The Buzz about Google’s Search Quality

We may have reached a tipping point in our tolerance of the declining quality of web search results on Google. At least that is how it appears with the growing commentary on the subject from influential bloggers, writers in the news media and searchers as well.

A meme in the making?

Anil Dash writes about the decline of Google search quality citing the negative experiences and observations of Paul Kedrosky, Alan Patrick, and Jeff Atwood:

What is worth noting now is that, half a decade after so many people began unquestioningly modifying their sites to serve Google’s needs better, there may start to be enough critical mass for the pendulum to swing back to earlier days, when Google modified its workings to suit the web’s existing behaviors.

Many more bloggers are chiming in about the same matter, as this BlogPulse Conversation Tracker listing shows.

Meanwhile, at LifeHacker, over 77% of readers say that Google’s search results are less useful lately:

We asked readers last week whether what influential bloggers said was true—that Google was losing the war against search result spam. Your response? More than three quarters found Google prone to spam, with one-third tagging the decline as significant.

Michael Rosenwald wrote in the Washington post about the losing battle against spam in search results:

Google’s success rate, as measured by the percentage of users visiting a Web site after executing a search, fell 13 percent last year, according to Experian Hitwise, which monitors Web traffic. Microsoft’s Bing search engine increased its search efficiency by 9 percent over the same period.

Although there could be several reasons for the disparity, one is most certainly spam in Google’s results, analysts said.

“It’s clear that Google is losing some kind of war with the spammers,” said tech guru Tim O’Reilly, who often cheers Google’s technology. “I think Google has in some ways taken their eye off the ball, and I’d be worried about it if I were them.”

For years, Google’s organic search results have been experiencing a slow decline in quality. Paul Kedrosky writes about this in a recent blog post:

What has happened is that Google’s ranking algorithm, like any trading algorithm, has lost its alpha. It no longer has lists to draw and, on its own, it no longer generates the same outperformance — in part because it is, for practical purposes, reverse-engineered, well-understood and operating in an adaptive content landscape. Search results in many categories are now honey pots embedded in ruined landscapes — traps for the unwary. It has turned search back into something like it was in the dying days of first-generation algorithmic search, like Excite and Altavista: results so polluted by spam that you often started looking at results only on the second or third page — the first page was a smoking hulk of algo-optimized awfulness.

Would Google care?

One thing I personally do wonder about is just how important is this issue to Google in 2011 and beyond, as compared to when they started in 1999!  In my earlier post on this blog, I wrote about the ongoing relevance of search relevance to Google:

I have no doubt that Google’s relevance with organic search results will improve yet again, given the rise in negative commentary about it in influential pockets of the Internet.  However, the pertinent question to ask is this: Why would an advertising giant care more about relevance of organic search results any more than absolutely necessary to keep their revenue proposition in tact?  Or, asked another way, is search relevance ever likely to be as relevant as ad relevance to Google?

Should Google care?

What is the practical threat to Google? It seems that all this isn’t really affecting Google’s stable search market share or its growing ad revenues in any meaningful way! But there are others who see 2011 as a turning point for Google’s invincibility.

Niall Harbison wrote recently about the perfect storm coming together to unhinge Google, that too in 2011.  He cites real time search, friend recommendations, the Like button from Facebook, the rise of spam, the possibility of categorized human knowledge and Bing as some of the key factors that could unseat Google as the search king.:

For years it seemed as if Google could do no wrong and the competition be it search start ups, Yahoo or Microsoft was generally batted away with disdain. The landscape has changed over the last 18 months though and Google faces a very real danger that it’s core product could come under threat and I think 2011 will be the year where we see the first cracks start to appear in Google’s once invincible search armor.

I am not ready to predict anything about Google’s future.  I myself have been a Google addict, and I respect their talent and innovations to date greatly.  I am interested in all this in a very deep and personal way.  I been in the search engine space, dabbling with search engine technologies since 1996. But more importantly, my startup, Zakta is set to introduce an innovative search tool that we hope is very relevant to the problems we face with search today, and very useful as well.  SearchTeam.com is in private beta now, and offers unique ways to search the Web, curate what you need, personally or in collaboration with others you trust.

What is your take on this?

On The Ongoing Relevance Of Google Search Relevancy

Google Sucks All The Way To The Bank!” declared SEO Consultant Jill Whalen in her recent blog post:

It was done gradually over many years, but Google now provides organic search results that often look relevant on the surface, but either lead to made-for-AdSense content pages or somewhat sketchy companies who are great at article spinning and comment spamming.

Matt Cutts even admitted at a recent conference that Google web spam resources had been moved away from his team.  While I doubt Matt himself was happy about this, those whose bright idea it was are likely laughing all the way to the bank.

Later in the article, Jill Whalen wonders if Google has gone too far in ignoring relevance issues with its core search results:

Since their poor results are being talked about with more fervor outside of the search marketing industry, it’s possible that they have indeed crossed the line. Numerous mainstream publications and highly regarded bloggers have taken notice and written about the putrid results. While Google is used to negative press, the current wave of stories hits them at their core — or at least what most people believe to be their core — their search results.

Even though today Google is technically just an advertising platform that happens to offer Internet search, they built their reputation on providing superior results. Because fixing what’s broken in the current algorithm can’t be very difficult for the brilliant minds that work at Google (Hint: ignore all anchor text links in blog comments, for one thing), we can only assume that they don’t want to fix them — at least not yet.

Google made its mark by providing relevant results really fast. This excellence is what killed AltaVista and all the search engines of the day, and also effectively stifled search engine innovation from outside Google till date.

Google continues to thrive despite these issues with their core search product.  Google doesn’t seem to be losing searchers readily, and their commanding marketshare remains in tact.  Even Bing with all its marketing muscle, some thoughtful innovations and the Yahoo search deal, hasn’t been able to wean off too many searchers away from Google. Why?

One reason for this is what I call the Google seduction.  In short, people are hooked on Google through years of familiarity, and even if there were legitimate alternative search engines that people can use for different needs, Google is their starting point on the Web and they can’t make the habit change, at least not readily.

Another reason is that Google continues to introduce some innovations with organic search results. An example is this continuous push for the best top result or two, which has further brought to us “instant search results” (aka Google Instant).  It is awesome to get results in milliseconds as you type a query, but all that simply makes Google addicts like me get further addicted to it, and masks the real cost of Google searches, as we put up with poor results for our more involved or serious searches or commercially relevant searches.

Search guru Danny Sullivan wrote about this a few months ago in a post titled: How the “Focus on First” helps hide Google relevancy problems. Danny gives very specific examples of how Google’s results aren’t always relevant.  But Danny points out how Google is saved by he calls their “Focus on First”:

At its press conference, Google emphasized how people would move their eyes from what they entered into the search box to the first result that was listed, using that first result in a way to effectively judge if all the results they might get matched their query. Google’s really just got to make that first result hum, for most people, most of the time. If results 2-10 are so-so, it’s not a mission critical matter.

It shouldn’t be that way, however. We ought to get 10 solid results on the first page. That’s what I expect from Google. But maybe I expect too much. Maybe good is good enough, especially given how people search.

So, is this what we’ve come to with organic Web search results?  A good first hit, and then whatever else on the first page!  And we are to believe that this is how the vast majority of the world searches and satisfying them with a good first hit is enough!  Wow!  Unbelievable!

I have no doubt that Google’s relevance with organic search results will improve yet again, given the rise in negative commentary about it in influential pockets of the Internet.  However, the pertinent question to ask is this: Why would an advertising giant care more about relevance of organic search results any more than absolutely necessary to keep their revenue proposition in tact?  Or, asked another way, is search relevance ever likely to be as relevant as ad relevance to Google?

Personally, it is my belief that relevance in search is ultimately for the individual searcher to judge, and while it is important for a good search engine to deliver a strong set of relevant results from the get go, the Web has gotten complex enough that people will be better served by having a better set of tools to help them find and curate what they need.

What do you think?

At Zakta, my startup, we have developed a new search engine called SearchTeam that lets people search the Web together with others they trust. Our approach to improved search relevance is to deliver a suite of tools that enables people to find, collaborate and curate information they need from the Web easily.  Stay tuned for more information about SearchTeam here, and at the official SearchTeam blog.

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