling below the snippets to look at the list of search results. As a result, businesses lose significant traffic and potential leads.
And There Are Still More Examples…
- Google completely reversed its policy on customer review kiosks. It actually used to recommend having a kiosk or some type of computer setup in your storefront for customers to leave you a review right then and there. This helped lots of businesses get the customer reviews they needed for success. But then, suddenly and inexplicably, Google reversed its position and started penalizing businesses for this practice instead.
- For years, Google used to say they would never allow advertising in the Google Maps realm. Now, of course, they do.
- Google Shopping is 100% powered by AdWords. Only paying advertisers appear in the results. There’s a huge lack of transparency here. Users don’t know they aren’t seeing an exhaustive list of results.
The list goes on and on.
Please bear in mind, we aren’t trying to paint Google as some sort of evil corporation from an ’80s sci-fi flick. Rather, we just want to encourage you to think more critically about some of Google’s practices and realize that you can’t always trust it to do what’s best for your business. That’s why you need to be proactive and take an educated approach to all of your online marketing efforts.
Can you think of any other ways Google might favor advertisers over users? Reach out to us and let us know what you think!