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Approaching Google SEO as a Zero Sum Game

     
2:57 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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We battle for the best representation on Google serps all the time. There is only so much traffic and we all want as much as we can get. When we lose our #1 ranking, we lose traffic and that traffic goes somewhere. It often flows to the new site that took over our #1 spot, which is why many people view the Google serps like a zero sum game.

Let's share how & why we approach Google SEO as zero sum game or why you think it is smarter to take a different view.
3:25 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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More to less/fewer. Is that zero sum? I'm not smart enough to go much deeper. It's ignorant to assume that the loss in traffic goes to a new site. How about person gets answer somewhere above the fold whereas 6 months ago they needed your website? Does that count in this discussion? The point is the answer box as one example, would reduce traffic but at the same time the traffic isn't going to some other site. It's from Google to Google. Nobody involved on this side knows what % of inquiries now feature a boxed answer. Let's just stop saying "flows to the new site that took over our #1 spot". Beyond that, consider the stacks of ads now that didn't exist is such a way until recently. Those replace organics and are likely very relevant to the search. So those increased ad clicks, are those sending traffic to a new site when we lose a #1 or #2 spot? I think it's called predatory.
3:47 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Personally I view the concept of "zero sum" in a more general sense. I don't see it as simply the top 10 rankings get all the traffic. I see it more like each day X amount of people are searching for something and that pie is getting sliced up each day. The top ten ranking sites get slices of that pie, so does Google as they add more things to the serps, and there is probably a slice of traffic that no one gets because those are people unhappy with results. You could get even more complicated and bring up how apps, voice search and other tech are eating into that pie and taking their own slices.

Specifically for Google answer box, I hate it but it is our reality so I need to deal with it. The weird thing is that I just reviewed some small scale data that showed the answer box actually drove traffic. I was not expecting that, I was assuming the answer box would serve the user my info and they wouldn't go further. It could be a weird anomaly since it was not based on a large data set. Regardless, answer box is here and I can't make it go away so I need to deal with as best as I can.
5:11 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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I am the one who brought up this zero sum idea. When I did I was referring to change in state between pre-update, post-update. In which case only the factors of the update come into play. No one knows (outside of Google) with any degree of certainty what the basis of the update was. So when I site falls from the top spot and is replaced by another, it is impossible to say whether or not it was the top site that was "penalized" or the rising site that was "rewarded" or some mix of both.

Many claimed in the previous thread (where this thread was spawned) that their sites were high quality, no bh links or other tactics yet they still lost rankings. The idea of the zero sum game, simply suggests that the update may not be about your site being penalized but instead about competitor's site being pushed up.

From this comes my general philosophy about this business, you have no choice, you must make your site better. It is the only strategy that can endure in the long run. And by better, I mean providing value to the user.

As a side note, not buying links and not operating a PBN do not create any value for the user.
5:33 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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The Google answer box is irritating, it takes up space that used to hold more sites on page 1. If a visitor gets their answer from that answer box and goes no further, that was all they wanted. That traffic wouldn't likely have done more interacting on the site where the answer came from. IF they have further interest they can visit. In a way it saves your bounce rate from looking worse than it should.
5:39 pm on Mar 16, 2017 (gmt 0)

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So when I site falls from the top spot and is replaced by another, it is impossible to say whether or not it was the top site that was "penalized" or the rising site that was "rewarded" or some mix of both.

Well, that's the thing. In all the hundreds of posts I've read here from people reporting a drop in rankings, only two explanations ever come up:
#1 I did something wrong (generally with the assumption that it's an outright penalty, not just a drop in quality)
#2 the other site cheated
I can't remember anyone, ever, suggesting
#3 the other site did something right

It's like being at the top of your law-school class and then someone else comes along and dislodges you. You won't get far by only considering
#1 I'm doing worse work
#2 my rival is sleeping with the professor
without also considering
#3 I'm doing the same work, but my rival is doing even better

The question then becomes, am I able to do better? Maybe you are. Maybe you're not. Maybe you'll settle for a business model of "We're No. 2. We try harder."

Edit: Come to think of it, #2 is often a very solid place to be. When I'm doing an informational search, I almost always ignore the #1 result.

not buying links and not operating a PBN do not create any value for the user.

That was too many "not"s for me to disentangle :(
4:42 am on Mar 17, 2017 (gmt 0)

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For me, web search is slowly loosing its significance. GSC shows a very slow but steady decline in traffic despite unchanged ranking, yet my page loads continue to increase up 20% from this time last year.

However local search traffic has increased, almost 300%.

I attribute all this to increase mobile usage, Social Media & apps which I've been diligent in expanding my presence.
5:39 am on Mar 17, 2017 (gmt 0)

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There are so many reasons why things have changed. The knowledge box...I gave Google a little 'feedback' on one of their answers which was incorrect, and if you looked at the other nine sites on the page they all said this piece of information was incorrect, but Google had chosen the one site with the wrong information.

I assume when I drop, my competition goes up. They really do have a favourite in my niche who can do no wrong. That's not sour grapes, it is fact.

I still try to follow their guidelines and produce the best content I possibly can. I research, I write the article, I check my competitors to see if they've included something I haven't, I add pictures where relevant, I do a search of the news to see if there's any latest research on the topic. I know the best content isn't always number one on Google, but my theory is even if I don't get the no. 1 spot, if my content is good, my competitors, social media and news sites will quote me and link to my content. It's not the same amount of traffic as I'd get from Google, but every little bit counts.

Have a look at the browser kidrex.org, that is how Google used to look. See how many links you see above the fold, then look at Google. You can see clear as day why sites are getting less traffic.
10:01 am on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

90% of "my SERPS rating" posts on here, and every other webmaster forum are of the type that complains about dropping in the ranks.

For every post that wails and cries about falling, realise that there's another person out there that has gone up - just that he/she might not want to say anything about it.
10:39 am on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Like I mentioned in the conversation that spurred this thread, I believe the First Page of Google is a zero sum game if we exclude certain factors that might have minimal impact. (like total page relevancy, that can make the search query nor relevant enough for the user, promoting him to look for alternative search queries or to check page 2 if the keyword has high enough traffic volume)

If your site is one Page 1 and you do something right, you can get rewarded with higher overall ranking. If you do nothing or do something bad (like making your site a pretty design galore, that lacks enough information on the topic you are covering), then you will rank lower and your direct SERP competitors will take the traffic from you. Simple as that - a zero sum game in a nutshell.

Now if you look at your site from a search crystal (or search node) perspective, the zero-sum game cannot be applied, because there are too many variables outside of the users/webmasters control. There can be seasonality involved, or competing niches doing something to funnel traffic, or Google Trend that dominates the traffic for the topic (think financial sector) or many many other factors. In these cases whatever you are doing, the traffic will go away to an entirely new place and there is nothing your or your competitors can do about it.

Last but not least, there is a big confirmation bias in the minds of the people here in WebmasterWorld forums and pretty much everywhere else. The notion of "I did nothing wrong" is fueled by the perception that you will never do something to deliberately harm your website. Hence when something bad happens the majority will go "It wasn't me!"

Well truth is, its mostly you. Your new design that is all pretty images and no content fueling traffic to inner e-commerce pages, dubbed "the latest best design practice" will most likely do more harm than good for example. And when one sees the 30% dip in their organic search traffic, they will go "I burned 10k into the new design and have stellar user experience and my site got sunk on the SERPS. Corporate Google took my business." ...well, no. You took your business without realizing it and someone else filled the void, completing the Page one Zero Sum Game.
1:58 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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>> @goodroi: Let's share how & why we approach Google SEO as zero sum game or why you think it is smarter to take a different view.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?


Personally I view the concept of "zero sum" in a more general sense. I don't see it as simply the top 10 rankings get all the traffic. I see it more like each day X amount of people are searching for something and that pie is getting sliced up each day. The top ten ranking sites get slices of that pie, so does Google as they add more things to the serps, and there is probably a slice of traffic that no one gets because those are people unhappy with results.


From Google's point of view, they are trying to rig the game in their favor , so that it is 0 for webmasters, 1 for them. All the time.

Which means every click brings Google money.

Which explains no more "free" SERPs above the fold.
Which explains "Google" answers.
Which explains "Google" Images no longer sending any traffic to image owners for 3+ years now or more?
Also, as bankers that invest into Google own other companies Google fancies, such as Amazon, which explains its dominance in SERPs and ownership of over 30% of ALL online commerce (the politicians that ran this country 50+ years ago and made all the laws to prevent things like that are turning in their graves).
Which explains other things that they try.

Since they , apparently "own" the SERPs , although it is nothing but information collected from OUR sites. And since they disregard all the laws preventing them from pushing the envelope as far as possible. They will push it as far as possible.

So, let me reiterate.
The game is now rigged into this type of "zero sum", Google 1 - Webmaster 0.
2:02 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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I know one thing. People overlook the obvious. Traffic dropped must be because of an algo change. How about the recent Google change to their "ad" icon. Full color, to now just the green outline, transparent center. Less like an ad. I bet none of us here see that data. I bet you that change resulted in more ad clicks and....geez, possibly less organic clicks? It's much more fun to say that my/your lost traffic went to site owner B because they did something better than us. The direction for a while has not been Google --> me --> you. It's been Google --> Google. Is zero sum ignoring Google's "website" as the benefactor in some of these "where did all my traffic" go discussions?

[edited by: MrSavage at 2:12 pm (utc) on Mar 20, 2017]

2:07 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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goodroi, why do you think thousand upon thousand of businesses have opened their presence on Facebook?

Because it's the ROI on their time and money spent. Because websites no longer bring ROI. The system is rigged by Google (delete my post or ban me for that if you will).

At least on Facebook they have flying chance to get to "befriend" some people and make them their customers. Again, this may work for some, although friends and money usually don't work together at all.
2:23 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Sorry, I am not following you. You seem to claim that businesses investing money on Facebook proves that Google SEO is not profitable.

That is incorrect logic.

If you can spend $1 and can make $2 that is smart business. This is why "thousand upon thousand of businesses" have a presence on Facebook, and Google, and Bing, and Amazon, and Instagram, and Reddit, and Pinterest, and SEO, and PPC, and Email, and Social, etc. Smart businesses do not ignore profitable opportunities, they expand and adapt to maximize profits.

There are some consultants that are more efficient with Facebook and other consultants more efficient with Google SEO. It would be smart for those consultants to focus on what they do best. This does not mean you can't make money with Facebook and/or Google. A creative marketing strategy call develop a strong synergy to boost overall profits more than if they had only used one internet marketing channel.

But let's make sure to stay on topic - Zero Sum concept
(If anyone wants to talk more about Facebook vs Google, they can start a new thread :))
2:44 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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@smilie if Google wanted to rig the game against organic results, they would simply not show organic results. Google has no obligation, legal or otherwise to show organic results. Why would they waste their time and resources to design complex system and conspiracies to hide something that they can eliminate whenever they wish?
3:16 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Why would they waste their time and resources to design complex system and conspiracies to hide something that they can eliminate whenever they wish?
As per other thread, I think SERPs is zero-sum, nevertheless...

Lots of reasons, but most boil down the same reason we all create content rather than just list ads. To wit, you need traffic to monetise a site.

Sure, G has no obligation to list organic sites, but that's what the users come for. Further, Google is primarily a content aggregator. It would be unable to find content to aggregate if everyone blocked them because there was not even potential for upside.

Finally, there is the free market hypothesis, which says (amongst lots of other things) that sellers set the price at what the market will bear. If Google can derive more profit by adding more advertising, they will. If the marginal cost (paid in lost users) is more than the marginal gain (more ad clicks), then Google will not increase advertising space (or will roll back such changes).

None of this is a conspiracy against Organic, just a reason why Google tends to de-emphasise it over the long run.

Of course, Google is a mature advertising business that actually makes money.

Facebook et al are highly valued, profit-free (emphatically NOT not-for-profit, for all the philanthropy) businesses that will either burst their share-bubbles or find a way to monetise their traffic. At which point, expect sellers to complain that Facebook is eating their profits/traffic.

Re: Amazon- we see them use Marketplace to judge demand. Once something is popular, they stock it direct and cut out the middleman. Not a problem if you make it yourself, but problematic if you resell.
8:42 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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In one minor theoretical way SEO remains zero sum: for every query there is a very finite set of results where the positions are always filled, exactly by whom in which being variable. The fixation with who where being a historical remnant: once upon a time each query was shown, each query SERP fairly fixed between updates, etc. And on those certainties SEO mindsets, practices, and tools were founded. Only the mindsets, practices, and tools remain - for an industry that hypes constant change a fascinating if confusingly luddite behaviour.

It used to be that SE updates were so slow that one could track them in real time between data centres. Now updating is highly frequent (with a few major exceptions), concurrent, and except for those who track unusual SERP churn pretty much invisible. Even for them, why the churn is mostly speculation, and most updates are so granular as to be lost in the noise.

With Universal Search (2007), personalisation (full rollout 2009), acquisition of MetaWeb (2010), query not provided (2011)... each and every SERP for each and every query has become increasingly mutable. And increasingly opaque. Even unto the tools developed in and for a prior age.

Now all we know (Google Search Console bucket sort query/keyword results being about as valuable as TBPR, thank G that's finally dead dead dead and buried) in real time is that a certain amount of traffic was referred in a certain timeframe to a specific page and then (to varying degrees depending on technical competence and infrastructure) what each visitor then did.

Queries change over time and so what brings search engine traffic to a page may well change. So not only do we have all the changes to results pages: 0-4 AdWords above results, answer boxes, knowledge boxes, carousels, people also ask for lists, top stories insertions, searches related to lists; but algo changes, competitor changes, and one's own changes... plus changes in search queries due to category news, industry change, public interest, etc.

One can only know that a visitor was referred, not what they asked, not the position of the link that referred them. You don't know for any given visitor what they asked, if the size of the pie grew or shrank, if your position rose or dropped, if the results page diversions increased or lessened...

All you know is whether more or less visitors arrived in a time period, where they came from, and whether they converted. Which three points drive 80% of the conspiracy theories rampant in webdev fora.

The one real take away I am rather confident about is that the more and better content on a page the more query results one has an opportunity to be shown in and so an increased probability of greater traffic. So, all else being equal: if 200 words postulate n, then 400 words 2n, 1200 words 6n possible different queries as a minimum; in all probability, in my experience, the results are more likely to be exponential than linear.

Whether that traffic is of value is another matter of course; both SEO and copywriting are an art as well as a science.
Regardless, zero sum SEO is pretty much passť with only a few very constrained examples that may or may not be of practical benefit. What we have now is SEO divisor zero. :)
9:21 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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iamlost summed it up nicely.

Voice search is next challenge
10:21 pm on Mar 20, 2017 (gmt 0)

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One can only know that a visitor was referred, not what they asked, not the position of the link that referred them.

I will dispute this claim. Granted the one to one relationship is gone, you cannot know for every single referral the user's keyword, or the exact position on the page. But you can still infer this information from the available data in GSC.

One still gets keyword data for about 2 to 5% of queries. If you collect this data over a long enough time span (weeks or month), and depending on the diversity of the keywords, you should still be able to get a pretty good idea of where and how traffic is coming to your site from the SERPs. I will also go on to say that this actually preferable to getting the one to one data as it insures that one doesn't get caught up in short lived anomalies and instead gets an aggregated overview.

if 200 words postulate n, then 400 words 2n, 1200 words 6n possible different queries as a minimum; in all probability, in my experience, the results are more likely to be exponential than linear.

I would qualify this by adding that the word counts refer to the minimum number of words required to clearly communicate the information. As opposed to a naive word count.
7:16 am on Mar 21, 2017 (gmt 0)

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I've read certain blogs, usually ones which want to see you an ebook, you ask a simple question 'what is a widget', and they go on and on about 'in this article I will tell you what a widget is, what it can be used for, how awesome widgets are'....and manage to do so in 2,000 words. It does NOT make for good reading.

Some of the articles I have written are 3,000 words long, but they're complex topics. So, I have divided them into sections...

What is a widget
History of widgets
Where to buy widgets
How are widgets used
How to care for your widget

I honestly and truly think the most important factor is to write your content which is easily consumed by viewers. Some people might want to read all 3,000 words about widgets, others might just want to know how to care for their widget. Give them everything, but also let them have the opportunity to skim the bits they don't. It's not about word count, it's about ease of reading.

At the top of my articles, I have now added links to each section. I have noticed in webmaster tools that I'm now getting people drop in on #history of widgets or #where to buy widgets. Those links were never added to benefit me (via Google), they were put in for my visitors, so they'd not see 3,000 words and click back. But it does seem to have benefitted.

The way I figure is the more good quality information on each page, the greater the chances I'll be indexed. Also, the more information I include, the more likely my competitors will quote some of that content and link to me (most of them are pretty good about that). I WANT my information copied, just not in full...and I want credit for it. I guess that's my own version of link building.
8:51 am on Mar 21, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Zero sum works if the pie is a known quantity and other factors are also known quantities interacting with each other. Give the volatility of the web's "size" (number of sites/pages, all growing HOURLY) that pie is always getting larger, which means each slice is getting smaller. Is that the "zero sum"? Think not. As for the serps, every update changes the size of the slices offered as some x amount of pages are added/dropped via algos/penalties every second (not hourly, weekly or monthly). Is that zero sum? Probably not. There's nothing fixed (as in quantities) which makes sense for zero sum ... but there is something to be said that dropping out of the top ten makes room for someone else to get there. Is that zero sum? Not for anyone outside of the top ten. :)
6:40 am on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Google SEO as a Zero Sum Game

The notion that this may reflect reality represents mere denial of facts. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger - but here we have slow strangulation of monetization by Google. This kills you - period.

.
8:26 am on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger - but here we have slow strangulation of monetization by Google. This kills you - period.
But what kills you, makes someone else stronger. That's the point.
2:17 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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But what kills you, makes someone else stronger. That's the point.

Sure : Google - that's the point . . . . .

.
2:32 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Sure : Google - that's the point . . . . .

No, if that were the case then there would be no organic serps. It would only be pay to play.
2:42 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Respectfully, I disagree.

When someone loses all their traffic, that does not end up "at Google".

Most of it went to another organic site. In aggregate, for the reported traffic losses for any given algo update, approaching 100% of traffic will have been retained by organic sites.

A layout change without any algo change will mostly benefit Google's Adword customers, assuming they are behaving rationally and only buying profitable advertising.

All traffic always goes somewhere, and if it isn't you site, it is someone else's. If it's not through organic, it will be through advertising. Advertising typically means ecom, and you can moan about G all you want but advertising benefits the party buying the traffic.

If your business model can be defeated by a knowledge box, then I agree, Google killed your business. But how many sites really monetised the type of answer found in knowledge boxes?
3:32 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Despite Google's disproportionate billions in net earnings, rapidly, exponentially & unreasonably increasing in the past 10 years at a time of global economic crisis, people are in denial, insisting on a "zero sum game".

Left semi-unconscious instead of totally dead, doesn't mean one is alive, well & kicking, with a bright future. The overwhelming majority of sites on the 'net have been left in the semi-unconscious state money-wise, not because of some "zero sum game", but because this is *not* a "zero sum game".

"Zero sum game" : Well, good luck with that.

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3:43 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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@heisje "Zero sum" is not mutually exclusive of winner take all. So you may argue that there are many near-dead websites and only a few extremely successful ones but this simply suggests that many groups of a few users once went to many sites, and now these many users all go to a few websites. But this is still a zero sum game.
4:05 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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Despite Google's disproportionate billions in net earnings, rapidly, exponentially & unreasonably increasing in the past 10 years at a time of global economic crisis, people are in denial

None of that is relevant to the topic at hand, which is if you lose traffic, someone gains that traffic, and it is NOT Google, cos they had the traffic- irrespective of if it gets referred to Site A or Site B.

Google's currently successful business model of selling advertising relevant to the reader/viewer/consumer explains their increasing billions of net earnings. It is the mainstay of the informational side of the web. Before that, it created mighty print empires.

Whether or not the revenue growth is disproportionate or unreasonable is beyond the scope of the current discussion, but Google just happens to be doing it better than most. Just like the print giants did in a previous age. Now the print giants are scrabbling round for a new business model, as Google will be if people stop using search engines.

Back to zero-sum, Google is not stealing traffic from sites that lose out from algo changes. They already had the traffic, and are just sending it elsewhere. Sometimes they charge for sending it on, but that is a legitimate transaction that most (all?) purveyors of monetised information sites also rely on.
5:10 pm on Mar 22, 2017 (gmt 0)

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None of that is relevant to the topic at hand
Really? says who? Sounds a bit presumptuous to me . . .
Before that, it created mighty print empires.
And that was such a good thing that it must be allowed to happen again in a modern incarnation?
irrespective of if it gets referred to Site A or Site B
. . . or C, meaning multiple other Google properties and paid ads pasted all over the place - all presumably towards a better user experience? Try pasting ads all over the place (above fold, below fold, left, etc etc, and see what happens!).

G algo changes have a purpose, far and beyond improving user experience, thus the expected EU fines and litigation from large publishers. Legitimate business is one thing, abuse is another.

Zero sum would be between A and B. Trouble is with guy C - the house is in the game, and the game is rigged.

.
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