Aggregators buying links has become a necessary evil
The world’s largest search engine clamping down on the UK’s third largest aggregator is a strong move, but it is likely to prove more symbolic than punitive.
Google’s decision to relegate Gocompare.com from 1st place on its search for “car insurance” to 59th certainly suggests foul play, especially in the light of the fact that it been in the top three from late November, and number one since Christmas Eve.
But Gocompare.com has a flawless defence: Google does not disclose details of why it has taken action. This means that the companies it punishes can plead innocence without fear of reprisal.
Furthermore, they can cry foul play themselves. Clearly, Gocompare.com is not the only guilty party. The reality is that in competitive markets, buying links has become vital way of garnering a competitive edge; with few markets being as cutthroat as private motor, the practice has become an integral part of the unofficial marketing process.
The problem for Google is that the search habits of consumers are changing. Through their colossal advertising spends, aggregators have succeeded in developing extremely strong brand presences. Consumers, therefore, are likely to either know the website without having to use a search engine, or will use a search engine to search for the brand itself. And unless it buys the internet in its entirety, there is nothing Google can do about that.
“The reality is that in competitive markets buying links has become an integral part of the unofficial marketing process.
As a result, a downgrade in a Google search will not impact on the bottom line as much as it might at first seem. Richard Mason, head of insurance at Moneysupermarket.com, puts this figure at five per cent.
And Mason, after all, should know – his company having been on the receiving end of similar action by Google last year.
“We weren’t sure what the reason was,” he says. “We were able to convince Google, so they restored our position.”
Curiously, though, Mason believes it is unlikely that Google has taken action against Gocompare.com for buying links. “It would be astronomically expensive,” he argues.
But other sources close to the matter say they are “99.999 per cent sure” Google’s recent action was the result of Gocompare.com engaging in the practice, which included posting links on every page of American consumer website, WatchingAmerica.com. They have since been taken down.
“Hiding your tracks is hard enough, but hiding them from the all-seeing eyes of the internet is virtually impossible.
A look at the rapidly escalating number of inbound links to aggregator sites, even if the vast majority of them are of the unpaid variety, suggests that what are known in the aggregator community as “black hat” practices are taking place en masse.
A more recent development, which some sources suggest could be the reason why Google has acted, is the use of pay per blog, or spam blogging. The timing of the Gocompare.com downgrade (and indeed a simple google search for “gocompare” and “blog”) suggests this could have been the cause of the spat.
Hiding your tracks is hard enough, but hiding them from the all-seeing eyes of the internet is virtually impossible.
Whatever the case may be, two things at least are clear: First, when it comes to getting ahead of the rest, any price is worth paying.
Second, though there is a wider reputational issue with which to contend, consumers care less about Gocompare.com buying links than they do about how much they have to fork out for their insurance.