This past week, I got a call from Scott Kirsner who writes for the Boston Globe. I’ve known Scott for several years now, and he recently invited me to speak at the Momentum Summit. Once in a while, Scott calls me to get my opinion about an article that he’s writing. I’m always happy to spend a few minutes with Scott and he’s always been great about helping Punchbowl get exposure in the Boston Globe.
This time, Scott called me about a very interesting topic: the power that Google has over businesses because of its search engine. Scott wrote a great article about Google in the past Sunday’s Globe where he quoted me: “We’ve been dropped from Google’s index altogether, and when that happens, everything we’re doing grinds to a halt,” says Matt Douglas, chief executive of the party planning site Punchbowl.com in Framingham. “Over the years, it has happened four or five times, and it has lasted anywhere from a day to a month. You just make a bunch of changes, and you hope that one will work.”
As Scott interviewed me over the phone, I wondered aloud whether or not Google should be regulated. The reality is that Google holds so much power over small companies, and it’s a mystery how they rank the results in their search engine. For the uninitiated, search engine optimization (SEO) is the art of making technical and content changes to your website in order to rank higher in the natural (unpaid) search results on Google, Yahoo, and Bing. The reality is that almost 70% of Internet users choose Google, so if you don’t rank high on Google natural search results, your potential audience will never find you.
In Punchbowl’s case, we drive a lot of traffic to the site through search engine optimization (SEO). We put a significant amount of resources into SEO as part of our overall strategy, and we don’t use any so called “black-hat” techniques. So why do we spend time on SEO? Consider these facts:
1) On any given search result page, 87% of Internet users will click on one of the first 5 results. For important keywords (such as “online invitations”) it’s critical that Punchbowl ranks somewhere within the top 5 of the natural search results.
2) The web is full of sites that use nefarious tactics to rank above legitimate sites — as a result, we have to use every available means to try to rank above them. Like it or not, we have to compete.
3) SEO is a very effective and scalable way to drive more complex search phrases (an example of a more complex search term is “Party Venues for Girls in Natick, MA”). In our case, we have specific sections of Punchbowl that are optimized for more complex (known as “long-tail”) search terms.
The reason we’ve gotten in trouble with Google because we’ve tried to push the envelope to rank higher. But herein lies the dilemma: if we do nothing, we’ll never rank in the top 5 natural search results. However, if we try and optimize, we can run into trouble without knowing it. It’s worth repeating: we don’t knowingly use black hat techniques, but we definitely try to optimize our site with every SEO technique possible.
I remember one SEO nightmare that we went through a few years ago. At the time, we had read on a well-respected SEO blog that we should use keywords in what are known as the “image alt tags” on the homepage. (These are the tooltips that appear next to your mouse if you hover over an image, and are commonly used to describe the image in the case that the image doesn’t appear. They are also used for accessibility for users with visual handicaps). This change was one of many SEO modifications that we had made for a particular site release. A few days after our release, Google had dropped Punchbowl completely from all rankings. That means that anyone, anywhere using Google to search the Internet would never, ever find Punchbowl. You can imagine that day at the office. It was a scramble to figure out what to do. Consider this list of facts:
1) We had made more than 20 significant changes specifically for SEO in that particular release, so we had no idea which one might have caused the issue.
2) Google does not publish how they determine SEO rankings. It’s a complete mystery.
3) There’s no one at Google who you can contact to help you diagnose the issue. There’s no phone number, no email address, no contact person.
4) Even when we make changes to our site, we have no idea when Google will “re-index” our site. Without re-indexing, the search results stay the same.
5) Depending on where you live, you may see different results on Google. In one case, one person in Seattle reported seeing Punchbowl in the search results, while here in Boston we didn’t see any results that included Punchbowl.
Through trial and error it took us a few weeks to diagnose the problem, and eventually we figured out that we had duplicate content in the image alt tags — numerous alt tags had the same keyword, and Google dropped us from the rankings for “keyword stuffing.” Keep in mind that this wasn’t done intentionally, and turned out to be a simple mistake. Surprisingly, all of the other (more aggressive) SEO changes turned out to be non-issues, but it was this alt tag issue that got us banned from all results. As soon as we fixed the duplicate content alt tags, we re-appeared in all of the search results. In this example, traffic to Punchbowl suffered significantly during the period, and we wasted a lot of time that we could have spent innovating.
This all brings me back to my original question: should Google natural search results be regulated? Can you think of any other business in the world that wields so much influence on small businesses without government oversight? Yes, the Google algorithm for search rankings is their secret sauce, but I believe the time has come for Google to explain what goes into search rankings. And I believe Google has a responsibility to provide a support team to triage SEO problems for businesses that qualify for help (I think a venture-backed consumer start-up with 1M+ users should qualify). Punchbowl could have saved lots of money and time if someone had quickly explained to us where we had unintentionally made an optimization error.
Most start-ups don’t consider the costs and time associated with search engine optimization. It’s necessary to grow your audience, and very difficult. The time has come for Google to help small businesses with SEO and to share information about how it ranks sites. Otherwise, the government should step in and regulate. Do you agree or disagree?