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The Massive Mystery In Google's Finances (siliconvalleywatcher.com)
154 points by Straubiz on July 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

Some combination of:

1) Panda, which redirected hundreds of millions in revenue from some content farms to other parties (including, likely, the ether) which do not show up on Google's books

2) Google is being increasingly aggressive about monetizing the Google SERPS. More ads in more places with more prominent billing. Other sites on the Internet have not been aggressively up-monetizing principally because they have less room to do so. Google has a cash cow and they've only really been working one or two of the squeezable portions, somewhat halfheartedly.

3) Google is cannibalizing the organic results for high money verticals, for example with consumer finance comparison products. Why have Citibank pay an affiliate $200 to buy $160 of AdSense ads to pay Google ~70 when Citi is perfectly happy to pay Google $200 directly?

4) Routine optimization works. Google+ gets all the ink, but Google is keenly aware that they have two products: core search and AdWords/AdSense. If you thought Circles got some programming chops thrown at it, pretend a 1% improvement was worth billions and you had infinite R&D resources.

5) Something else entirely.

One more aspect: a lot of PPC advertisers do not like to use network ads (i.e., partner sites) because they are perceived as yielding lower quality clicks. Clicks from Google itself are seen to be more likely to monetize for the advertiser.

This is a very good point. As users of Adwords become more familair with its abilities to customize campaigns, they can spend less and keep their same conversion rates.

For instance, only advertising at certain times of day, or certain keywords for specific regions, not advertising in specific geographical locations, the use of quotes and brackets in keywords, etc...

If Google ever does end up facing an anti-trust trial, your second point will likely form part of the case against them. This could be considered direct evidence that Google are using their dominance in search to favor their own properties over others.

This shouldn't have been downvoted; news of an FTC antitrust probe for /precisely this behavior/ was reported just last month: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405270230333990457640...

A few years ago they had an ad for Blogger, which was not actually an AdWords ad, shown if a search request contained a word "blog". It was placed above AdWords.

It's not illegal to use dominance in one market to enter another. That's called good business.

Antitrust requires monopoly, which google does not have. There are many competitive and successful ad networks and search engines, and there is no lock in to the search product.

I don't agree with the entire concept of anti-trust, let alone support any case against Google - but I can see it happening

Yeah, Standard Oil and U.S. Steel were pretty awesome.

Without robber-barons, we would have a dearth of philanthropists.


Yes, some of the robber-barons were and are philanthropists.

But robbing to give it away is not much more moral than robbing to spend it yourself or give it to your heirs. Both are still theft.

For examples of modern non-robber philanthropists, see H & P, Buffet, et al.

What is Panda?

Changes that Google made, designed to reduce the number of "low quality links" in search results, such as those to content farms. http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/finding-more-high-qua...

Rather than being an algorithm change, it seems to be a process that Google runs only occasionally, which labels entire sites (rather than individual pages) as low quality. Sites with that label are penalized in search results.

It affected many sites, including those that aren't content farms (mine included,) in what many webmasters believe is collateral damage.

I've found many of the claims of collateral damage to be from sites that I don't honestly feel were adding much value to our lives, even if they weren't strictly content farms.

I'd be interested to hear your specific story?

My site that was penalized is The Online Slang Dictionary. http://onlineslangdictionary.com/ It's the oldest slang dictionary on the web and had the only freely accessible slang thesaurus on the web until about a month ago. In contrast to other slang dictionaries, The Online Slang Dictionary is only for legitimate slang words.

I've never used any black-hat or even slightly questionable SEO techniques or means to publicize the site. It started being penalized April 11, which is the launch date of what (IIRC) is being called "Panda 2.0". I've made many changes in hopes of fixing whatever it is that's causing Google to decide that the site is low quality, but haven't seen any improvement in ranking since then. A (now outdated) list of those changes is here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2664346 .

Your website comes up as the 4th results for "slang dictionary". Where was it before panda?

#2. It's fallen in Google rankings for nearly every keyword for which it appears at all.

I guess my site was hit by Panda too.. I said guess because all of us are guessing since Google does not bother to inform us. Like you, searching for a keyword, previously lands you in the first page - now it's on the 4th/5th page.

Try searching your site on Bing, Yahoo and see..

videowatchr.com uses Google video search and the youtube API to show youtube videos. So of course, it will have duplicate content.

If you use an API, you are getting someone's content most likely, does that make you a content farm? How about if you use an RSS feed?

Google should publish guidelines on this Panda - so we're not guessing.

If @WalterGR above is correct, then changes to your site will only help when panda is rerun between one bot visit and the next (ie it's a batch process not a constantly evolved ranking).

If that's true then an awful lot of sites I have heard about may have been wasting time SEO'ing for nothing. (most obvious is serverfault)

Does anyone know if it really is an infrequent labelling run or an algoithm change and or it's run frequency?

Edit: reference to waltergr added correctly

Here's my collateral damage story: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2763272

There are definitely high quality sites that were hit by Panda.

An update of the Google algorithm earlier this year. It changed, in some cases quite radically, the search results.

The 'black box' of AdSense payout rates has long given Google has a lot of discretion, checked only by publishers' other alternatives (credible threat of switching) and Google's strategic goals.

Perhaps the next-best alternatives to fill the same space aren't paying as much. Perhaps Google was strategically overpaying AdSense partners for a while, to achieve critical mass (of advertisers and publishers) and forestall the development of competitive networks.

Now, having achieved an enduring dominance in this two-sided returns-to-scale market, they're dialing back their AdSense payments. Only the emergence of a strong alternative would prompt them to continue paying the same premium that was offered during the capture phase.

(And even if Google thought a competitor of similar scale was likely to arrive – eg Facebook – they might want to continue charging a lot for their market-making, building a large warchest, until the competitor arrives. Then, crush the upstart by dynamically charging very little, making AdSense extra-attractive for exactly those advertisers/publishers of greatest importance against the upstart. Similar to how a hundred years ago, Standard Oil was accused of using targeted rate changes to undermine upstart competitors.)

Maybe ad-blindness (if not outright ad-blocking) is spreading more widely among the masses, especially in AdSense scenarios. Maybe AdSense was only ever meant as a moat to protect AdWords from possible network-of-ads competitors.

Not sure if people saw the comment that someone left on the original thread: "Seriously? It is because of the Panda update and the resulting shift in traffic away from ad-ridden low-quality sites and towards higher quality sites that often haven't yet been optimized for ads in the Google network. They've addressed this directly in both of the last two earnings calls and have said they expect the effects to be largely transitory."

If that's true then come out and say it's true. Don't be coy. No, really, don't: You can't have it both ways, implying the original author is somehow dumb without being willing to stick your neck out enough to say it yourself. Pointing to a random anonymous internet comment is weasely.

Except he might not know that it's true, he was just drawing attention to an interesting comment.

Matt, hated to downvote you but your comment didn't add much here. Simply saying that something was addressed and dismissed doesn't tell the reader why it was dismissed so that they could judge for themselves. Your premise seemed to be that if Google says something it must be true, which isn't necessarily the case. (And I'm definitely not implying any evil or bad reason, sometimes people are just mistaken)

DanielBMarkham, let me try again using quotes from Google's last two earning transcripts from the last two quarters and see whether that helps to clarify.

I'm loath to go anywhere near a subject like corporate earnings for various reasons, but Foremski says "There is no explanation from Google or Wall Street analysts that I could find," but anyone can go read Google's Q2 2011 earnings call transcript, which you can find at http://seekingalpha.com/article/279555-google-s-ceo-discusse... . The relevant sentence is "Network revenue was again negatively impacted by the Search quality improvements made during the latter part of Q1, as you will remember, and know that Q2 reflects a full quarter of this impact."

Now go read Google's Q1 earning's transcript at http://seekingalpha.com/article/263665-google-s-ceo-discusse... . The relevant section is "The Google Network revenue was up 19% year-over-year to $2.4 billion. That Network revenue was negatively impacted by two things, the loss of a Search distribution partnership deal and also, what has been broadly communicated, by Search quality improvement made during the quarter. Regarding the Search quality improvement, remember that we regularly make such trade-offs. We really believe that the quality improvements that benefit the user always serves us well both in the short term and in the mid term in terms of revenue."

So Foremski claims that "For some strange reason no one has picked up on this or noticed this huge change in its business model. There is no explanation from Google or Wall Street analysts that I could find." I would contend that Google has actually been quite clear about the reasons for the change in network revenue in its earnings calls.

In particular, Google has been clear in that it's willing to accept an impact in our revenue in order to improve the quality of our search results.


I'm obviously pursuing you into a spot you can't go, and for that I apologize, but the relevant problem here was your quoting a commenter from a blog who claimed from the earnings discussion that the effects would be transitory. That's a little too much indirection and terseness for my tastes. I also lost track of pronoun antecedents. In particular, I read it as transitory in terms of partner performance, when I guess it was meant to be transitory in terms of Google earnings performance? Still a bit unclear there. It's not worth chasing down myself, and we've beat on it enough. I was more concerned about somewhat-famous-person-makes-blanket-pronouncement-which-goes-unquestioned stuff, which is trashy for the quality of the site. Appreciate the clarification and additional resources provided for anybody who cares about this more than I do.

No worries. Going back to the original earnings transcripts is nice because then it's official Google statements, not something I'm claiming.

I'd been meaning to find those quotes anyway; back in January, a few skeptical people wondered whether Google "has a disincentive to algorithmically weed out the kind of drivel that exists for no other reason than to make its publisher money via AdSense" -- that's a quote from http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2127937 .

What the last two earnings calls show is that Google is willing to accept an impact in our revenue to improve our search quality. So it was a helpful exercise for me to track down the relevant bits from the earnings transcripts.

Yes but I think Google possibly are being disingenuous here. Yes its negatively impacted by some search quality improvements, but is it NETT negatively impacted, or is it also positively impacted as well.

After all, you are displaying ads that someone has paid for, so if someone isn't clicking on them, then maybe the content is no good for the ads (ie poor quality). Likewise you can tell by how much someone will bid on the keyword how valuable the content is.

That doesn't explain the sudden strong spike in Google's own earnings, it only explains the decline in network earnings. How is Google harvesting some of the Panda changes for itself? As it happens the FTC is probing whether it is unfairly intercepting too many queries itself http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405270230333990457640...

"it only explains the decline in network earnings."

mapgrep, the original article was centered around the change between Google vs. network earnings. In fact, the first sentence of the article was "Google reported stellar 2011 Q2 earnings but Google's partner sites, which used to account for half of its revenues, showed a massive lag in growth." The original article went on to point out "There is no explanation from Google or Wall Street analysts that I could find."

I'm just pointing out that Google has provided guidance (in both earnings calls) about the reasons for that disparity.

You have pointed to guidance on the "massive lag in growth" by partner sites but not to the "stellar 2011 Q2 earnings" by Google sites. The latter earnings growth is truly exceptional:

Google sites grew 39 percent in Q2 2011 vs 22, 22, 23 and 20 percent in the prior four quarters (!). Foremski wrote, "Google sites' growth jumped suddenly and without any explanation." That explanation is still nowhere to be found.

Something is missing here. I'm not saying it's nefarious or not, and I'm not saying you /need/ to address it, just that you haven't, and that Foremski's question still stands. You seem to be saying (roughly) "nothing to see here," but that appears to be incorrect.

So use Adsense at your own peril? Add Google ads and risk being deprioritised in search rankings if they decide they are not making enough money?

We are AdSense premium partners and have seen our revenues nearly cut in half while our page views remained constant. I can safely say this is due to the fact that a lot of our visitors use ad block plugins. I can't blame them - some ad formats are annoying enough to justify ad blockers. Unfortunately Google does not offer a way for us to receive ads on the server level and integrate them into the page content, bypassing the ad blockers - like Google does it on his own properties.

We too are getting some significant revenue from Adsense. The income has been stable for last 2 years. It dropped by around half as well in last 3 months. It is worrying. I am not sure if ad blocks are the cause when the drop has been quite sudden.

Ad blockers can block those, too. It's not just blocking calls to the Google ad engine; it's monitoring pages for (user defined and shared) ad divs.

Isn't it true that Google doesn't actually tell advertisers what % of the per click advertising revenue they are paid?

Its amazing that after all these years we have learnt to accept this black box and trust Google is somehow paying advertisers a constant percentage.

It's likely Google wanted a bit more revenue for this quarter so decided to pay advertisers slightly less of the cut. Wouldn't surprise me if this becomes more commonplace in the future as Google keeps being tempted to improve their profits.

Publishers can log in and see their current split. It's in account settings and I'm currently getting about 70% with the "AdSense for Content" product which is what I use. If you use the Google Analytics hook-in you can get very detailed statistics about which pages/visits are paying you what too.

They never promise or make it transparent, although in an earnings call in Q1 2007 they basically said they only keep 25% (they generated $1.2B and paid out $916m).

I have noticed that this year my AdSense revenue has fallen even though click-thru rate and impressions have been constant. I assumed it was lower spend on the advertising side, but a bigger Google cut may make sense.

Two wild guesses:

Video ads - They finally figured out efficient video ads and have turned YouTube from a loss leader to a money-making machine

Mobile ads - Do GMail and other Google apps on Android already show ads?

I think the first one might be true. I'm seeing ads on almost every video now.

I am using adblock plus on firefox. I haven't seen an ads for a long time.

Its impossible to get hard numbers, but I don't think Youtube has been the massive loss leader everyone assumed it was for a long time. Run a trace route from pretty much any home connection, Google is directly peered with nearly every residential ISP, that's bound to save massive amounts on bandwidth.

Google has become a publisher and an affiliate marketer, dabbling in mortgages, loans, flight search, even clothing (Boutiques.com). The search results are clobbered more and more with results to Google's own properties.

Less long tail, more Google properties, outprice and drive out the small enterpreneurs. That's the reason.

Have a look at the screenshots in this article, especially in the second half


Don't mind the name, but read it anyway, Aaron Wall is today probably the most inquisitive watchdog of Google.

This is a wild guess, but what about partner sites' changes also having an effect? The NYT implemented a paywall - possibly resulting in a significant reduction in adsense income?

Having worked recently for a large media company (controlling half the TV, radio, and a sizable chunk of online news to an entire country) we had very close ties to Google i.e. there salesmen where constantly knocking and begging us to use there products. Direct dial numbers to peoples offices etc...

Anyway the thing is adsense would pay anywhere from 2%-10% the value of an advertising campaign which our sales team could source, and if it was a true multi-media campaign across radio, tv ,online Google revenues across the whole network for a month wouldn't even ad up to one sale. Even a standard interactive take over would pay in one week on one site what adsense would for a whole month.

So it was considered a last choice to have adsense on anything, even with foreign exchange rates making the adsense payouts more valuable. Infact we often ran house ads in favour of them as it was considered better value to self promote than run lower return ads.

So I wouldn't be surprised to see lots of other partners taking a similar stance in a tough economic climate by chasing after better returns than Google can offer.

(and yes we had our pages fine tuned for ad sense. We had our SEO team working very closely with Google trying to get things running at highest efficiency/return).

EDIT: If our sales teams figures seem high compared to Googles payouts it would relate to our position in the market and audience. Our sales teams could naturally haggle a far greater rate than smaller websites could.

Wouldn't that imply less revenues for Google as well ?

Not if they shifted traffic to their own free inventory

Can you elaborate?

Yes you are right, I suspect my guess is only part of the equation. Google must have shifted something as the article suggests.

Maybe these are mobile searches.

Good point, half a million android devices are being activated daily apparently. Free apps with adsense on all those devices is a possible explanation.

I manage an adwords campaign for a highly competitive local search term and we are getting gouged because of layout changes. about 5 or 6 months ago google added a local map on the right column and lowered the ads beneath the map. the results has been you have to bid much higher and pay more for less.

As far as I know google pays 69% of revenue to adsense partners. But when they need extra money they can still use the highest paying ads for themselves, sending them to gmail, youtube.

So yes, google is in control. Adsense partners are not.

Devil's Advocate:

Could it be the ad-revenue is down overall, and this is an accounting game to prevent GOOG stock's price from dropping?

Maybe they were simply better than their partners. Is it really a mystery?

Nope. Massive mystery. :)

Every time I see such titles on HN, I worry a little. We should down-vote such links; I have seen way too many sites become infested with trolls and link-baits, and such titles hitting front page is just what gets them excited.

No offence to the poster. But maybe we should all summarize things objectively.

I voted up the story because it is a very good question, but the title is awful, as you say. Something like "An unexplained anomaly in Google's Q1-Q2 earnings" would have been better for our site.

They were also better than themselves in previous quarters.

Now we know how Panda determined low quality sites. They looked at the click through rate and cpc rates for adsense ads. If the market didn't click on the ads google served, then they mustn't have been relevant to the content (or more importantly, the content isn't relevant to the ad. IE it's low quality. Furthermore, if the market wasn't prepare d to pay much for the ad, it must be for content that's low value.

Basically, google has redirected traffic from low paying adsense pages to high paying adsense pages for those keywords.

Our site was hit hard with the last panda update, losing 30 percent of our traffic. We have two main types of pages that are quite similar which constitute our site.

Which pages were hit? Only one had google ads on it. Those pages were hit, the others were untouched.

So in their efforts to steal revenue from their partners the corollary is now true:

Put google ads on your site and run the risk of getting deranked.

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