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Google Can Ding Content Mills and Say, "It's Not Our Fault"

Google (GOOG) announced a new experimental extension for its Chrome browser. The extension blocks "shallow or low-quality" sites. Why not just hunt them down and banish them from the search engine? Maybe because this approach lets Google get out of a conundrum involving business partners, consumers, and its revenue stream.

Google is becoming more vulnerable to competitors for a variety of reasons, including these:

  • Big commercial spamming: Companies use extensive search engine optimization techniques to push their pages to the top of search results.
  • Content pollution: Content mills use SEO and massive amounts of low-quality content to push their way to the top of searches.
In both cases, Google's dependence on AdWords advertisement revenue on third-party sites really kicks in. The company got to the top of Google searches for online eyeglasses by abusing customers and then riding their many posted complaints to SEO success. J.C. Penney (JCP) used so-called black-hat techniques to push its site in multiple categories. In such cases, Google can and will punish the site by manually downgrading its search ranking.

Where Google has done little is with content pollution. It's a tricky issue for the company. Last year, about 31 percent of Google's revenue came from third-party sites running Google ads. It's impossible to tell how many of those sites are spammers or low-quality content mills. But the total for third party ads was worth almost $8.8 billion last year. That's a lot of money.

The more selective Google is about who shows up, the more chance the company runs of undercutting its financial well being. Google's head of antispam, Matt Cutts has categorically denied the implication. But, from a cynical seen-it-at-other-companies business view, that's too fast a dismissal.

This is media, and it's common to have the editorial side of the house claim total independence from advertising even though the sentiment is just wishful thinking. Even if Google makes the argument that the money it makes off any one content mill is small compared to total revenue, add enough content mills together, and it's a problem.

And even if that weren't an issue, no one wants to field the business partner's complaint call. So the extension is ingenious. Instead of Google making decisions about the quality of various sites, it gets customers to make the call. Now, over time, Google has insulated itself from the business decision. "Well, that's what the customers say, and we can't well argue with them." The real sign will be if Google builds equivalent capabilities for other browsers.


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