Google’s ongoing antitrust trial has been a parade of PR disasters for the search giant.
First there was this revelation from VP of Ads Jerry Dischler, in which we learned that Google “frequently” raises minimum ad prices by as much as 5% so the company can reach revenue targets. There are even many who think that 5% figure is actually much higher. Whatever the figure, Google has understandably not gone public with that detail before, even though many in the industry have long suspected it might be the case.
They’ve also attracted huge scrutiny for their long standing agreements with hardware and device manufacturers like Apple, to secure their position as the “default” search option out of the box. In fact, in 2021 alone, they spent $21.3 billion in these default option deals!
Then there was the time when Google’s VP of Finance likened the search ads industry to selling cigarettes or drugs saying it is “one of the greatest business models ever created”.
But the headaches aren’t limited to its Ads business.
The antitrust trial has also thrown off some very interesting SEO insights too, for those who have been paying close enough attention.
Here are some of the key SEO takeaways from the trial so far.
Yes, Clicks Are Used In Rankings
Let’s start with the big one.
Google has long been cagey, to say the least, about whether or not clicks are used as a ranking signal.
Often, they’ve all but denied it.
Take this quote from Gary Illyes, for example:
“Clicks in general are a very noisy signal. I worked on trying to make observations from click data. It’s like a Gordian knot. Because there are tons of people who are scraping the results and trying to fetch ranking data, and for whatever reason, they also decide to click on things automatically. Links. It’s just a huge mess.
When we have controlled experiments, then obviously we have to look at click data. Before we launch a ranking change, typically what we do is to isolate 1% of the users and give them modified search results, modified by the new ranking algorithm or a piece of the algorithm and see how they like the new results. And in these instances, we do look for long clicks, short clicks, and so on. But in general, as I said, it’s a huge mess.” (source)
Early in the trial though, long time ex-Googler Eric Lehman went on record and confirmed that yes, clicks are a Google ranking factor.
Maybe SEOs should have seen through the downplaying sooner. After all, Google do have an entire patent around the use of clicks in rankings.
But Google did such a good job of ducking and weaving on the topic that even until now many SEOs have long debated whether clicks are a ranking signal or not. Take this X pole from Search Engine Land columnist Chris Silver Smith.
What would you say the most controversial ranking factor is? As in, is it, or isn’t it? Not counting “Helpfulness” for this!
— Chris Silver Smith (@si1very) August 29, 2022
But Clicks Aren’t The Only User Interaction Metric Being Used In Rankings…
In one of the exhibits Eric Lehman, the same Eric who brought us the clicks as a ranking factor bombshell, also revealed that other metrics like “attention on a result, swipes on carousels and entering a new query” were also part of this group of user interaction metrics being looked at in rankings.
Most of this document has been redacted, but the pages that aren’t, are well worth looking at and thinking about if you’re an SEO.
This presentation goes even further and describes further the feedback loop that is “the source of Googles magic”. In it, we learn that various user interactions such as hovers, scrolls and “long looks” are also logged as key events.
Finally, this entire presentation on the use of logging in ranking, makes it clear how important a role user interaction logs and data actually play.
“Not just one ranking system learns from search logs. Learning from search logs is the main mechanism behind ranking.”
Microsoft Thinks AI Could Make Search Even Less Competitive
Much less actionable an insight than the first two points, but a key point to think about none the less.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said as part of his testimony on October 2nd that he is worried that the recent advancements in AI wont do much for competition in search in the years to come.
He’s concerned that the trend will be for Google to use similar practices it used to secure it’s default search engine status, signing exclusive deals with publishers and large data sets that prevent would be competitors from accessing data to train AI models.
“I worry that this vicious cycle I’m trapped in,” Nadella said about a world in which Google can dominate by outspending rivals to prevent anyone else from building a better product, “is only going to get more vicious.” – (source).
We’ll keep this post updated with any additional SEO insights as the case continues.
Judge Amit Mehta likely wont issue his final ruling on the case until early next year.
Matt is Marwick Marketing's Division Leader for SEO & Web Development and has over a decade of digital marketing experience in everything from local to national and international campaigns. He's led high impact strategies for major brands and currently oversees Marwick's global SEO and Web services.