Google Throws Publishers Under Bus with Prerendering of Pages

Google recently announced they will start to pre-render pages in Chrome to “improve the user experience.” IMHO this represents nothing more than the latest effort by Google to throw publishers under the bus to gain market share for one of their products and ultimately give them more data about their users to better target their advertising.

Whenever Google says they are only interested in “serving the users” or “improving the user experience,” I think of the classic Twilight Zone Episode about the aliens who only wanted “to serve man” …

At the time of this post being published, the exact details and implementation aren’t perfectly defined, but if you are technically minded and curious, you can read about it in Google’s prerender whitepaper. However, the basic concept is that they will preload a certain number of SERP results into the browser when the user does a search. The idea is to make searching/browsing a seamless operation where results appear in the browser instantly because they are already cached in the browser.

For publishers, however, this is an extremely bad situation. Two things which are problematic will occur. First, the Chrome browser will fetch the page, which will cause most analytics and tracking programs to think a user visited the page even though that visit may not have actually occurred. This will throw off stats for advertising and user engagement, in many cases over-inflating the actual numbers. Now Google says this will be a small number (do you really think they would admit to it being a big number?), but it really depends on how many results they preload. If they only preload one result, it will be small, but if they bring it up to two, three, or more, the over-inflation will be much more pronounced. Look at your Webmaster Central reports for queries you rank for that aren’t driving traffic to get an idea about how big this over-inflation could be.

Now I’m sure analytics programs will come up with a way to filter out this traffic. Google may even provide it to them, and supposedly this method would work. However, that still leaves us with the real core of the problem: Google’s prefetching will still be using up server resources by generating pages for visitors that may never visit your website. Using up server resources that are intended for humans, that really aren’t humans is exactly what Google blocks you from doing when you scrape SERP results for ranking reports or other intelligence.

The big question is why is Google doing this? They say it’s to “improve the user experience,” which is just a diversion–I’ll come back to that idea. The real goal is to increase market share for Google’s Chrome browser. Chrome is already an extremely fast browser. In full disclosure, I use it quite frequently and am very happy with it. Saying it’s about speed and user experience is a convenient cover story. The real reason is user data. By getting users onto a Google browser, they aren’t dependent on the Google toolbar for gathering data. This allows them to see behind paywalls and onto systems where they can’t crawl, like Facebook. The more people using Google’s browsers, the better their data is.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x0BSgLKnSk[/youtube]

Whenever Google says they are only interested in “serving the users” or “improving the user experience,” I think of the classic Twilight Zone Episode about the aliens who only wanted “to serve man.” They did just want to serve man … serve him for dinner … just as Google wants to serve you up to advertisers.

If you ever questions Google’s ability to target you based on your online activities, I urge you to visit this page to see what Google thinks about you and what you like. They may not be perfect and maybe even have a few things wrong, but I bet they have a lot more right than wrong …

photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

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