Is Google Getting Worse?
Sure. I dunno. I mean, compared to what? Worse in what way?
Every month or so, like the changing moon cycle, I see a thread on Reddit or an article in a news journal to the effect of, “Is Google getting worse?”. Specific complaints range from technical assessments of the search engine’s latest iteration to an oddly techy version of “things were better back in the day” nostalgia for an ill-defined, supposedly simpler time online.
Often they bemoan irrelevant results crowding the SERP and burying the “real” answers they seek to a query. Other times, they make note of the quantity and variety of ads pushing organic results down in the SERP. Sometimes, the complaint is focused on the ethics of the company as a whole: their apparent abandonment of the old “Don’t be evil” motto, the soporific effect they have on engagement with traditional news media, or just lumping them in with Social Media or Big Tech as one big group of bad actors slowly chipping away at everything good in the world.
As always, the truth is more nuanced than the popular conversation allows for. In many ways, Google as a search engine is more responsive and sophisticated than ever before, but it is also more connected to our lives, data, and organizations both public and private. While there is no single honest answer, if we look at the different ways people frame their criticism, we can come up with some relatively firm answers to whether Google is getting worse.
Google Search Has Too Many Ads
This is perhaps the most common accusation, and the hardest to argue against. If you are one of the many people who believe that monetization makes free services worse, then yes, Google search has unequivocally gotten worse, as it has continued to evolve and expand its system for profiting off its SERPs.
Google extracted some 104 billion dollars from its advertising in SERPs and other Google properties in 2020. In 2021, it was ranked above Amazon as one of the most valuable companies in the U.S. This financial performance has always been largely powered by ads using its search data and pay-per-click results.
If this reality gets you down, it may hearten you to remember Google search is still free to use and the organic results are still there, under whatever quantity of paid ads. I tend to believe that the ad density is still lower in Google’s SERP than in many other ad-supported media, and that these ads are easier to ignore or simply skim than, say, ads on the radio, television, or magazines.
And, unlike these other media, Google typically only gets paid (or their advertisers charged) if you actually click on the paid results (as less than 10% of searchers do, or even as few as 2% of all searchers, depending on the study), instead of scrolling to the organic results. Every time you opt to ignore these obtrusive results, you deny a pay-per-click offering from Google’s corporate collection tin.
Nevertheless, Google makes its money off advertising, so this component of search and the SERPs is bound to stay and continue to evolve.
Google Is Showing Irrelevant Search Results
This criticism baffles me the most, but as an SEO I probably use Google more frequently and deliberately than the average searcher, so I can get the exact kind of results I want. Google very publicly demonstrates its many efforts to improve its core web search function; the countless updates and announcements we bemoan in the SEO and marketing realm are a direct reflection of Google’s efforts to improve at elevating relevant, useful content and giving searchers better, more succinct answers, faster.
These efforts to maximize relevance and define success around satisfying searcher intent are, I believe, core to many of the other, often more valid criticisms of Google as a brand, for-profit company, and influence on society.
- By diversifying their services, through local reviews, maps, and featured news stories, Google steps into competition with other companies and websites trying to solve these distinct searcher and consumer needs, complicating the question of Google’s anti-competitive or monopoly status.
- By adding responsive semantic sophistication and natural language processing capabilities to its algorithms, Google is getting better at making sense of queries and keywords from both searchers and web content, making SEO progressively more competitive and challenging, and drawing starker lines between the winners and losers of the search game.
- By actively devoting resources to finding, flagging, and suppressing dangerous, hateful, or harmful results including misinformation and politically-charged topics, Google exposes itself to accusations of partisan favoritism and an ideological agenda.
- By looking at more ranking signals than just the sheer quantity of backlinks or keyword density, Google’s algorithm gives an advantage to large sites with established brands that naturally earn mentions, traffic, and links just by virtue of off-web competitive advantages, making it harder for new or smaller entrants to compete in the digital marketplace.
But to accuse Google of displaying irrelevant or low-quality results defies the purpose of all these well-intentioned, yet harmful initiatives on Google’s part; it even makes them seem like wasted efforts. So where are people coming from with this argument?
I posit that we’ve come to take Google search for granted. Long gone are the days when many search engines competed on the merits of their interface and accuracy; now, with voice control of watches, digital assistants, and smart devices, our expectations have managed to evolve even faster than our technology. If Google cannot succinctly answer a question with its SERP-topping snippet, does that mean it isn’t as good as it used to be?
Or perhaps, in the context of the ongoing culture wars, we expect Google to reflect our biases more closely in the way we’ve been told echo-chamber social platforms do with our feeds elsewhere. Rather than asking questions we genuinely don’t know the answer to, might we be looking to Google to confirm our biases and suspicions, only to be frustrated by its effort to present balanced, credible results from across the web?
Perhaps people judge results superficially, making rapid assumptions about relevance without actually looking at what they view as irrelevant pages. It is impossible to prove either way without evidence, and even then difficult to extrapolate. Somewhere between Occam’s Razor and what feels like a lifetime of customer service, I’m inclined to say this is a user error more than it is a bug in search. But I’ll assume that, sometimes, Google does deliver frustratingly incomplete or irrelevant search results; still I struggle to see this as a growing trend.
Is Google Limiting or Manipulating Search Results?
Yes, but also no.
No in the tin-foil-hat sense that there is no evidence of Google actively, thoughtfully setting a clear, consistent agenda in the SERPs by silencing dissenting voices or erasing conflict, bias, nuance, or other uncomfortable facts, stories, or results. It may not be as air-tight an echo chamber as Facebook, but you can still feed your confirmation bias through Google search.
Yes in the sense that Google does actively, and publicly, engage in selectively not displaying the most relevant results when those results would be likely to cause direct harm. For example [sensitive content warning]:
Googling instructions for committing suicide or building a bomb will yield harmless resources like your region’s suicide prevention hotline or how to craft a realistic video prop. Likewise, if you try to Google symptoms for a DIY medical diagnosis, or research cures and treatments that fall outside evidence-based best practices, you may find more research and clinical commentary critiquing and debunking questionable medicine.
The important thing to remember here is that Google — from the index to the ranking algorithm to the SERPs — has to work equally well, all the time, for any query, despite something approaching 15% of all searches on a given day never having been seen by Google ever before. If you’ve ever been caught in a lie, you know how hard it can be to remain logically and factually consistent while hiding or changing a truth; if you think Google can do this willfully at the scale of the World Wide Web, you probably also believe that Google is a singularity, and not a constantly rotating consortium of engineers, programmers, data scientists, and regular corporate drones just plugging away at ordinary desk jobs.
Scrutiny and Limited Visibility for Select Topics
Google today has attained enough machine learning and natural language processing power to recognize queries and keywords proximate to harm — they even have a name for this category of searches: YMYL, or Your Money or Your Life. YMYL refers to any topics likely to cause direct, catastrophic harm if the SERPs are misleading, inaccurate, or anything less than authoritative and trustworthy.
Trying to rank in Google for YMYL topics is algorithmically harder, more competitive, and more nuanced than more banal topics and keywords. Google is making it difficult on purpose. It shouldn’t be easy to give medical advice or money management tips online any more than it should be in person, so Google levels additional scrutiny on websites and pages in these topical spaces.
The Top Results Reflect Expert Consensus, Not Google Opinions
The folks at Google tend to be techy: programmers, developers, coders, machine learning engineers, and AI scientists. If Google were going to enforce any agenda in the SERPs, I would expect it to reflect the actual subject matter expertise they employ. But Google doesn’t create the vast majority of content it features in the SERP — it just finds it, and shares it on demand, when it seems relevant to a query.
So how does Google decide what is “right” or factually reliable, and what isn’t, when churning out billions of SERPs on countless topics every day? By comparing everything it finds on a topic, seeing where they agree and disagree, and assessing their respective E-A-T indicators of credibility and historical track-records for being viewed as credible.
In other words: Google assigns trust signals the same way you learn to trust or not trust people, or come to view them as experts or enthusiasts, but with fewer distracting social signals and cues that might sway your human emotions. Supposedly, Nazi scientist Joseph Goebbels once said of propaganda, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” Just as repeated exposure to concepts, opinions, or data can start to make us trust, believe, or even assume the veracity of something, the frequency with which something appears on the web, along with the context and credibility of the sources, can convince Google of pretty much anything.
However, another popularly misattributed quote asserts, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Here again, Google is a mirror to humanity, as any SERP you ask it for will come with a link at the bottom of the page inviting you to learn more about the results, Google’s operations, or even leave critical feedback. So, while lies can thrive on our unquestioning repetition and social sharing, the truth can also be defended by experts, users, and concerned citizens armed with compelling evidence.
How Lack of Competition and Google’s De Facto Monopoly Make Things Worse
In the strictly legal and historical sense of the word, Google search is not a monopoly. But with a market share serving more than 90% of all web searches worldwide (and a smaller share in nations with their own government-sponsored alternatives), Google is in effect a monopoly power. In service of this view, we’ll ignore the fact that more searches for products and consumer goods occur directly on Amazon than Google, to say nothing of the competition around image search or social media’s role in person/name-based search.
In a market economy, as we are aggressively reminded, competition is good for the consumer because it forces efficiency, change, and improvement. Without a meaningful competitor, Google would be unaccountable to users and growing slowly worse as we wait for a rival to shake it up.
In reality, Google has had to run even to stay in place, much less keep up with the explosion of web content, the savvy of black hat SEOs, the shift to mobile, and myriad other innovations around the web, how we access it, and what we expect from it. Google may not have great competition as a web search engine — yet. But advertisers certainly have compelling alternatives to advertising on Google.
Lest Google drive its users away with an inadequate search experience, the giant takes pains to solicit detailed and structured feedback, test and retest even minor changes to the interface, and constantly update and modify its algorithm with ground-breaking AI and machine learning technology. If anything, I’m surprised anyone — even Microsoft — would try to beat Google at such a resource-intensive, socio-technical, Sysephean sprint.
Problems With Dethroning Google Search
Any would-be alternative or competitor very quickly faces the same challenges — and by extension, the same criticisms — as Google search. Namely:
- How do you set up and maintain all the data storage needed to archive the entire web, regularly?
- How do you recruit, staff, and retain talent for all the technical support, ongoing updates, feedback solicitation, user engagement, and other iterative processes for keeping search engines relevant?
- How do you make sense of searcher intent? Or more to the point: how do you teach an automated, worldwide system to quickly, accurately, responsively read between the lines (and the broken grammar, spelling, and general inarticulateness of all of humanity) to give them what they are trying to ask for?
- How do you adequately support different languages, regions, and mobile locations? For that matter, how do you provide a quality experience across different devices and browsers?
- Even if you can intelligently handle the sheer amount of text content online, how do you produce results for different media like image, video, social, and beyond?
- How do you convince all the site managers and content creators across the World Wide Web to employ the standards that will allow them to accommodate your new search engine, in the hopes of being discovered through your service?
- How do you make money?
The last is the stickiest wicket to clear, and a pain point for virtually every upstart search engine on the market.
Bing, backed by Microsoft, is one of the few challengers with the resources to produce its own crawler and index of the web, which it then draws SERPs from with a similarly proprietary algorithm. It also takes pains to respond to user requests, censor problematic or dangerous content, and relies on many of the same markers of quality and credibility that comprise Google’s E-A-T. Its reward for all this effort is that it is largely a household name — and an industry punchline.
To its credit, Bing shares its index with other aspiring search engines, presumably offering it as a bounty to help them displace Google and eventually giving them leverage to acquire any promising young engine, but let’s not assume intent.
DuckDuckGo is essentially Bing, but with different visual and technical features designed around user and data privacy.
Neeva takes aim at complaints that Google is too ad-rich, and presents its ad-free engine as an alternative. Of course, free accounts are limited trials, and they bank on users being willing to pay for a subscription as they’ve learned to do with streaming services to escape ads.
There are many other alternative search engines. Some, like Yahoo, pre-date Google, but most borrow data from either Yahoo or Bing indexes, and the lot of them claim a collective 8% web-search market share. This isn’t a failing, it is just a reality of trying to get into the market today, and the incredible resources required to compete effectively.
Google Is Bad for Smaller Websites
If you make money from ads, affiliates, or other mechanisms that depend on traffic and visibility, Google has almost certainly made life worse by making it harder to get visitors through search. If your traffic formerly came entirely from curious searchers, with no inbound visitors from social media, direct navigation, referrals, or other channels, then Google may even have made your site irrelevant through SERP features like Knowledge Panels and Rich Snippets, offering zero-click information and answers, and stopping visitors from ever having to leave Google’s SERP to get what they want.
This impact is also pretty hard to argue. Google makes content visible, but that doesn’t always involve sending traffic to domains that host content or brands that create it. Plenty of critics say this amounts to robbing non-Google content of revenue, or even outright stealing money from smaller, especially local outlets for news and other specialized content that is difficult and costly to produce. This has even been the basis for some international boycotts, threats, lawsuits, and negotiations.
Is This Even Google’s Fault — or Ours?
While I think the effects are hard to rebut, I also think they are difficult to attribute entirely to Google. In a market economy, do we punish “winners” for out-competing and out-earning their peers? Does Google owe content creators a stipend based on the sheer scale and value of its success?
I’m no legal scholar, but I haven’t heard many legal precedents that are especially relevant to this line of criticism. Maybe there’s room to innovate on that count, but for now, it seems a lot like buyer’s remorse for late-stage capitalism in a digital age. Google is bad for smaller, resource-poor competitors, content creators, and generally anyone hoping for a slice of the digital advertising revenue pie.
But it is bad for them, because it works so well for searchers, and searchers have proven willing to come back to the well that is Google rather than seek information elsewhere, including directly from other sources, much less other search engines.
Is Google the Worst Search Engine?
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Google is the worst search engine — except for all the others that have been tried.
It is big because it works. It worked well, early, and consistently, and went from underdog to digital deity, and we all collectively made it so.
As uncomfortable as that dominance and influence makes us, and as uncertain it makes the future for everyone living in Google’s financial shadow, when we criticize it — and we should — we must always start by addressing: compared to what? And what will it take to produce a genuine, useful, superior alternative that carries none of the same burdens that Google does, by virtue of what it does and how it must behave to function at all?