Does Google Lie? 3 Examples

Cara Bowles    By under SEO.

conspiracy nutAs I've mentioned before, sections of the SEO industry have quite the conspiracy theory streak.

Some of the more skeptically-minded voices in the industry, such as Aaron Wall, have very legitimate criticisms to aim at Google, even if I don't always agree.

Others, in particular the anonymous internet forum trolls, bear more resemblance to the stark raving mad man standing on a street corner with a "The End is Nigh" sign dangling from his neck.

Of the criticisms thrown at Google by the SEO industry, one of the most common seems to be that "they are LIARS intentionally misleading SEOs so that they can put more money in their pockets (and Barry Schwartz, Rand Fishkin, and Danny Sullivan are all PAID SHILLS!!!!!!!111).

I've even seen the odd article or forum post here or there claiming that Google is in bed with Obama.

While I can't help but laugh at most criticisms of this form, a smart SEO does keep Google's motives and incentives in mind as they devise a strategy.

So, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the public record, and see if I could find any examples of Google outright lying.

Here's what I found.

1. Links from Press Release Sites

On December 25, 2012, Matt Cutts wrote:

Note: I wouldn't expect links from press release web sites to benefit your rankings, however.

If we look at the phrasing closely, it's clear that Cutts isn't flat out saying "links from press release sites won't help your rankings." Instead, he's clearly saying you shouldn't count on them helping your rankings. That's an important distinction, so it's not really an outright lie.

However, it's important to realize that links from press releases can in fact help your rankings (well, more accurately, we know they can pass anchor text). SEOConsult ran a test that proved this. The case study isn't on their site any more, but here it is in the WayBack Machine.

2. Hummingbird

On August 21 and 22 of 2013, all of the major keyword tools spotted massive changes in the search results. When Search Engine Roundtable contacted Google about the update, they had "nothing to say about this topic." Many SEOs took this to mean that Google was denying an update.

About a month later, Google announced that they had completely revamped their algorithm with the Hummingbird update, and that the changes had been made about a month before.

Again, this is not a case of outright lying, but it's clear that the update on August 21/22 was Hummingbird, and Google declined to say anything about it for a month.

3. "Not Provided" Keyword Data

When Google started blocking keyword data in search results, Google claimed that it was to protect the privacy of searchers who were signed in to Google. They also specifically said that "the change will affect only a minority of your traffic." However, there is no reason why SSL search would prevent the reporting of keyword data (which is still found in AdWords), and today, essentially 100% of all keyword data is now "not provided."

The way the web is supposed to work, Google wouldn't pass the keyword data forward unless it were to a secure site. By default, this would have meant that webmasters could still access the keyword data if they just switched their sites to be encrypted. This would have encouraged webmasters to encrypt their sites, which in turn would have made the entire web a more secure place.

Instead of doing this, Google deliberately built a unique system that never refers the keyword data, even to secured sites, except to Advertisers, even if they were unsecure. In short, they deliberately broke a web standard to avoid a backlash from unsecured advertisers.

Google began moving to encrypt all search, even for users that aren't signed in, in the wake of the PRISM scandal. Again, this data was not blocked from advertisers, even if they are not encrypted.

This is one of few cases where Google is being outright deceptive and manipulative. While the word "lie" might be a stretch, it's clear that the changes were not made in order to protect user privacy, or they would have blocked the data from advertisers as well. This move was a clear case of deception.

So, Does Google Lie?

I have to say, I haven't found any evidence that Google has outright lied about anything just yet, although the spin they put on encrypted search comes very close in my opinion.

Of course, the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Google very well may be lying about something. On the flip side, assuming the worst intentions can often be counterproductive. A middle ground approach is, in my opinion, the most productive.

Rather than focus on the question of whether or not Google has technically lied to SEOs about anything, I think it's more important to realize that Google has very strong incentives:

  • Not to give away anything about the algorithm that people can exploit
  • To discourage people from violating their guidelines

Rather than wrap this up with my own thoughts, I will instead leave you with a quote from the definitive paper by Larry Page and Sergey Brin on PageRank, back when Google was a Stanford research project. Before you start making claims of hypocrisy, keep in mind it is entirely normal to be embarrassed of things you said back in college. However, I still find it interesting:

Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline's homepage when the airline's name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

Want more? Check our Google Ranking Factors fact-check for dozens more examples of statements by Google employees that are contradicted by other evidence.

Image credit: B Rosen