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Google the ecosystem: what is a word worth?

In his TV documentary The Deep, David Attenborough relates how his team found a recently-dead whale at the bottom of the sea. The vast beast is food for millions. The hagfish find the corpse, and start scraping away at the skin with two rows of horny teeth. Seven-meter-long sweeper sharks dig deep holes into the carcass, ripping out chunks of meat.  More and more join the feast, and eighteen months later the skeleton appeared to be stripped bare. But on closer inspection, many small animals were still at work: on one whale vertebra a close analysis revealed 178 species, most only found around dead whales.

The whale is a resource, to be used by some, who are in turn used by others, who are in turn used by others, in all sorts of delicate relations of predation, service or mutual benefit. Google is also a huge resource, and Google also draws towards it a vast number of players, with many specialist roles, feeding on the wealth streaming through it.

What is a word worth? This is no longer a poetic or rhetorical question but a complex technical one. To come top of the list of advertisements on the Google search hits page which a user sees when they have just searched for, say, bougainvillea, you place a bid, in Google’s Adwords system, for bougainvillea. This bid is what you will pay to Google every time a person clicks on the link to your website. The lowest possible bid is one cent in the US, one penny in the UK, though sought-after words like flight or mortgage attract much higher sums. If your bid is the highest, then your ad will come top.

Of course it is not as simple as that. Google wants the ad which comes top to be one that often leads to the user getting what they want, both so that the user likes Google and carries on using it, and because users will only ‘click through’ if the ad looks like a match for what they were looking for. Google only gets revenue from you if there are clickthroughs. So,

  • if they already know which advertisers have given lots of clickthroughs in the past, they favour them
  • there are many variants to a match (singular or plural, with or without prefixes and suffixes, related words, common typing errors, etc.) which need consideration
  • they will attempt to match user to advertisement geographically
  • they will often use the astronomical amounts of data they have on individual users or individual advertisers to improve the quality of the match.

But, complications aside, the highest bid for a word is, within this ecosystem, what the word is worth.

The market niche of one company I worked with was running the Google Adwords accounts for other companies. They had a suite of technology constantly interacting with Google Adwords to see which words (and other terms) were productive, which were good value-for-money, which ones resulted in sales. They were paid by their customers, not per clickthough but per ‘conversion’: a clickthrough that results in a sale.

That’s the paid-for side of Google. The other side is, how do you get top, not merely of the ads but of the search hits themselves. This is more prestigious, and people will fight tooth and nail for the honour. The fighting is called search engine optimization (SEO), which means optimizing your website to maximize its attractiveness to search engines. The more attractive a web page is to Google, the higher it puts it in the search hits.  Getting up there, for a search term like “good thriller” or “oxford hotel” or “london travel guide” is a route to fame and fortune.

There are companies which specialise in SEO. They will tell you which words to put in each web page, and what links to add. They need to keep their wits about them: Google doesn’t like material that is not shown to the user, and it is often hard to find material that is good for SEO without looking odd to the user. Google is defending a fortress, constantly alert, constantly watching. Whenever it detects an SEO method exploiting a weakness, it reinforces the weak point so it is a weak point no longer.

The ecosystem around a decomposing whale begins afresh each time a whale dies, but the overall structure, roles and species have evolved over millennia. The ecosystem around Google (d.o.b. 27 September 1998) is at most fourteen. Nothing is settled or constant, and the one thing we can be sure of is change.

The land shapes the river and the river shapes the land. So English (and other languages) will continue to shape Google and its ecosystem – and, at least in some, limited ways – Google, SEO and its ecosystem will be a force shaping English over the years ahead.

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Adam Kilgarriff


  • Good point, Francesca. That meaning was added to the Open Dictionary in December of last year, and will transfer into the main dictionary when we do the next major update.

  • SEO is snake oil.

    As you say in this article, Google are constantly trying to provide the most useful results for a user’s search words. That is, the most useful results to the user.

    It follows, therefore, that the best way to optimise for search engines is to publish the most useful content for users. That, and a ton of web development best practices such as proper semantic html markup. Far better to ask a good writer and a web developer, then, than to turn to a snake oil merchant that ‘specialises’ in SEO.

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