Head of Google Ads to run Search. Move concerns SEO veterans about the future of search

Google announced Prabhakar Raghavan, former head of Google Ads, is changing roles to head Google Search while simultaneously overseeing Ads. The move diminishes the traditional separation of product teams and has SEOs concerned about how it might affect organic search results.

The difference between paid and organic search results is becoming more difficult to distinguish

In December 2012, while working at Raven Tools as one of its co-founders, the AdWords API Compliance team notified us that they were going to revoke our API access if we didn’t remove scraped data from third-party providers. We used data from AuthorityLabs for our rank tracking tool and data from SEMRush for our research tool. Neither of those tools had anything to do with how we used the AdWords API, which was primarily used by agencies to create AdWords reports for their clients.

The correspondence we received from the AdWords API Compliance team was terse and aggressive. It was also opaque. They didn’t give us any names or numbers we could call. We were at the mercy of whoever was behind the AdWords API Compliance team’s signature, and we could only communicate via email.

At the time, we interpreted the ultimatum from AdWords as a threat from Google as a whole. We were concerned that they would next attempt to take away the Google Analytics API, which was critical to our product. We also assumed that the Google Search team might be behind this because we thought they didn’t want people scraping their search results.

Out of fear of also potentially losing access to the Google Analytics API, we complied and removed AuthorityLabs and SEMRush from our software. Immediately after capitulating, the AdWords API Compliance team came after us again. This time they demanded we remove Moz and Majestic data, neither of which provided any scraped data via their APIs. We explained to them that it didn’t have scraped data and that we didn’t understand why they were making this demand. They disagreed and said they would be taking away API access if we didn’t remove Moz and Majestic within thirty days.

I was fortunate enough to be an acquaintance with an influential Googler at the time, and that person was able to intervene for us. While that’s a story I’m not at liberty to share, during that process I learned that all of the Google product teams are run independently from each other. For example, Google Search, AdWords, and Analytics have complete autonomy and separation from each other. That meant we were never at risk of losing the Google Analytics API because that team didn’t care if we were using scraped data.

It should be noted that two months after we complied with Google’s demands, we lost 50% of our customers. To the best of our knowledge, they never went after any of our main competitors who were also using scraped data and the AdWords API. And to add insult to injury, those same competitors ran tons of targeted AdWords campaigns to acquire the customers we lost.

Google Ads and Google Search are separated for a reason

Google’s primary source of revenue is from advertising, and the decisions the Google Ads team makes for its product appear to be significantly different from what motivates the Google Search team.

Google Ads’ primary mission is to make as much revenue from advertisements as possible. One of the ways they accomplish this is by changing the product and rules to maximize their profit further.

Google Ads undermines its agency partners

Besides the aggressive tactic they took with my previous company, they have been increasingly agitating search marketing agencies. Google has hired sales representatives that contact an agency’s clients to tell them their accounts are underperforming and that Google wants to help them fix it.

In February 2020, Google Ads caused further distress for agencies when they announced significant changes to the requirements for its Google Partners badge program. The most contentious change is the requirement for partners to adopt a high percentage of recommendations made by Google’s machine learning. Agencies are claiming Google’s optimizations are ignoring their expertise and don’t make sense for their clients’ campaigns, but if they don’t comply, they will lose their Partners badge.

The common thread with these initiatives is the push to get advertisers to spend more money. Instead of allowing search marketing professionals to help advertisers optimize their results, Google Ads wants advertisers to maximize their spend.

Google Ads wants to dominate search results

Google Ads has an insatiable appetite for more revenue and real estate on Google’s search results. In January 2020, Google changed the design of its search ads to further mimic organic results. It resulted in increased clicks and revenue for Google, but industry backlash pressured them to backtrack on the change.

Even with Google backtracking on its controversial change, ads in its search results continue to look very similar to organic results. They are also increasingly taking up the entire page. Here’s an example of a search result that only has one organic (non-paid) result above-the-fold on desktop.

Example of Google ads filling up most of the search result above-the-fold on desktop

Ads are even more prominent on mobile devices.

Ads consume mobile results before organic results appear

Google Search wants to provide the best user experience

Google Search, on the other hand, is continually working on ways to find the best content and create new ways for searchers to experience it. They are also invested in making the web better through initiatives like progressive web apps (PWAs) and site performance.

Google’s motivation for making the web better isn’t wholly altruistic. Business needs also drive them. Their core business need is to remain the dominant search engine. That means they must continue to refine and improve search results to stay ahead of Bing and other emerging search engines like DuckDuckGo. Coincidently, if they were to lose dominance in search, it would also mean Google Ads would lose its main ad delivery platform.

Like Google Ads, Google Search has a history of upsetting those that depend on it for their livelihood. Through algorithm changes and new search experiences, they have virtually wiped out entire businesses and verticals. They are also increasingly adding search experiences that appear to be intentionally designed to keep searchers on Google Search or to send them to a Google-owned property like YouTube.

Regardless, Google Search as a whole, has different goals than Google Ads. Google Search is perpetually trying to maintain and improve the search engine to return the best content and user experience. Whereas, Google Ads is driven by the need for advertisers to increase their ad spend. Combining the two would fundamentally change and corrupt Google Search as we know it.

Why veteran SEOs are concerned about the future of Google Search

The past and current behaviors, along with the perceived failsafe of historical separation of Google products, is why many veteran SEOs recoiled when they read the announcement that Google was promoting the head of Google Ads to be the head of Google Search. The announcement was made even worse when they learned the new head of Google Ads would be reporting to the head of Google Search.

Coywolf reached out to a few veteran SEOs to get their take on the announcement. All three of them had serious concerns about the leadership change up.

AJ Kohn, a Digital Marketing Executive and Start-Up Advisor, had this to say about the change.

One of the traditional hallmarks at Google was the separation of search quality and ads. While Google has always been clear that they view ads as another type of valid answer to a query, the lack of division between groups is disconcerting.

Google has long fought off rumors and conspiracies that advertising could help you rank better in organic search. This move will bring back those rumors to Spinal Tap levels.

Everything may still be siloed, and a true church and state arrangement between search quality and ads may still exist. But it’s hard to think that the temptation isn’t greater and either way it’s not a good look.

Julie Joyce, Owner of the link building company Link Fish Media, thinks searchers will be losing out.

We already have ads that look like organic results. Anyone other than an SEO (and my Dad because I have drummed it into him) thinks that whatever appears at the top of the list is the best result.

With paid and organic search merging, at least in terms of management, I’m concerned the line between paid ads and regular pages that deserve to be ranked will blur even more.

Link builders like myself love to talk about traffic, but the real goal is to improve rankings. Why spend a fortune building links to a page when you can pay to rank it? Why spend months on a link development campaign when you can just buy the result?

Searchers deserve to know if a result has been earned or purchased. Especially since most people trust earned reviews more than ones that have been purchased. Blurring these lines is going to be bad for SEOs, but awful for users.

Aaron Wall, Owner of SEO Book, is an astute observer and long-time critic of Google. He expounded the most about the recent leadership change.

When Google won the search market they did it via by about a half dozen important means: superior organic search relevancy, a lighter ad load than competing search engines, a clean and uncluttered interface, a strong brand focused exclusively on search, bundling distribution of their web browser or toolbar with other software, paying for default search placement in web browsers like Firefox, Safari & Opera, and sweetheart ad distribution deals with other portals that often included free Google equity with a high revshare and later a direct investment from Google which could then later be written down (like they did with their AOL investment).

Gradually, over time, Google boiled the frog. Clear shading and borders on ad units disappeared. Right rail ads moved above the fold. Ad units grew larger with more extensions.

Everyone in search is aware Google magically increases their ad revenues around 20% year after year after year after year. And outside of YouTube, most of the remaining portion of this is done by displacing the click flow away from organic results to the ads.

Recently, we saw ad units have borders around them once again, but these borders are around the sublinks, below the main ad with an ad label. These sorts of increased blurring of the line between ads and content are not accidental. They do not have a random distribution. Instead, they increasingly make organic listings look like ads (favicon tests, etc.) while trying to make the actual ads look like organic listings. Additional visual noise, like ‘People also ask,’ is often inserted on the search results page to redirect attention upward. The visual noise is also included in small device sizes as larger ads make the above the fold user experience nothing but ads for many searches.

Taking things further, Google may penalize sites for aggressive ad placements (which was undoubtedly a part of their most recent core ranking update). They are now starting to send traffic from featured snippets extracted from web pages directly to the relevant portion of the page with it highlighted, skipping visitors past the site branding and some ads.

Early research by the Google founders suggested that a commercial search engine biased by ads would be biased against the interests of searchers. Multiple studies conducted over the years have shown most searchers are unaware of which search results are ads. I conducted one such study many years ago, and the FTC ended up referencing it. Things have only gotten worse ever since in terms of clear ad labeling.

The more ads Google can remove from the rest of the web through ranking suppression and blocking ads in Google Chrome, the more noise, and monetization they can add back to the overall user experience. They keep 100% of the ad revenue on their owned and operated sites. And, thus, it makes sense for the head of Google Ads to run organic search.

It’s about the history of the company, not the history of a person

Greg Sterling, Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, wrote a follow-up article about Prabhakar Raghavan, the new head of Google Search. In the article, he inferred that SEOs didn’t have anything to worry about and that their uncertainty and confusion might be a reflection of “respect for Gomes and unfamiliarity with Raghavan’s background.”

As outlined in this article, the concerns have to do with the role Raghavan’s new position represents. AJ Kohn told me that “it’s a shame because Prabhakar Raghavan has an impressive background rooted in information retrieval with stints either researching or running social, apps, and ads. His broad set of knowledge could help provide greater focus to what, lately, seems a less than cohesive SERP strategy.”

My hope is that Prabhakar is both well aware and above all of this. I also hope that Google allows him to keep the original goal of Google Search in check and maintains separation of the product he once headed, while simultaneously overseeing it.

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Jon Henshaw

Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @[email protected]