Is Google fudging search rankings to benefit pages that embed YouTube vids? Or is this just another ‘bug’?

Websites featuring get super-fast rating despite slower reality


In yet another indication that Google uses its domination of the search engine market to benefit its own services, SEO experts have noticed an unusual in-built benefit involve its YouTube video giant.

In an analysis earlier this year, content delivery experts Swarmify dug into a puzzling change to Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool, where the search engine giant will automatically scan any website and provide an extensive rundown of how fast the website is, complete with suggestions for how to improve it.

That speed component is a key part of the complex algorithm Google uses to decide how and where to rank websites in web search results, which, as any website owner will tell you, is absolutely critical to pulling in traffic. Anything beyond page two of Google search is a virtual graveyard. If your webpages are deemed by Google to take too long to fetch and render for desktop PCs or mobile devices, you're banished into that hinterland.

Swarmify found one website was getting a low performance score (60 out of 100) and identified an animated GIF as the reason for it. They switched to the more-modern MP4 format with HTML5, and saw an immediate boost to 74: not surprising as streaming the MP4 should be more efficient than fetching a large GIF image.

But then, on a hunch, the team decided to take the small video, post it to Google-owned YouTube, and embed it in the website's page, rather than host the material on the site's own servers. The result? An immediate performance jump to 99 out of 100, which could well be the difference between getting traffic thanks to Google search ranking, and becoming an internet backwater.

Surely Google wasn’t directly giving webpages with YouTube videos an artificial boost? No, of course not, because it if did, SEO experts would simply flood all webpages with YouTube videos. In fact, what was happening, the team found out was that anything loaded onto the page using an iframe tag, such as an embedded YouTube video, was simply discounted from Google’s PageSpeed tool altogether.

Zero-rating

That’s right: even if a webpage loaded slowly because of heavy content, so long as that content was contained within an iframe, it had no impact whatsoever on the speed ranking that Google uses as part of its ranking algorithm.

How did they prove this? They ran one more test: putting the entire website within an iframe tag – and the score? A perfect 100.

Of course, as with anything to do with the dark science that is search engine optimization, there is no single provable cause-and-effect but it is very odd that Google would simply ignore iframes in its calculations of webpage speed, especially when SEO experts are certain that Google’s systems are capable of fetching and analyzing iframe content.

Google, photo by lightpoet via Shutterstock

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The iframe tag is not restricted solely to YouTube videos, although it’s fair to say that they likely make up a huge proportion of iframes on webpages globally. The other main uses of iframes? Sticking third-party ads and Google Maps on pages, it appears.

There are other services that routinely use iframes to embed their content onto other websites: video service Vimeo, for example. Iframes are a pretty standard way to load content onto a webpage from a second source.

It’s just that by far the greatest use of them is ads, YouTube videos, and Google Maps. Twitter and Facebook, for example, use Javascript to embed posts on pages from their services.

This iframe free-ride was not always in place. In fact, Google used to penalize embedded video quite heavily. But earlier this year, Google started pushing a new set of metrics it calls “Web vitals” made up of terms that only SEO folk, browser programmers, and studious web developers will likely ever heard of: First Contentful Paint (FCP), Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), and others.

Wag the dog

It’s just one more sign of how Google has slowly moved from changing how it ranks webpages in order to keep one step ahead of those that artificially inflate webpages for clients, to deciding how and on what terms people creating webpages will be accepted into its search rankings. For years now, the tail has been wagging the dog.

So does the decision to effectively lift any speed penalty on websites that host YouTube videos or Google Maps prove that the Chocolate Factory is using its market power to benefit itself?

No, because, as ever, there is just enough plausible deniability. Just as there was earlier this week when we highlighted that Google’s browser, Chrome, was, very unusually, retaining user data for its own Google.com and YouTube.com websites while deleting all cookies and data for all other websites, even when users had actively indicated that they wanted that data deleted when they shut the browser down.

The programmer who noticed that privacy issue, and others who commented on it, predicted that when brought to light, Google would simply claim it was a bug and promise to fix it in a forthcoming update.

Several hours after our story went live, Google informed us that it was “aware of a bug in Chrome that is impacting how cookies are cleared on some first-party Google websites. We are investigating the issue, and plan to roll out a fix in the coming days.”

Will Google discover, in response to our queries today that zero-rating iframe content on websites is also a bug that it will fix soon? Our prediction is, no, it won’t. Because the connection is sufficiently deniable.

But here is our prediction: if other companies, particularly competitors to Google, start using iframes as a default, the tech giant will suddenly re-evaluate its PageSpeed tool and realize that, actually, yes, iframe content can have an impact on a webpage’s speed.

But by then, no doubt, a Google engineer will have discovered another route to give every page that engages with Google’s services a little boost. Just enough every time.

The US government sued Google on Tuesday for abusing its market position to maintain its monopoly on the search and search ad markets, apropos of nothing, of course. ®

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