Filtering Through the Google Noise: What Marketers Need to Know

January 21, 2020

Recently, there has been a lot of news around Google’s algorithm updates, CCPA and privacy, user data, acquisition of Fitbit, and their overall intention or motivation driving these updates.  While changes of any kind coming from a company like Google are sure to make waves, it’s important to know what can be filtered out and what we need to focus on as marketers and advertisers.  This POV addresses the most relevant and high-profile news to provide clarity and guidance on how it may impact your business. 

Project Nightingale

One of the biggest stories to break regarding Google was around their “Project Nightingale” . Project Nightingale is a partnership between Google and Ascension (the country’s second largest health system) to collect and analyze the health records of millions of Americans across 21 states. This is the latest in Google’s entry into the health and wellness vertical, amidst increasing competition with companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and others.

The data collected in Project Nightingale includes lab results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalization records, among other categories, and amounts to a complete health history, including patient names and dates of birth.  While this is similar to how audience data companies in the healthcare space mine claims or diagnostic lab data, Project Nightingale seems to paint a strikingly complete patient picture. Google plans to use the data and leverage advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning that focuses on individual patients to suggest changes to their care.  Content could be a key area here if Google is pulling data from their properties like YouTube to fuel their insights.  For a platform like YouTube, which is the 2nd largest search engine, brands have an opportunity to meet the increasing need for healthcare content via Channel content dedicated to their brands or relevant disease states.

Google’s machine learning tools could potentially predict patterns of illness in ways that might someday lead to new treatments and, possibly, even cures.  Google also reports that all the information was collected in a compliant manner. This isn’t the first time Google has collected data for health purposes. Google data was used to help detect outbreaks of malaria in certain areas based on increases in search activity for specific phrases in specific geo locations.  While this data and initiative could be used for good, the data collection method has raised questions, particularly by the Wall Street Journal article.  Google has run into issues with some of their health practices previously; in partnership with the NIH, Google cancelled plans to publish 100,000 chest x-rays after a realization that there was personally identifiable information in the records.

There are many examples of cases where non-healthcare companies (including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple) have made missteps when entering the healthcare space, particularly around privacy. Even in times when they are compliant, the perception may be that they are not taking care as a historically healthcare-focused organization might. The concerns raised by the Wall Street Journal, for example, illustrate the conflict that occurs when a company that is very much in the spotlight enters the very sensitive and private healthcare arena.

Advertising Changes

Google has also been making headlines around updates to user tracking and identification.  Notably, Google plans to overhaul how their Chrome browser handles 3rd party cookies in February. From Digiday: “Google’s February update will prevent ad tech companies who don’t have a primary relationship with a consumer from ’listening in’ to ad auctions in order to build user profiles using content categories.   Google has come under criticism for making changes that disadvantage ad tech competitors that rely on cookies–under the guise of protecting user privacy and consent.  What is certain is that Google and other “walled gardens” are well-positioned to have a leading position under GDPR and other consent frameworks, as they have large first party audiences and control opt-in directly on their owned and operated properties.  As a provider of services with a logged in audience of 2B people, Google doesn’t need to depend on cookies for advertising.  Platforms with first party audience data stand to win in the future regulatory climate.

On the heels of the previous story, The Wall Street Journal published an article stating that Google manipulates organic (not paid) search results to favor larger brands on the web.

Google’s search algorithm has been the subject of focus recently as privacy and personal data control continues to grow in importance for people. It’s very common for media outlets to demonize the world’s largest search engine for the sake of captivating readership but, when you encounter articles that make claims about Google’s algorithm updates, privacy, it’s important to keep three things in mind:

1. Algorithm Updates Happen Multiple Times a Year

User experience and precision is Google’s top priority, so they regularly adjust their algorithm to ensure that it is properly serving its users. These updates oftentimes have a very minor impact on actual organic search results. Typically, we see more algorithm updates that launch and generate little change to the organic search space or user experience than ones that turn it on its head.  These little changes can add up though and rebounding from impactful SEO updates can take time and expertise making it essential for marketers to keep tabs on these updates.

2. Google Gives the Marketplace a Heads Up with any Updates that are Going to Impact Search Results on a Large Scale

On the very rare occurrence that Google is going to launch an update that is going to have a significant impact on the search results, they will notify webmasters ahead of time so that proper adjustments can be made. For example, Google began sending out information notifying webmasters about the importance of changing their site to HTTPS encrypted a full year before they allowed it to impact the search index. Their goal is to help webmasters create a better search experience for its users; not randomly and secretly penalizing websites. In fact, the only times impactful updates have been launched without notification was when they rolled out the Penguin and Panda updates, which were created to deliberately target spam sites that were using obviously malicious tactics to scam the algorithm, but again for the most part these updates are made publicly and they allow all webmasters to leverage public information to increase the exposure of their digital properties

The SEO experts at CMI/Compas monitor the release of this type of information closely so that as soon as we see changes that could impact our clients’ sites, we are creating a plan to help them gain any advantages that can be the result of an algorithm update.

3. CMI/Compas Respects Best Practices with Our Strategies Which is the Best Way to Keep on the Winning Side of These Updates

Piggybacking on the previous point, Google’s intentions with the algorithm updates is preserve the integrity of their index by making adjustments that reward relevance and remove sites that are trying to use malicious tactics to scam users.  If CMI/Compas is your organic search partner than you can be confident that your site is not utilizing “Black Hat” tactics that would leave you subject to any type of manual or automated penalty that would be contained in an algorithm update. We carefully review the technical makeup of your site and ensure that it meets complex standards that have been set by Google. Our strategies create sustainable results that will help you to grow your digital presence in a responsible way.

If hearing about these updates raises questions or concerns for you, consult with a member of our SEO team. We can help you ensure that your site remains on the good side of Google’s algorithm.

Google Acquires Fitbit

Google purchased Fitbit on November 1st to jumpstart their entry into the wearables market. Wearables are one area where Google is far behind their main competitor – Apple. With the purchase of Fitbit, Google now has an established wearable ecosystem and has access to health and location datapoints from 28M active Fitbit users. From falls to Afib, there are a multitude of data points the Fitbit ecosystem can now feed into Google’s AI and machine learning framework. Fitbit’s Health Solutions offering for corporations is especially interesting – Google could potentially gain a foothold in companies who are not leveraging their commercial products. This further evolves Google from a search engine giant to a holistic health platform. 

In its blog post to announce the acquisition, Google assured that Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.    It remains to be seen how the acquisition will evolve Fitbit—and whether Google intends to be a player in the healthcare space outside of its core advertising business. 

Is Google “Gaming” Ads to Benefit Big Business?

Wrapping up the Google news is the September tweet from Basecamp CEO Jason Fried which set off a firestorm online. “When Google puts 4 paid ads ahead of the first organic result for your own brand name, you’re forced to pay up if you want to be found. It’s a shakedown. It’s ransom.”

Articles and Social Media posts like this one claiming that Google “holds brands hostage”, forcing them to purchase their own brand name and keywords via their advertising platform Google Ads will undoubtably raise some red flags and cause a panic.  Can competitors bid on other brand keywords?  Yes, they can.  However, this does not mean your business can’t be successful or that you aren’t able to break through and become the authority on those keywords. (NOTE: The algorithm insights above apply to organic rankings (SEO) where this section specifically addresses Paid Search ads.)

If competitors are stealing impression share or conversions away from you by bidding on your brand terms, you have some options:

1. Launch your own Paid Search strategy including the keywords you want/need to gain SOV on.  Yes, this will require an advertising budget but chances are, your CPC for your own brand terms will be much lower than what your competitors are paying for them. 

2. Launch a Paid Search strategy bidding on your competitor brands.  This is another way you can work to acquire SOV from your competitors the same way they may be doing to you.  Because these terms are less relevant than your own terms, you can expect higher Cost/CPCs, at least to start, until you’re able to optimize towards improvements.

As mentioned previously, Google is all about relevancy and user experience and they provide pretty clear direction to marketers on how to improve your campaigns in-line with these goals.  So, while it may seem like Google is “gaming” the system, it’s simply a lack of understanding around how their ad platform works.  We know how to make changes to ad campaigns that should result in improvements to metrics like cost.  How do we know what changes we need to make?  Because Google tells us!  That’s right, they give marketers and advertisers direction on how to lower your cost, outperform competitors and drive more conversions.  By providing this direction, they’re allowing us to help them improve their own relevancy and user experience.

Ultimately, this is why clients look to CMI/Compas.  As experts in the search space, it’s our job to make sure we’re following updates, best practices and changes that could impact brands, performance and safety.  Our teams work closely with Google as well as all our partners (Microsoft/Bing, The Trade Desk, etc) to ensure we’re getting notified of these updates in real time and learn how we can shift focus where needed to remain compliant and in-line with performance/brand goals. We will continue sharing insights, support and direction around how companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and others are providing and leveraging audience data and playing in the healthcare space.