A couple of days ago our fearless head of marketing, Laura, noticed an odd result in the Google SERPs – the sponsored results for the query “adwords services” were pretty run of the mill, but the first organic result was a bit shocking:

AdWords Services

I tried the same search on my own machine and got the same result. What the hell?

At first when you see “Adult sexual services” you think someone has successfully spammed the results with white text on a white background or some such old-school black-hattery. But this result is from the official AdWords domain! The page is from the Legal section of the AdWords Policy Center (“Requirements for advertising with Google AdWords”). “Adult sexual services” is from a list of “Restricted Products and Services” that also includes abortion, endangered species, fireworks, illegal drugs, and weapons.

Obviously, this is NOT what most people who search for “adwords services” are going to be looking for – it’s a case of Google getting the intent totally wrong. I think one or both of the following is going on here:

  • Overreliance on branded terms – It’s well-known that Google gives heavy preference to official brand websites in branded searches. Since AdWords is its own brand, it may very well have more of a leg up than a usual brand. So Google is favoring the AdWords domain even when there is no exact or phrase match for the query.
  • The organic equivalent of aggressive broad match – The order of words matters, even if you don’t use quotes to designate a vertbatim search. Google is ignoring the meaning of the full phrase here, and basically just searching the AdWords domain for the word “services.” Since Google doesn’t offer AdWords services (consulting) itself, this is what we get.

Google Favoring Official Pages More Than Ever

It’s possible that this has something to do with Google’s recently announced algorithm changes. Here are the 10 changes, according to the Inside Search blog:

  • Cross-language information retrieval updates
  • Snippets with more page content and less header/menu content
  • Better page titles in search results by de-duplicating boilerplate anchors
  • Length-based autocomplete predictions in Russian
  • Extending application rich snippets
  • Retiring a signal in Image search
  • Fresher, more recent results
  • Refining official page detection: We try hard to give our users the most relevant and authoritative results. With this change, we adjusted how we attempt to determine which pages are official. This will tend to rank official websites even higher in our ranking.
  • Improvements to date-restricted queries
  • Prediction fix for IME queries

I’ve deleted Google’s descriptions of the updates except for the one I find relevant to this result – “refining official page detection.” Unfortunately this is a case where the “refinement” does not return anything of use to the searcher. The fact is, sometimes people are going to use branded terms in search queries, and the ideal result is not going to be from that brand’s official website. (Remember, Larry and Sergey have said that in an ideal world, Google would return just one result – the exact result you’re looking for. I’ve always found this to be a stupid goal, because many times you want information from multiple sources – no one source is ever going to be completely reliable and unbiased. But I digress…)

For more on the recent algorithm updates, see Danny Sullivan’s post on the changes.

Have you noticed any weird results like this?

This Week’s Web Marketing Highlights

For those who have been following the “(not provided)” scandal (AKA Occupy Google Analytics), Rand at SEOMoz is Quantifying the Impact of Google’s Keyword Referral Data Shutdown.

KISSmetrics is putting together a huge guide on keyword research. This week’s installment features a list of the top keyword research posts of 2011.

Do brand ads cannibalize traffic from organic listings? George Michie engineers some tests to answer that question.

Barry Schwartz points to a Webmaster World thread triggered by something Matt Cutts said at PubCon last week – namely that Google only counts links it “trusts.”

The GetElastic blog always has great tips for improving conversion rates. This week Linda Bustos offers some last-minute ideas for improving your holiday conversions.

Luke Wroblewski has noticed an interesting trend of companies (such as Amazon) auto-unsubscribing people from a newsletter list if they exhibit low or no engagement.

eConsultancy reports that “iPad conversion rates are double that of desktop, and almost twice as high as other mobile devices” – maybe because people who own iPads have more money than the rest of us? Just guessing.

Happy weekend, all!