Imagine Larry and Sergey at the Google Headquarters, sitting in one of their hundreds of conference rooms with chairs that alternate in blue, green, yellow, and red, both looking intently at a whiteboard with a large Venn Diagram drawn on it. If you’re like me and you were too busy looking out the window in third grade, a Venn Diagram is the chart with the two large intersecting circles.
Larry gets up and writes over the left circle “Things People Hate” and then he shuffles over to the right circle and scribbles “Things That Don’t Make Google Money.” And then, after a “Eureka!” moment, Sergey jumps up out of his green chair and writes “Mobile Pop Up Ads” right in the middle.
Mobile pop-up ads are hated by absolutely everyone, right? I personally hate when I’m perusing an article about cute kittens on my iPhone in a meeting (What? Everyone does it, don’t lie!) and a pop-up ad comes out of nowhere to cover the entire screen. Worse yet, I try to close it but the ‘X’ is so tiny that I accidentally miss it and my browser takes me to a website about weight loss pills. It’s a nightmare!
So when Google announced last month that they would begin demoting websites with these pop-up ads on their search results, I immediately knew that my meeting escapism would be dramatically improved. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, rejoiced – these ads suck, and everyone agrees.
But let’s be real – it wasn’t altruism on Google’s part. It’s more likely about opportunism. You see, pop-up ads don’t make Google a dime. So by demoting websites that are both annoying to users AND that don’t use their advertising service, Google leaves websites that depend on these pop-up advertisements with little choice but to switch to forms of advertising that Google, conveniently, does sell. After all, if you’re a business, being at the top of a Google search is the difference between success and failure – so making sure that your site doesn’t suffer from demotion is absolutely imperative to staying afloat.
I’ll bet its millions of users are thrilled to see fewer ads popping up on their mobile devices, but you don’t get credit for doing good if you do it solely to advance your own interests. Google seized an opportunity to look like they were doing their users a favor when in reality they were very much acting in their own self-interest. But we did learn one thing: When it wants to, Google can exercise a high degree of control over where certain websites appear in its search results.
If Google were truly as altruistic as it makes itself out to be with this new approach to pop-up ads, couldn’t it similarly demote other sites that are annoying or, even worse, harmful – pirate sites, for instance – that hurt the public and hurt creatives?
Google makes much of the fact that it demotes pirate sites in search results that appear when you type the specific title you’re looking for. For example, if I search the name of a popular movie that’s still in theaters, I will be shown local movie times, the official website for the movie, and reference links like IMDb – all very convenient and all pointing to legitimate sites. So far, so good. Thanks, Google.
However, that’s not the case for other searches. Begin your search with the word “watch” before almost any movie or television title, for example, and you’ll see that Google returns a list of clearly illegal pirate sites promising to allow you to watch that movie or TV show for free.
Wouldn’t it make sense to demote those bad sites in these searches too?
You know, to help make sure that consumers get a quality movie-watching experience, and to allow the thousands of creatives whose livelihoods depend on it to make a living? Particularly in light of unrefuted studies showing that a significant percentage of these pirate sites are being used to distribute malware to unsuspecting users?
Google has an answer to my question – “oh, most searches are just for the title of the film.” Could be true. But even if only a comparatively small percentage of searches are done with these variants, why does Google give priority placement to these harmful sites in response to those searches while highlighting their efforts to demote them as bad sites elsewhere? And why does Google’s autocomplete induce me to “watch (name of movie) free online” even for movies that are not legally available for free online?
As the theatrical distributor of such films as Dirty Dancing, Mad Hot Ballroom, and Hustle & Flow, I just don’t feel that Google is as committed to protecting those films and the people who make them as much as they are to letting me search kittens during business meetings.
Or perhaps they simply lack the same self-interest in dealing with these problems as they seem to have in dealing with pop-up advertising. Google has, no doubt, made some progress in demoting pirate sites, but if it wants a pat on the back for doing the right thing, then it needs to do more, even if it won’t benefit Google financially.
I’d love to see Google show as much concern for the public interest as they do for their self-interest.