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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?

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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.

The Google seduction – Are instant search results blinding you to the real cost of your searches?

I’ll admit it.  I’m hooked on Google!

To start with, back in 1999, I was impressed with the speedy and mostly relevant search results delivered by Google.  I got mesmerized by their growing coverage, the advanced tools, and mostly by their simple, uncluttered, spartan interface that never changed in years.  I got lazier and hooked even more when Google started suggesting queries I could use – now I don’t even type my query fully often, and pick from the query suggestions list instead.  My addiction to Google has only gotten worse with Google Instant, where I get results as I type (granted, that this thing works well some times, and is downright irritating at other times when it slows down my typing of the query).  There are these delightful situations where I type in the name of a company, and I get the company’s web site, address, phone number and a map, ready for use – exactly what I needed.  Examples like this abound.  In all, these are ingredients of the Google seduction!  Masterfully crafted tools and features that keep me hooked and coming back for more.

You know what I mean!  It’s highly likely, from seeing market share stats, that you, like me, are hooked on Google too!

If you’ve seen the previous posts here, you might have noticed that I’m an entrepreneur, and my team has created an alternative search engine that will be released to the market soon.  Why am I admitting to being seduced by and hooked on Google?  Because it is true, and it is a reality I expect to encounter again and again in releasing our brand new search engine to market soon.

As productive and as satisfying my searches like these are on Google, there are different types of searches I do often which are downright frustrating and painful.

Example 1:

Shopping for a laptop computerTake for instance the time when I wanted to find a good laptop suitable for use by son who was heading to college (this past summer).  I was buying a laptop after a 2 year gap, so I had to find out what laptop technologies were out there, research specific features of interest to us, find reviews of models, find deals etc. – the whole effort lasted many hours. During this time, I used Google out of habit, and had to wade through tons of irrelevant and commercially hijacked results.  It wasn’t easy keeping things together that I found interesting along the way, and it certainly wasn’t easy to share findings readily with my son.  And in parallel, my son did some searches and we couldn’t easily get in synch with our efforts.  Irrelevant results, lot of time spent in sifting through results, no easy way to save what was useful, no easy way to share, no easy way to find things together, and no easy way to pause the searching process and continue from where I left off.

Example 2:

Finding a hypoallergenic natural sunblock or sunscreenHere’s another example … recently I had to research hypoallergenic sun screen / sun block solutions because my family had developed an allergy to something in traditional sun screen products.  I recall spending over 8 hours, Googling over and over across dozens of different queries, pouring over pages and pages of results, sifting through the gunk to isolate useful nuggets.  Since I had to do this across multiple sessions, often I had to repeat my searches and sift through the same results, often irrelevant, over and over again.  Post-it notes, clippings in a Word document, patchy email notes sent to other family members about this — this was my toolset for collecting, sharing and collaborating.  I did find 2-3 products finally, but it wasn’t easy.  And I’m an above-average searcher myself!

Example 3:

Planning a reunion in central FloridaIn late 2009, my extended family decided to have a family reunion in Florida.  In that context, we had to search for travel options, accommodations for 16 people, attractions, food/eating choices and ideas and a whole lot more.  Of course, I Googled over and over and over across many days doggedly, used emails to collect information and share with other family members across the country, and eventually we did have a great reunion in the Orlando area.  But, Googling offered little support in accomplishing this whole task!

If you think these searches are outliers, think to your own experiences of researching to purchase a gadget, an appliance or any big ticket item.  Think about the time you started researching places for a vacation with family or friends.  Or when you had to find more about a disease or medical condition and treatment options for a dear one.  Or the time when you had to find a supplier for a product / service at work.  The list is quite large, of searches like these, where the search itself is a process, and not something that yields an answer with a single query and the desired result on page-1.  Whether these searches emerge from our need as a consumer, or as a student, or as a business professional, the problem is the same!  The instant gratification that seduced me and you into using Google, and has us addicted to it, doesn’t do a darned thing to help here.

I don’t know how to say it, except quite bluntly – Google isn’t designed for searches like these, at least not today! Neither are other mainstream search engines.

The irrelevant results, coming from the search result pages that have been hijacked for queries with a commercial intent, make it worse.  Check out Paul Kedrosky’s post: Dishwashers, and How Google Eats Its Own Tail, Alan Patrick’s post: On the increasing uselessness of Google and Jeff Atwood’s post: Trouble in the House of Google for more examples where Googling isn’t helping as it might have some time ago. The subject of declining relevance in search results is a separate topic that I’ll write more about later.

These searches are expensive in terms of time – your and my precious time lost in googling over and over.  And yet, each one of us goes back to Google every so often for a need like this, and go through the same time wasting process over and over again!

So, when you factor in these sorts of searches that you do, what is the real cost of your searches in all?

Seduced by the tools of instant gratification, I personally believe we have been enslaved into using Google (and same could be said for regular Bing or Yahoo or Ask or AOL users too) even when it is not the right tool for the job.  “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, the saying goes, and it seems that the vast majority of searchers are using the Google hammer all the time, even when it is clearly not the right tool for the job. The cost of doing so?  I don’t have concrete numbers to share yet, but I think it is safe to say that there’s a HUGE collective productivity loss from using the wrong tool for a searching job like this!

What is your opinion on this matter?

My startup, Zakta, is set to launch SearchTeam, the world’s first real-time collaborative search engine soon.  By combining tools to search, collaborate and curate into a single integrated solution, we hope to provide a useful search tool for finding information like this individually, or together with friends, family members, colleagues or other trusted people. I’ll share more information about this in the coming days and weeks.

Is Google domination stifling search engine innovation?

Google is the undisputed leader in the search engine market.

US Search Engines Marketshare, 6-month trend from StatOwlSource: StatOwl

As this trend chart shows, in the past few months, Google has lost a little bit of ground to Bing and Yahoo.  And that is after a mega spend on the Bing launch and the Yahoo-Microsoft deal.

For me, this is not the noteworthy observation in this chart.  It is that the “Other” group charted here is only 0.02% or lesser of marketshare / usage!

And this is particularly interesting when you consider that there has been a continuous stream of well-funded search engine companies that have come into the market over time.  Take the well funded and much-hyped Cuil or the recently launched Blekko.  Or the veteran meta search engine DogPile. Or the clustering search engine Clusty. Or niche search engines like the discussion search engine Omgili, or the people search engine Pipl, or the real-time search engine Topsy.  There are literally over one hundred such search engines in existence now, not to mention the many that have come and gone!

The combined effect of all the $s gone into these companies, their creativity, their innovations, as measured by their actual impact on the market is but a small, unnoticeable blip.

The dominance of Google, with Bing, Yahoo, AOL and Ask picking up the rear to complete the canvas of “mainstream search engines”, seems to leave no room whatsoever for innovations from outside to thrive!

One could argue that none of the hundreds of search engine companies in the past decade offered a compelling enough alternative to Google.  Clearly that is true at many levels.  The sheer coverage of the Web that Google provides, the high performance sub-second result pages, the continuous stream of small innovations (like Wonder Wheel, Query Autosuggestions, Google Instant etc.) continue to keep a high bar that not even the others in the “mainstream search engines” have been able to match and exceed consistently.

On the other hand, Google isn’t without flaws, holes and deficiencies.  As recent articles point out well, Google’s search results are manipulated every single minute.  What yielded superior results consistently back in 1999-2001 has consistently been compromised in the past 8-9 years, especially for queries with a commercial intent.  Relevance, the thing that Google was originally most famous for, is slipping away from Google, or so it seems at this juncture.  This, and other factors like, the growth of social media, social networking, real-time information, video and more, have made the search engine problem more complex.  In this complexity, and these gaps, search engine startups see opportunities, and investors continue to invest money.

But will any of these search engine startups and their innovations really become part of the mainstream in terms of user adoption?

It does seem like a tall order.  The graph above speaks volumes about the rather poor odds of a new search engine become part of the mainstream!   It is in this vein that I wonder if Google’s domination, followed by the four other “mainstream search engines”, stifles lasting search engine innovation from a broader market of search engine companies!  What do you think?

I have a vested interest in this matter.  My second startup, Zakta, is about to release a new search engine to market soon.  I’ll be writing more about this here in the coming days and weeks.

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