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Search guru: What Google ought to change

Search expert Danny Sullivan offers a wish list for reforms at Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. For one thing, share more with advertisers and publishers.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Google's good, but it needs to be more transparent with publishers who share revenue and advertisers who buy search ads, a prominent search expert argued Tuesday.

During a speech at the Search Marketing Expo here, longtime search and search marketing guru Danny Sullivan said Google could earn more trust if it were more transparent with advertisers.

Danny Sullivan lights a cigarette during a speech to illustrate how hard it is to knock the Google habit.
Danny Sullivan lights a cigarette during a speech to illustrate how hard it is to knock the Google habit. Stephen Shankland/CNET News

For advertisers bidding for search keywords, trying to show their ads next to searches for those terms, Google should show how much advertisers are paying for those terms, Sullivan said.

"Show real-time cost per click for ads," he said. "It might help people have more trust for them."

And for content companies that show Google-supplied ads and share resulting revenue, Google should tell them what the revenue split is. "It seems only fair to tell them how much money you're keeping," he said. If Google shared the information, "The people supplying the content that supports Google would better know their value."

Overall, though, Sullivan said Google has generally been successful by following the principle of providing the best results for its users--successful to the point that it's hard to stop using Google.

Google likes to talk about how competition from other search engines is only one click away on the Web. But Sullivan--who in December confessed to having become a regular smoker--indicated by lighting up a cigarette on stage that it might not be easy for people to change their behavior.

"I could give up Google at any moment," he joked, puffing a cloud of smoke into the air.

Sullivan also dinged Google for map spam, in which businesses can add bogus addresses to Google's directory so they show on Google Maps searches. "It's embarrassing some of the local results we get on Google. I'd like to see them fix it before we get things that let us track where our friends are. I think it's more important," Sullivan said.

And Google should be careful about hosting content on its own sites. It worked with YouTube, but not for Knol, a Google site where people can record tidbits of knowledge. "Yes, it's not ranking all over the place (showing high in search results) in the way people were afraid it might happen, but it doesn't need Google doing it. I think there are plenty of places for people to express knowledge," Sullivan said.

Microsoft and Yahoo came in for some criticism, too.

Problems with Yahoo and Microsoft
"Google's chief competitors are in disarray. It's just a mess," Sullivan said.

Yahoo is "the little engine that should've," he said. "It's difficult to find people who are all excited about Yahoo and going there. It tends to feel these days we're watching for the inevitable result of their search assets being acquired."

Yahoo should keep up with innovation--SearchMonkey and Search Pad are two examples Sullivan likes. It should stop latching onto trends such as trying to make everything "social" two or three years ago and trying to make everything "open" now.

And Microsoft needs to tell the world in no uncertain terms it really is interested in search. "I'd like to go to the Microsoft home page and see a search page, like Google," he said.

Microsoft also needs better branding for its online work. "Microsoft MSN Windows Live ain't it," Sullivan said. "We know this, they know this."

Competition would help Google, which today wrestles with market share nearing 70 percent in the United States that makes it too conspicuous a monopoly target. "Google doesn't want 90 percent market share," he said. Something like 69 percent would be enough to remain dominant but not frighten people, and genuine competition would be healthy for the company.

No major rivals in sight
Google's dominance will likely continue unabated for the foreseeable future, he said.

"How will some new start-up best Google? They won't," Sullivan said. "It's not this year, not the next year, almost certainly not the year after that. It's really, really unlikely."

"Google Killerettes" that blossom with particular strengths Google lacks are more likely to wound the company. "I'm real big on Twitter search," Sullivan said, calling it a "hyper-real-time tool to see what's being buzzed about." Urban Spoon, which finds local restaurants based on a mobile phone user's actual location, also is unmatched by Google.