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So are Google Search results crap, or aren’t they?

Posted January 17th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

The latest debates over Google Search results, search quality, antitrust, and other drama are only the latest in a long period of rapid change for Google in the search arena. That period, pretty much the past seven years, has been marked by (a) growth in new technology and soft innovations intended to handle the scale of search as well as more complex user intent puzzles; (b) the ongoing challenges Google faces in satisfying public expectations of relevant results in an environment characterized by gaming and spam. Other trends have included (c) mobile, (d) the rapid growth in video and the resulting changes in user information consumption, and (e) people’s adoption of Facebook-like social environments to make sense of their worlds. All these trends, ultimately, funnel back into the search experience. When it comes to (e), and perhaps numerous other trends, they’re new worlds for Google. In spite of its size and ability to assimilate and acquire new technologies, Google suddenly discovered it was poorly situated to respond to evolving user needs. “Getting social” didn’t seem to be in its DNA. Angrily, Google developer Steve Yegge ranted that Google “doesn’t get platform.” [Note: you'll probably need to log into Google+ to read this rant.]

Google has had an easy ride in this period. Bing has been its only serious competitor in search. That being said, rivals like Wolfram Alpha, Blekko, and Ixquick have all found their way onto the radar screens of those searching for alternatives.

But the real threat is Facebook, etc. And in the face of that threat, Google has done something close to panicking. It’s very reminiscent of the panic exhibited by Microsoft when it went all in playing catchup with the shift to Internet computing.

While it’s panicking about a massive paradigm shift, some people are complaining that garden-variety search is where Google dropped the ball. They imply that Google has arbitrarily voided something akin to a sacred social contract with its users, by changing the “no clutter” clause in our relationship with them.

I don’t need to show you all of the accusations that Google Search has deteriorated and that the results are now “crap”. I’m sure you seen plenty of these claims. But Dave Winer’s is worth noting.

Those types of claims stem from a few different points of view and motivations, not even counting those that are revulsed by Google’s pecuniary interest in showing relevant ads next to the results.

To attempt to aggregate the whole landscape of criticism, there seems to be an overall claim that Google has fought a losing battle with spammy results and as a result has turned to cheap shortcuts to mask this fact. Certainly, it has seemed that various crackdowns on link farms and “content farms,” sometimes with cute names, have not fixed some of the cracks in Google’s early assumptions. The problem with cracking down on “excessive” link building or “thin” content is that you need to then come up with a model that definitively satisfies some ideal of relevance — an ideal Google hadn’t given much thought to in its founding.

Google has replaced laser relevance in the ten blue links (which it can’t attain) with universal/blended search — a variegated set of new ad formats and content types. Google has greater control over some of these other (non-web) data sources, so they’re less likely to be spammy. Note: that’s also why Bing works well for many users.

Moreover, if some of them are spammy, so what? As a user, you were given a menu of choices, so you clicked on a YouTube video and were mildly entertained. Or you found a leading brand name or quality news source in the blended results, somehow, and then somehow did enough additional research to find your way to what you wanted.

That’s another specific complaint you hear: that Google Search more often than not takes “brand” as a proxy for relevance, which starves us for variety and essentially hands search over to well heeled corporate sites and media companies.

Google may actually be more thin-skinned about this claim than they should be! It may indeed be part of what has motivated them to try so hard to find yet another sweeping solution to their broken paradigm — a sweeping solution that to me is likely to produce disturbing results. More on that below.

Back to defending Google circa 2010-2011 against the “anti-crap” claims, for now.

In essence, you quite often hear two or three different arguments that Google Search results are “crap”: (1) There are too many spammy results; (2) There are too many brands in there getting a “free pass” that prevents “true relevance” from coming to the fore; (3) Google’s way of masking their inability to define or reveal true relevance – the “blended solution” – is itself a copout that provides the illusion of variety, but in practice, is a fence-sitting “cover” for Google’s technological failures.

None of these complaints are all right, or all wrong. But (2) in particular is a good indicator that we actually may have a problem, not with Google Search, but with the whole process and idea of Web Search.

I’ve been using Google Search more heavily for cooking in the past year or so. Google has always been pretty great for quick access to recipes, no matter how poorly you used it. More recently, trying to solidify their status in this area, the company created something like an app for recipes that a bunch of people no doubt played with.

In hindsight, here’s what I discovered. I had been all too willing in the past to jump on a variety of recipes from second and third tier recipes sites. They’re good, they’re fun, and there is no shortage of user give-and-take on these sites to help you decide how or whether to make a dish.

At the end of the day, though, compared with sticking with just a single classic “home economics” media brand (say, a well-liked magazine with thousands of incredible recipes built up over the years — OK, OK, I really refuse to identify the recipe site I’m enjoying, because my wife and her mother both subscribe to the print magazine if you know what I mean!), these “generic,” “upstart” sites are amateurish. Over time I’ve learned to seek out and click on the “big media brand” sites more often and cooking those dishes more often. If there was any kind of measuring stick for culinary goodness, the mishmash of generic sites would score a 6, and some of the brand sites’ recipes would score a 9. Both types of website are “communities,” and there is no reason an upstart, chaotic “community” should be considered as somehow more special than one with a 75-year history that also has community features. They’re simply different. Shiny new objects aren’t always inherently better.

I’m sure many users have felt the same way.

Search results reflect those user clickstreams. Brands aren’t favored by Google, they’re favored by users because users both trust them ahead of time and like what they see when they get there.

So when it comes to cooking and recipes (for example), Dave Winer’s specific complaint is utter balderdash. (That being said, there is wisdom in his broader assessment of the sacred trusts that Google seems to think nothing of violating.) For a searcher with a shred of initiative, Google’s results are not crap. Some of what you see is crap to you, and some of it is relevant to you. Personalization is doing a pretty good job of giving us types of sites that we do like to see. I would love to see it do better and I think it would if given the chance.

And users likely feel and behave the same way when it comes to cars, personal finance, and a thousand other verticals. For every Autoblog or Seeking Alpha, there are just too many crap sites out there, so the brands actually deserve their good rankings. I’d rather read Car & Driver articles or a top tweet from a leading finance guru than joescrapesaboutcars.net or investitu2cando.com.

It stands to reason, then, that every search engine and every social app or environment is working on this problem. They have not solved it. The generics and the strivers are more likely to provide the “crap” results than the brands are. Hence, as an interim and even a long term solution, many of the brands win because they’ve earned it, and they invest in quality content because they are real editorial organizations.

To augment the obvious, most trusted content, to find the upstarts like Seeking Alpha or Autoblog — or for that matter, the popular Twitter-centric expert — and to allow them to grow their reputations, is no easy feat.

So what is Google doing to continue to try to solve that problem? How is it tapping into additional social signals and complex measures of reputation and quality to continue to improve your search experience? By doing more things like it did when it acquired PostRank? By partnering with Twitter? By respecting the results provided by Yelp and TripAdvisor?

To me, that’s where it breaks down. Google jumps ahead mentally, past its garden-variety problems, and launches Search Plus Your World.

Now a bunch of my “contacts” will fix all the problems with web search, since I’ll know know what my peer group thinks about everything! And a whole bunch of that ongoing activity will be affecting the baseline quality and relevance data that affects everyone’s search results. Great. But as most agree, Google was either doing a good job gradually fixing core search problems, or it has been doing a bad job, and should work harder on solving them. Either way, its resources are still needed on those problems.

First of all, let me just say this much: I am inherently suspicious of any company that reaches this level of puffery in a product launch statement — this by esteemed Google Fellow Amit Singal, no less:

While there may be 7 billion people and 197 million square miles on Earth, a septillion stars and a trillion webpages, we spend our short, precious lives living in a particular town, with particular friends and family, orbiting a single star and relying on a tiny slice of the world’s information. Our dream is to have technology enable everyone to experience the richness of all their information and people around them.

We named our company after the mathematical number googol as an aspiration toward indexing the countless answers on webpages, but that’s only part of the picture. The other part is people, and that’s what Search plus Your World is all about.

So Google loves people. Finally.

Also first of all, this move does not do anything fundamental to reduce “spam” or “crap.” Sensibly, Eric Enge recently pointed out that “links were a better quality signal when the world didn’t know they were a signal.” Upping the ante to include a whole bunch of idiosyncratic Google platform features in your “must-do’s” as a marketer or content producer doesn’t make life more relevant for users. It just sends millions of SEO’s and social media gamers scurrying to set up the latest “please the algorithm” projects for their clients. In terms of the cat-and-mouse game that is supposed to provide users with a useful search tool, it’s basically like adding a dimension to the former chess game that mostly involved links. So what? Same game.

Moreover, while it certainly might be cool or interesting to augment search results with peer recommendations, +1′s, and whatever else Google will do to ape likes, tweets, and social sharing that were pioneered by competing media companies like Digg, Twitter, Facebook, etc., it leads towards a wholesale swapping of the model of searching that most everyone is expected to use. So shocking, coming from introverted geniuses who up until about two years ago mostly admitted they didn’t care for social media, the trend in your Google+-influenced online experience will mimic the broader trend in the workplace: the assumption that extroversion is normal and leads to productivity. For more on this, see Susan Cain’s sad chronicle of The Rise of the New Groupthink (New York Times, Jan. 13.)

Crowdsource your whole life. It’s catching.

Until Facebook had a movie made about it, most people instinctively knew that it was the introvert in us that generally retreated from the noise, and got stuff done. Now the cheery chatterboxes are ascendant. Certainly, it seems like just creating products that work effectively — so we can “get stuff done” — has lost its cachet. Just ask Steve Yegge.

Long term, it’s hard to say what Google will do. But for now, it appears obsessed with Google+ and its sudden ability to contribute to our search experience (just six months after launch). Even when more people — far more — spontaneously use Facebook. No one Google+’s anything, do they? Do people really +1 things? They tweet them. But more and more people will feel pressured into using the +1 thing “too,” which makes “+1″ one of the most aptly-named new (but not really new) actions of all time.

This “our dog food or you’re dog meat” attitude certainly can’t be coming from a search engine, can it?

Surely not one that is a Trustmark… one that used to have a social contract with users about not being evil?

Sadly, yes.

This doesn’t necessarily violate antitrust laws, as Jerry Brito attempts to argue.

But if you’re of a Dave Winer bent, it does tear up the social contract we as searchers all thought we had with Google. To be sure, it’s something Facebook — if left to its own devices — would also do. Facebook, but pretty much no one else. The “who is less evil” contest between Google and Facebook has not been setting the bar particularly high lately.

Google is pulling out all its flamethrowers seemingly because it has tunnel vision about one thing, mainly: beating Facebook at “that”. Whatever that is. And if your privacy, Yelp’s legal rights, Twitter’s contribution to our collective social life, etc., should get in the way, then so be it. Flame on.

So does Google “get platform” now? As Steve Yegge has been urging them to do?

Hardly. Platform means ecosystem. That means playing well with others — suppliers, contributors, information providers, partners, the technology world, and on down the list. Microsoft, Mr. Yegge even refers to as a “platform”. He lauds Amazon for being one.

So Google can’t “get social” if they can’t “get platform.” They need to get better at not elbowing every single potential collaborator (who they view as competitors) out of the way with the arrogant assumption that they can build something better and just plain take over (Knol, Google Reviews and Places, Chrome, Android, anyone?)

So are Google results crap? If you’d asked me that a year ago, I would have launched into the above lecture about how the seemingly crap results you see are pretty much inherent to the kind of searching we do with search engines today. And that Google is working on core search, as it should. That’s something I support.

Instead, they’ve actually tried to move beyond crap.

But as Mr. Brito points out, that seems to have unleashed a tricky market response. Some users may applaud the new paradigm, and Google’s ability to move “beyond the crap” of the previous generation of search. Others may less charitably conclude that Google is trying to escape its crap by producing search results that are “beyond crap.”

Google wants to control more elements of your social world now. They don’t just want to be a search engine.

Is that so bad? Maybe not. It’s certainly no different from how other companies, from AOL, to Microsoft, to Apple, to Disney, to Facebook, have viewed the world — as ideally a walled garden, an all-consuming platform that most people use for pretty much every form of entertainment and social interaction.

A lot of people thought that Google was somehow different. They were, of course, wrong.

The specific implications of all of this mostly come down to Google’s enormous size and scope. The fallout is on your privacy, and on thousands if not millions of companies’ right to operate their businesses in a fair, competitive environment. If that isn’t strictly a legal issue, it’s close to one. It certainly speaks to Google’s blind spot as identified by Mr. Yegge, the one it’s ironically trying to remedy by taking shortcuts: its failure to “get platform.”

To move forward either as the old Google or Google+, Google needs to be capable of making fair deals with the partner ecosystem. It needs to curb its instinct to kill competing media companies that were actually producing great content that Google helped you find. Can it? Will it?



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