How Google Ruined Marketing

Ian Lurie
Rank #2? Too bad.

Marketing wasn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game.

Your competitor bought a TV commercial, you bought a TV commercial. They bought radio time, you bought radio time. Even if they bought every available second of radio time on one station, you could buy time on another, or go to a completely different medium.

That promoted two good things:

  1. Creativity in advertising. Creativity entertains consumers and forces brands to take a hard look at themselves every few months. This inspires a kind of corporate self-awareness that keeps the best consumer and business brands sharp.
  2. Great products. Products with high value get a huge advantage. The same properties that enable great marketing and advertising drive great products: Clear vision, quality, usefulness, and creativity (that keeps coming up, doesn’t it).

Of course, business has always been a zero-sum game, in a way: If you win a customer, that’s one less customer for your competitor. But the competition for actual share of voice plays out in a huge arena where ties are possible. Yours and your competitor’s marketing campaigns might be equally good, and you might win the same amount of business.

Alas, none of this is true any more. Google ruined marketing.

Back before Google, two companies spending the same dollars to market competitive products could win solid marketshare. Not any more.

Well, OK, Google didn’t exactly ruin marketing. It, and other search engines turned it into a nasty, zero-sum game. But saying ‘Google ruined marketing’ will get more people to read and link to this article, which is critical for my company’s SEO


Here are the four key wounds inflicted upon marketing by Google and search-driven marketing culture:

1: Google created zero-sum marketing

It’s all about #1. A 2006 Cornell eye-tracking and click-tracking study [pdf] found that the #1 ranking in a search result received 50% of all clicks. A later study by SlingShotSEO [reg required] showed 25%. Either way, a #1 ranking means you get a lot of clicks, and that you deny those clicks to your competitors. That’s like saying, “Buy this TV ad and you’ll get 25% of the market’s population to walk through your store. Oh, and most of those people won’t walk by your competitors.”

Oh, and #2 gets one-half the traffic of #1. After that, traffic share disappears into the depths faster than James Cameron in his submarine.

No other marketing channel has the same winner-take-most structure. If your competitor bought a TV commercial, you could buy one, too. If they bought radio time, you could buy radio time 2 minutes later. Theoretically you could buy up all available advertising time for your laxative product. But barring Don Draper, it’s always been difficult. There was always a way to balance out share of voice.

Now, there’s no way to do it. The #1-ranked site gets twice as much traffic as the #2-ranked site. That makes #1 the winner, and everyone else the loser.

And, it’s getting worse: As Google works to insert local listings, shopping listings, paid product listing ads and who-knows-what-else into the rankings, rankings below #3 get pushed further and further down the page, below the fold, and into click-less oblivion.

Welcome to the age of zero-sum marketing, everyone.

zero sum game

Yep, that's a zero-sum game all right

The result: Entire businesses spring up and die out based on their ability to rank #1.

To fix it: If your business plan includes ‘rank number 1’ as a major strategy, slap yourself in the face a few times. Don’t make natural search results your sole revenue source. That’s business 101. But it’s awfully tempting when you know you can get 60-70% of your audience from one source. Instead, diversify. Build a great house e-mail list. Use paid search. Look at remarketing and other channels.

2: Google pulls our attention away from our audience

With zero-sum marketing becoming the standard, we’re not really marketing to our potential customers any more. Well, we’re not marketing to them as much. Instead, we’re dividing our attention between our customers and Google.

This is particularly true of interface design. My firm gets hired, all the time, to make sure that a site’s architecture and design are ‘Google-friendly.’ Often, we end up spending our time explaining while a particular feature is a good idea, even if it’s not ‘SEO-friendly.’

The result: UX designers attempt to light my car on fire.

To fix it: There are a lot of significant SEO improvements you can make to a web site that are good for end users, too. Focus on the technical side, first. Make your site speedy and adaptive. Then, for heaven’s sake, hire good writers. See? Not an ‘SEO footer’ in sight.

3: We’re putting all our eggs in one (key phrase) basket

We are all – every one of us marketers – way too focused on a tiny set of key phrases. All of us. Anything else is nearly impossible. If you get your company or client a top-3 ranking for a big, revenue-generating term, you want to crow about it. And if your client falls out of the top 3 for a revenue-building phrase, you’ll hear about it, whether you’re the SEO, the design firm or some poor bugger who fixes their computers. That noise shouts down the incremental successes that drive real success.

The result: You get a high ranking for ‘flying purple people widgets’ and sit back, comfortable in your good fortune. For a year, you make lots of money. Then, without warning, you drop from #1 to #6. Revenue tanks. Your business tanks. Google makes this all to easy. But in a zero-sum game run by Google, Google also giveth and taketh away. I’ve seen a lot of folks dive out of the rankings, get desperate, and head straight to #5.

To fix it: Never let one non-branded phrase drive more than 10% of your revenue. If you get the #1 spot for a dominant key phrase, great! Make sure you build enough long-tail traffic to balance it out. That way, you won’t be over-dependent on a single phrase, and you won’t see your bottom line bottom out if you slip a few spots.

4: Google (unwittingly) encourages cheating

Two guys have wet sponges in their hands. If no one throws a sponge, they’ll both go home dry. But, if one throws and the other doesn’t, the victim gets wet, and the attacker has a chance to run while the victim splutters. What happens? They both throw.

That’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The original example was two arrestees in custody, in separate rooms. If neither confesses, they both go free. But the first one to confess will get a lighter sentence. So they both confess, hoping for the deal.

somehow, we always end up at the lower right

Image by Chris Jensen and Greg Riestenberg

You can get a top ranking on Google by creating a great web site, filling it with awesome content, and having a fantastic product. That’s the best way to rank high and stay there.

Or, you can cheat: You can sneak around and buy links, thereby inflating your importance (at least until you get caught). You can fill your site with keyword-stuffed junk content, thereby inflating your relevance. Yes, Google catches a lot of the folks who do it. It’s not a good long term plan. But the first one to do it will probably get a top ranking for weeks, months or in the more depressing cases, years. The current #1 site gets pushed to #2 and loses1/2 their traffic.

If you take the high road, you’re guaranteed to eventually move up. But ‘eventually’ doesn’t work when the CEO is looking at the rankings every day. And you know that if someone else moves up by cheating, you’ll be ordered to do the same. What happens? Everyone cheats.

As I said, Google fights hard to curtail this kind of cheating. But, at least from where I sit, they only catch about 1/2 or 3/4 of the cheaters. That leaves a lot of folks benefitting by cheating. So the temptation is still huge. A zero-sum game encourages people to do whatever they have to to win.

The result: This is the ultimate outcome of a zero-sum game with multiple participants and a way to ‘win’ by cheating: A lot of people start cheating.

To fix it: Don’t cheat. While it’s really tempting, it’s actually a really poor long-term strategy. Also, Google doesn’t have to abide by any rules of fair play. So they could change their policy and impose harsh penalties with zero tolerance, and you’d have no recourse.

How do we really fix it?

Ultimately, the fixes I’ve listed here only work for marketers and businesses, by helping us hedge our bets. But that’s what we can do: Good marketers and CMOs will spend a lot of time diversifying channels.

Somehow, marketers and their clients need to be in a win-win scenario again, where multiple brands can get roughly equal share-of-voice. It just has to be possible, and marketing will improve. Adwords won’t suffice – it doesn’t generate enough traffic. Google might find a way on their own, but they have very little incentive. This structure works for them, as far as usability and revenue. Why change it?

Facebook advertising? Maybe. Someday. After everyone stops talking about how unproven it is.

The only real fix is a true Google competitor in terms of market share, audience share and ability to drive revenue. Because, as long as #2 gets half the attention of #1, marketing will remain a zero-sum game.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. This is a great piece. My favorite line: “With zero-sum marketing becoming the standard, we’re not really marketing to our potential customers any more.”
    How very true. Just 5 years ago the marketing meetings I attended focused on current customers, potential customers, and branding in general. With a side of SEO discussion. Now ranking is at the top of the list, and one of the first metrics companies are interested in are keywords and social. Now, I make my living this way and I enjoy it, but my company is pretty customer-focused and I can’t imagine what the meetings are like elsewhere. I hope everyone keeps the consumer at the forefront – even if you rank #1 in Google, you won’t retain any new customers if you don’t deserve to.

    1. Yep. I was sitting in a meeting where all I heard about were falling rankings, even though sales were UP, when I thought of this piece.

  2. Really impressed with your point of view, I was contemplating the same views for a while now. Last couple of weeks google has not been kind to us with traffic and suddenly everyone in the top management frowned of missing the revenue target for the current financial year. Super urgent meetings were arranged to pump up the rankings immediately with ideas like keyword rich junk content wherever possible. It’s a shame how we neglect our potential customers to win the zero sum game.

  3. Great article Ian. I have been telling clients for more than 10 years that relying on search as your primary marketing means is a case study in going bankrupt. We have always advised the search be no more than 20% of your overall traffic. When search crosses that line you need to go out and find more traffic from somewhere else.
    This doesn’t mean not trying to be #1, it means diversify and not rely on one for profit company that has zero interest in whether you feed your family tomorrow or not to feed your family.
    Just wish more clients would listen.

  4. Bravo!
    I’ve been thinking the same way for a while, about how the Google monopoly is a really bad thing for business. It hit home when I saw the last lot of advice from Google on what would generate a penalty.
    (I paraphrase, but here it is)
    “If you have an advertorial or press release on a website, it needs to be clearly marked as such, and the publisher needs to make sure that none of the links back to your website pass page rank, etc, etc.”
    Now correct me if I’m wrong, but press releases and advertorials pre-date Google by some distance. But now, after identifying that your readers might buy my products and writing a killer piece of marketing content, I have to jump through hoops put in place by a third party, to avoid having a different revenue stream cut off?
    What’s that about?

    1. I have to say, in spite of my article I don’t blame Google for this.
      I actually understand their stance on advertorials – it’s too easy to manipulate their system via paid, placed content.
      HOWEVER, I really, really think the market needs another actual player, and Facebook isn’t going to do it, because Facebook is in a whole separate space.

      1. Found my way here because Ann Smarty shared this post on Google did worse than ruin marketing – they are a pusher that has addicted businesses to the easy money and then keep them addicted by intermittently giving them “the good stuff” (traffic that converts), but giving them junk traffic when it is most critical (such as during the holidays).
        Because nothing converts like search and they are a monopoly, most can’t bear the thought of doing hundreds of other things to replace what they get from Google.
        I just tweeted to Aaron asking if he would be interested in a rant titled “Nothing converts like search – get over it” because Google has slapped some great sites this month and now they are even less willing to publish content that links to any small business.
        For some products I’ve personally seen, the difference between #1 and #2 is 70% Iwhich is a good lesson in why you shouldn’t sell products that buyers perceive as all being about the same for the same price). That really is a zero sum outcome.
        The true solution is to stop handing Google so much power. Tell everyone you know that there ARE other search engines – really there are. Teach businesses and bloggers how to build lists better. Optimize your site for increased conversions. Become the best email marketer ever.
        What is NOT the solution is Facebook advertising. All the case studies I’ve seen show an extraordinary percentage of offshore traffic. I’ve written about it twice and you can probably find the posts searching for “facebook extortion” on SocialImplications and GrowMap. (I’d share the links, but not sure what your policy is on that.)
        We need to take the blogging and business skills we have; build awesome huge geo-targeted group blogs; spread the word about those and then we won’t care about Google nearly as much.

  5. Interesting article catchy title and neatly written. But it doesn’t totally do the subject justice.
    1. Search advertizing is the third big evolution of advertising. The first was advertising, the second was large pictures and the introduction of emotional impact of the late 50s and since then no evolution, except search ads. For the first time one can target an ad to someone who is looking for an answer by giving it to him. That means less spam, more efficient. It did away with emotional impact which is a problem.
    Banners are the real problem. They have neither targeting nor emotional impact. They are just noise and it brings us back to advertising of the 1920s. So while they are a zero zum as you say – they’re the best evolution in ads since pictures.
    2. You’re talking about targeting broad keywords. But if one has been #1 on a broad keyword for 6 month one should have used that time to brand one’s product/company because broad keywords are only a slightly improved version of billboards and TV ads. Any broad keyword strategy should be focused on branding and the long term win on those campaigns is measured in brand search. If you’re not increasing your brand search you’re just focused on tonight’s cash and when you loose #1 you’ve lost everything.
    The comments between you and Heather illustrate the situation. One can be #1 and still fail just as well as one can not be #1 ever and succeed. Do you see Apple (bad example I know) doing search ads on “best smartphone” or other such broad keywords?
    Just my 2cents.

    1. Martin, I totally, 100% agree. Sadly, I see very few marketers who actually follow your great recommendations in #2, or are aware of #1.
      I’ve seen so many businesses fail, utterly, with top rankings, and that’s exactly my point. They played to the rankings, NOT to their customers.

  6. This post would make sense a few years ago, but is not true today. A current SEO realizes it’s not a zero sum game because of:
    1. Personalized search.
    2. Channel variety. Facebook has a billion people that a business can reach, while ignoring search. The #1 searp in one category can be invisible in social, and vice versa.
    Search engine traffic may have higher volume, but social traffic has greater loyalty. In any case, it’s not zero sum anymore.
    3. Conversion. My #3 taking can drive more business than your #1 ranking if I do a better job of converting customers.

    1. Hashim, good points. I do think things like personalized search help. But any time you have ranked content on a single channel that’s handling 70% queries, you’ve really reduced the range of options.
      But I’m doing a post about how to avoid the zero sum game, and personalized search figures large.

  7. I think it’s easy for many folks to get caught up in rankings – even if certain phrases (i.e. flying purple people widgets) don’t generate any traffic, much less business.
    The end goal is to increase business through the one place everyone turns to when making decisions – the Internet. I also love that you mentioned that diversity is key.
    Great article!

  8. ‘Ruined’ is a fairly strong term to use, but you are absolutely correct. I adore you for your point of view. Google has been playing the zero-sum game, which is perhaps part of the reasons why internet marketers now rely on social networks and direct engagements more than search engine traffic.

  9. I love pieces that go in a completely different direction than what the title would have you believe. Where you provide “results” and go on to list how to fix the issues are my favorite parts of the piece – not to mention the four excellent points you cover. Great job.

  10. Really enjoyed your post! It’s so true that the narrowing of search competition hurts everyone except Google. And with their big updates these days, they’re hurting more and more small businesses (with nowhere else to turn) by knocking them out of those top spots. Maybe they were doing something “cheaty” or maybe they were just lame writers, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the little guy that Google meant to oppress, even though they’ve done exactly that.
    Thanks for this.

  11. Zero sum means that when all the chips have been won or lost at the end of the game that there are zero chips left over. I don’t see how this has ever been different, there have always been big and small players, Google and others and there has always been a finite amount of money distributed between them, the only thing that has changed is the distribution of the chips and it will continue to change and the chips will continue to flow from company to company with the stack sizes going up and down. It’s always been a zero sum game and always will be, it’s just that Google has a lot of the chips. For now.

  12. Google “unwittingly” encourages cheating? And “You can get a top ranking on Google by creating a great web site, filling it with awesome content, and having a fantastic product.” Really?
    I get your point, but I would say Google practically forces cheating. Who wants to be the broke, honest website owner? When for a few bucks you can rank higher? And if buying links is cheating, then why isn’t nearly every other marketing tactic, at least to some degree?

  13. Thank you for pointing out the competitive advantages of the “bad old days” of advertising, and for marketers who had to foot the outlandish bills, they were indeed bad.
    What was good, however, is that the magazine/tv station/radio channel, etc. did not pass judgment about the “quality” of the ad or the advertiser. The few policies in place were only to deny ads for porn, guns, and a few other vices.
    One significant impact of search engines was to introduce the value of a web page in determining where it would be displayed in the search results. So, an outdated web design with less than outstanding copy – or one with technical burps – runs the risk of being pushed down in the search results, thereby becoming less competitive.
    Getting blessed/approved as a quality web page – or earning a great quality score for PPC advertising – means conforming to the search engine’s definition of quality. Even though, this might be useful for finding some information, it just bothers me that there is one powerful arbiter of quality – creating as you point out, a zero-sum game. It’s also bothersome that we have all accepted this as inevitable.

  14. Not that I don’t take building searchengine-friendly websites into account, but I have very few clients that focus on Google ranking, and they are all doing very well.

  15. Interesting points, I think it also means marketing on multiple channels is also important. Creating top of mind awareness along with top rankings in search are key in any marketing plan. I think Neil brings up a good point as well. Once you get the customer, it is critical to keep them by fostering a great relationship.

  16. Well said Ian. Couldn’t agree more with #4. Though I’d disagree that Google catches 1/2 to 3/4 of the cheaters. Even in light of yesterday’s update it seems that crap tactics still rule the day in many cases. Diversify and start convincing the boss that long-term/safe is the way to go.

  17. So, what do you do with a CEO that is like a monkey that won’t let go of the banana in a trap?
    My CEO “cheats”, and gets some revenue from it. But every google update I’m basically in fear of losing my job anymore, and honestly I’m kind of sick of it. I know these are horrible long term solutions, but he is all about getting revenue tomorrow. Even more so, I’m sick of having to create and do junk crap.
    I’ve started a few of my own projects on the side to maybe fall back on one day, but I’m the honest/broke webmaster in doing so thus far. I don’t have near the resources that my work has, so it’s really slow going. Things are slowly increasing with traffic, but I’d be kidding myself to believe it would at all sustain me in the near future, if ever.
    I’d like to get my CEO to stop taking the shortcut every time, but it seems impossible. He’s like a kid with ADHD, if he doesn’t see immediate results, it’s dropped like a bad habit. I like my boss/job overall, so I don’t want to just find another, but I’m going crazy.

    1. Clay, the best you can do is try to warn him and look for other opportunities. If he won’t change, he’s going to eventually get a huge smackdown.

  18. Long time reader, first time commenter ( I listen to a lot of radio while I commute …)
    Any ways … killer article man. I’m not going to try to add value here with a long comment that attempts to prove how great I think I am at SEO… I just want to ask one question RE: “The only real fix is a true Google competitor in terms of market share, audience share and ability to drive revenue.”
    Could Yahoo be it?
    Could DuckDuckGo? What about yandex or Blekko or even Bing or Ask? Is there anything people like you (and maybe me) and other active voices in the SEO community actually DO about it to effect a meaningful change?
    Or will we just talk about it…

    1. The SEO community is far too small. This is about consumers. The marketers can only try to be smart about diversification. But consumers can head to a different search tool. IF it can put up a fight against Google…

      1. Another great post, Ian! You make some interesting and very valid points, but I’m not sure I agree it’s really a zero-sum game quite yet. If marketing continues to cater more to the SEs than to the customers, though, it’ll undoubtedly get there.
        When a company allows search rankings to supplant the customer in its marketing plan, I think THAT is the biggest error of all. There are too few companies that realize how short-sighted that is, but in the long run, those that do are the ones that will see the greatest success. Unfortunately, as marketers, we’re often ignored in that decision process. Like others, I’ve had clients that refused to listen and got slapped, before they were willing to rethink their tactics… but their strategy rarely changes. They continue to look for that #1 slot. ~sigh~

  19. I think you’re right about all of this – I wish that there was a way for an algorithm to be more human so we can avoid the zero-sum game. However, have you read Seth Godin’s “The Dip”? It reveals in this context that the idea of zero-sum in competition has existed for a very long time. For example, the top 10 ice cream flavours. It is not that they each share 10% of market share each. No, Vanilla gets maybe 60%, then Chocolate 50% and the rest share the other 10% (I don’t remember the exact stats Seth Godin gave in his book). It’s the same way with box office hits, resumes and applying for jobs and many other things in life. So I think that zero-sum in marketing has been around for a while because if you think of it, for every Coca-Cola out there, there must have been a million that tried and couldn’t get over “The Dip” (except maybe Pepsi, but they’re still going to be seen as #2 probably for eternity). The idea behind The Dip is that you need be #1 always or otherwise find a way to get out of “the dip” and move on to something else. But I guess you’re right in the sense that with SEO, it’s not possible to escape it and move on to something else, except that you could find lower hanging fruit in terms of finding new niche phrases to target.

  20. What an awesome post! Very true that businesses need to diversify their advertising channels because Google simply has too much power. It’s the zero sum game that draws me to SEO to begin with though – I love the battle for rankings and the challenge it presents. Unfortunately, too many clients are still equating rankings with success or failure. Raven tools did a brave thing by dropping rank tracking all together, but it’s a sign of the future where rankings aren’t always a metric for success.

    1. Yea, Guilllermo, I know we’ve both been where Ian was when he was inspired to write this post. The rankings are the metric “but you’re doing rankings, and they’re down” ignoring that sales are up because the right things are ranking, or you have the variety in keywords, etc.
      Clients, bless their hearts, still value rankings and if you read Ian’s post about how valuable #1 is can you hardly blame them? “You mean #1 is worth up to 50% of the views?” “But don’t I want that then?”
      Don’t hate the player, hate the zero-sum game!

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