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Google Boost black box threatens local SERP objectivity

Google recently announced Boost, a mechanism for better monetizing Local SEO search result pages (SERPs), which will increasingly steal share from traditional web search due to the rise of mobile/geo-intent search on smartphones.

The description leaves many hanging questions, though, to which only select few advertisers invited into the experiment may resolve. Here’s how Google describes Boost:

Based on the information you’ve already provided on the Place page for your business, we provide a suggested ad description, a web or Place page, your business categories and a monthly budget. Once you’ve confirmed these four simple elements, our system automatically creates an ad campaign. . . To be clear, the ranking of Boost ads in the “Ads” section of the Google.com and Google Maps search results pages are based on relevance and quality factors; and Boost ads do not impact the ranking of your free, organic business listings.

And here’s how they screenshot it (click to enlarge):

Google boost screenshot

Google shows Boost ads as similar to AdWords ads, clearly segmented.

In practice, though, when searching for “New Orleans restaurants,” I observe this strange, blended organic/paid unit (click to enlarge):

"New Orleans restaurants" Places SERP

In practice, though, Boost ads appear to combine organic and paid elements into a single unit, mixed into organic results.

So, with Google now setting the budgets of participating advertisers, one must wonder if the cart (paid ads) is now driving the horse (organic results).

The unit’s title is organic — it matches the homepage meta title. The snippet, which normally comes from the meta description tag in an organic listing, has been pulled from the Places page, with emphasis on reviews from TripAdviser, Yelp, Zagat and CitySearch. And the bottom-line “display url” has been replaced by PPC ad text (in this case, “Make a Reservation”).

The question… Why is this hybrid organic/paid listing unit ranking 3rd among organic Places results? If, as Google claims above, “(organic) ranking is based on relevance and quality factors, and Boost ads do not impact the ranking of your free, organic business listings,”  can a blended non-paid/paid listing unit remain objective?

Google is understandably testing a very important new model that has big implications. But  if this is a sneak preview of what’s to come at scale, Google could be tip-toeing closer to the edge of a slippery slope, risking its delicate editorial/advertising balance.

Thoughts?

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Paris's foray into Internet marketing began in 2003, and since then has spanned numerous projects in countries that include U.S., China, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Paris founded Hop Online in the spring of 2009 with the aim of aggregating the Bulgaria talent potential and establishing a highly qualified search and social marketing outpost in the region. So far, so good.

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