If you own or work with a search engine optimization company, or even if you're just hoping to better your search engine placement, then you are probably aware of the recent acquisition frenzy that took hold among the major search engines. Google paid $3.1 billion for DoubleClick, Microsoft paid $6 billion for Aquantive, and Yahoo paid $680 million for the 80 percent of Right Media that it did not already own and another $300 million for BlueLithium. The companies purchased are all intended to help widen the advertising range of each of the engines in question, and to take advantage of increasingly sophisticated behavioral-based ad-serving technologies that the acquired companies owned.

What many people failed to realize was that when Google purchased DoubleClick, it now was also the owner of a very large search engine optimization company called Performics, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of DoubleClick.

This fact is of course raising some eyebrows in the industry. Google has consistently maintained that there is no way that people can pay for better search engine placement in the organic index, a stance that the company still claims applies despite this recent purchase. In fact, a portion of Google's published guidelines about SEO says, "While Google doesn't have relationships with any SEOs and doesn't offer recommendations…" In another portion, Google says "While Google never sells better ranking in our search results…" However, anyone who hires search engine optimization company Performics is of course now paying Google for better search engine placement. It seems like a pretty black and white issue, but Google would obviously prefer that it was kept delightfully blurry.

A Serious Conflict of Interest

One would think that Google, aware of the controversy that would come from the fact that it now owned a search engine optimization company, would be eager to spin Performics off quickly in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety and of selling search engine placement. Not so, says the official Google/Doubleclick acquisition FAQ:

Q. What will Google do with Performics?

A. Performics is part of DoubleClick, and we are acquiring it as part of the transaction. We have no plans to dispose of it at this time.[1]

All right, so Google owns a search engine optimization company and seems prepared to hold onto it for a little while at least. Yes, there seems to be a huge conflict of interest. Yes, there appears to be a large double standard. Yes, Google appears to have abandoned its long-standing principles regarding organic search engine placement in the interests of profit. But surely, the search engine optimization company that it bought will quickly be forced to follow the guidelines that Google has published for companies that are looking for a search engine optimization company. Right? Well, no.

Here is a verbatim quote from the guidelines that Google provides to people thinking about hiring a search engine optimization company:

Make sure you're protected legally.

For your own safety, you should insist on a full and unconditional money-back guarantee. Don't be afraid to request a refund if you're unsatisfied for any reason…[2]

On the surface, this advice seems solid enough, but as an owner of a search engine optimization company, I can tell you how impractical it is. What would prevent a company that achieved fantastic search engine placement using my service from asking for its money back, claiming that it is unsatisfied? "For any reason" is a very slippery slope, and apparently Google agrees – Performics does not offer a guarantee of any kind. How do I know? Simple -- one of my employees called and asked. We also have it in writing from an email we received from one of their sales reps.

What Are Google's Options?

Let's be charitable and assume that in the heat of the acquisition Google has forgotten to update the page of advice that it has created for website owners. This leaves only four things that can happen:

Status Quo: Google keeps this advice up on the page and Performics continues to offer no guarantee regarding search engine placement. We'll call this the "hypocritical" scenario.

Performics gets in line: Google leaves the advice up as is and forces Performics to offer an unconditional money-back guarantee. We'll call this the "free SEO from Performics" scenario.

Guidelines change: Performics maintains zero guarantees for search engine placement but Google modifies the advice to remove the inconsistencies pointed out in this article from its advice section. We'll call this the "shareholder's delight moneygrubber special" scenario.

Google spins off Performics and removes itself from the search engine optimization industry. We'll call this the "sanity over dollars" scenario.

I'm not betting on which of these scenarios is most likely. Some time back I would have picked #4, but as I pointed out in a recent article, Google has already crossed an invisible line by offering free advice about organic search engine placement to its biggest pay-per-click spenders.

Google owning a search engine optimization company -- a slippery slope, indeed. What does this mean for those hiring other companies and looking for great search engine placement? We will just have to wait and see.

[1] http://www.searchenginejournal.com/what-will-google-do-with-performics/4720/

[2] http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35291

December 3, 2007

Scott Buresh is the CEO of Medium Blue, which was recently named the number one search engine optimization company in the world by PromotionWorld. Scott has contributed content to many publications including Building Your Business with Google For Dummies (Wiley, 2004), MarketingProfs, ZDNet, WebProNews, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, ISEDB, and Search Engine Guide. Medium Blue serves local and national clients, including Boston Scientific, DS Waters, and Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Visit MediumBlue.com to request a custom SEO guarantee based on your goals and your data.


I had to Sphinn this for the "shareholder's delight moneygrubber special" line! On a related note, great research; I'd forgotten about the organic advice to big spenders. In fairness, Cutts does it regularly for anyone who goes to his sessions at SES, Pubcon, SMX...

HUGE conflict of interests indeed! If it was a game of soccer, one would say the referee has become the attacking midfielder :(

Google is one of the biggest hypocrites around. As long as people remember that the big G is just an advertising platform then the internet will be fine. But the problem is everyone has grown to trust Google and the results they provide. I give it about another 5 years before people realize Google is like cable TV and the commercials, product placement, and reality shows are not worth it. People will pay for premium content just not to deal with Google's hypocrisy.

I had to chuckle when I googled - search engine marketing - and performics didnt show up in the first three pages of rankings. Google is just another bumbling megalopolis. Its not evil. It was the quickest public fund hero. It then crested and lost complete and total focus of what its business plan was. and now it is in the resting on its laurels stage. Its not selling off its conflict of interest cuz the damn thing makes bux hand over fist. get a clue. It wont be selling it off until it becomes an embarrassment or is not profitable. GE got a 30 year bell curve. MSN got a 20 year version. Now witness the 10 year version.

Will be a conflict, yes. Isn't a conflict now. They haven't paid for DoubleClick nor own Performics as part of it because the deal has yet to be approved.

I'm not the biggest fan of Google (You can tell from my first post if you saw the blog today or yesterday when I liken them to the New Nazi Regime and linkers and reviewers are like the Jews). But let's be fair, Google is a huge corporation now. As such as they grow in size their movements get slower and slower. Their acquisition of Doubleclick last time I looked was being challenged in Europe and Google as well as Microsoft go along with the EU's dictates or lose their access to Europe.
So until they actually own it without any legal challenges from major governments, they won't bother forcing a sale of something that may or may not be there's in 6 months. Also keep in mind that by leaving the company as is, if they are forced to sell by the EU, having the SEO company makes Doubleclick more valuable in the sale.

Matt Cutts recently pointed out they are removing the "full and unconditional money-back guarantee" language. Didn't make the connection until reading your article. Thanks!

Google has been on an accquistion spree of late and some of the accquisitions are bound to raise eyebrows. Google is being looked upon as one of the major online advertising platforms and people trust it for the results it has been providing. I hope Google keeps things black and white on the issues which create conflict .

I think they will be responsible actually and it won't a conflict of interest. Look what they did to Google Japan for spamming Yahoo Japan - they lowered Google Japan from a rank of 9 to 5. There's no way the guys at Google are going to ruin a respectable business I feel.

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