At the last session at SMX Advanced Seattle (which has been a blast despite the crummy weather), some of the best and brightest (and oldest) in SEO got together to answer all things SEO-related from the audience, with Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan moderating this panel of outspoken SEO all-stars:

Alex Bennert, In House SEO, Wall Street Journal (@seosylph(Q&A Speaker)
Greg Boser, SVP of Search Services, BlueGlass Interactive, Inc. (@GregBoser(Q&A Speaker)
Bruce Clay, President, Bruce Clay, Inc. (@bruceclayinc(Q&A Speaker)
Vanessa Fox, Contributing Editor, Search Engine Land (@vanessafox(Q&A Speaker)
Todd Friesen, SVP, SearchFanatics (@oilman(Q&A Speaker)
Rae Hoffman-Dolan, CEO, PushFire (@sugarrae)

Happily one of the first questions they answered was from yours truly: “What are your thoughts on a paid google shopping, and what it says about future of paid google?”

Sullivan started off by explaining that Yahoo results were once paid inclusion only, where a site owner paid Yahoo and submitted their sites’ details such as titles and descriptions, and would be able to list on Yahoo for relevant searches.

That was when Google stepped in and basically said, “no no, that’s not the way to do it. We created an incredibly advanced system to index and algorithmize the web that’ll give the best results possible, without the help of the site owners which would cause a conflict of interest. Our system will return the best, most relevant listings that the user wants and we won’t have to take a penny from anyone.”

However fast forward to today, and many Google products, such as credit card offers, hotel, and flight searches are now paid inclusion, meaning in order to be listed you have to pay Google, and Google is now relying on users to pay and submit their information to them. In short, these products are a complete 180 from Google’s original search philosophy.

And with the switch to paid Google Shopping, Sullivan said he’d never seen anything like it before, where you take a product that was once completely free to list on, and suddenly reverse the course where now you can’t list anymore unless you pay Google.

Below are other panelists’ opinions on the matter–with some of the main points bolded.

Todd Friesen: “I think it will make it so only the biggest brands with the biggest budgets will show up on Google’s main SERP for shopping results. For example if there’s only 5 available spots, the only sites that are going to be able afford them are the 5 biggest brands in that vertical.

Greg Boser: “Eventually Google’s spam filter will no longer be completely automatic and algorithmic, but may be determined simply if you can pay Google to convince them that you’re not a spammer.”

Rae Hoffman-Dolan: “Google’s just like a drug dealer, they give away samples to everyone, then when you become addicted and dependent on it–e.g. if 30% of your store’s revenue comes from Google Shopping, you can’t lose out on that, and you’re essentially forced to pay Google or risk going out of business.

My biggest concern is that Google places will eventually become paid inclusion as well.

Bruce Clay: “Once upon a time all a Google SERP had was 10 results: 10 titles, 10 descriptions, 10 links.  All were “free” and Google got paid for none of it. They did not manipulate the results either, because the FTC doesn’t allow you to take “public” information and manipulate it for profit.

Then slowly it became 10 links + text ads+ images, then 10 links + text ads+ images + videos.

And now the organic listings are being reduced even further, and I’ve seen as low as 4 organic results on a SERP, and sometimes the first one won’t even be above the fold.

Google is shifting in a direction of returning results to users only if they’re sure that it’s of the highest quality, or only after a merchant has submitted (and paid them), which allows Google to technically do anything they want with the results without fear of FTC backlash.

Google is on a two-fold path: the purpose of Panda/Penguin was  to try to return only “quality” organic results, eliminating as many questionable results as possible.

Combine this with the idea that you have to pay to be on a prominent Google SERP, which in theory should increase the quality and accuracy of that data, the end result is that all listings on a Google SERP–paid and ‘free’–will give users nothing but the highest quality of results.

In the end Google is a public company and has an obligation to shareholders to try to make money, and I expect there to be a point where we only have 3 organic listings on a Google SERP.”

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