Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

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Do you feel like Google search results keep getting worse?

January 16, 2022 — Carlos Fenollosa

If you feel like your Google searches are less and less effective, you are not alone.

Michael Seibel, partner at YC and a very good technologist, wrote a Twitter thread which generated thousands of comments on HN

The Internet before Google

You may remember the pre-Google internet, where it was difficult to find content online. Information was spread between the web, gopher, BBSs, newsgroups, and more.

Most webs had a Links section where webmasters recommended similar sites. Thus, whenever you found an interesting page you could discover more like it.

Then directories appeared. Yahoo! started as an index which grouped webpages by topics. Geocities created communities based on interests.

A few years later, search engines as we know them today appeared. Altavista had pretty good search results for the era, but Google disrupted the industry very quickly.

You know the story: they were not the first, but they established themselves as the leaders thanks to the quality of their results. Their founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the PageRank algorithm at the University of Stanford.

Yes, Google is a successful spin-off from a research department, created by nerds.

The decline of search results

Google has continued advancing their technology, of course. So it seems like it wouldn't make sense that search results get worse instead of better.

What started with a "simple" algorithm which used hyperlinks to establish website authority has been getting more and more complicated.

There are two main reasons:

  1. The need to understand what the user means and not what they write
  2. SEO strategies have converted the first page of Google results into a global war

Internet gets popular. The common denominator

In the beginning most of the web users were technically inclined. That is no more, especially with the popularization of the smartphone.

People stopped searching by keywords, and started searching by natural language sentences in all languages in the world.

Therefore, Google must understand the intent of the search given a user query. They use Artificial Intelligence techniques, but that means sometimes they ignore important parts of the query.

For example, ignoring niche words, interpreting correct spellings as typos of a more popular word, changing the meaning of sentences, and more.

The search for this common denominator improves overall user experience at the expense of decreasing the quality of certain searches.

In summary, we all had to learn how to search by keywords many years ago. Google now has learned natural language, and some users will need to re-learn how to use search again.

Ecommerce and product searches

Ecommerce is on the rise. More and more users now search for products and services. Businesses have a great incentive to appear on top of the search results.

In 1998 we searched for information about our hobbies. In 2022 we search to shop. Regardless, our visits to websites are monetized in some way.

SEO techniques try to reverse engineer Google algorithms to appear on top of organic searches. Everybody is gaming the system in their favor.

It is a cat and mouse game where Google does its best to provide a good experience, but in the end, they are judge and jury. Because...

Google is also the top advertiser in the world. Business use SEM to promote their services, and the incentive for Google is to promote SEM results, as they are the ones bringing money to the table.

In the end, everybody is getting worse results. We see aggregator sites which add no value, webs optimized for Google instead of the visitors, and plain scams.

Are there alternatives?

That is a good question. What can we, as users do to improve this situation?

I have been researching alternative searchers and, unfortunately, I don't think they're as good as Google.

First of all, there are only two real alternatives: Bing and Yahoo!. Most of the so-called "alternative search engines" are providing results directly from one of the three above. They are just a layer of paint on top of the Big Three.

There are niche, 100% independent search services which try to replicate the Google of the 90s, but they are very limited. Try them!

In another universe we can find regional search engines who actually are more popular than Google in specific geographies. Yandex (43% in Russia), Baidu (76% in China) and Naver (85% in South Korea).

They are not really useful for an American or a European, but it's good to know that they're there.

You may ask yourself, why are there not more alternatives? The truth is that building a search engine is a humongous task, especially in a mature market.

Re-learn how to use Google

My personal recommendation is that you re-learn how to best use Google.

Remember to use the advanced search options.

Log in when searching, because Google uses AI to improve your searches based on past history. The more you search, the better your results will be.

In summary, nobody can trump Google, at least in Western countries.

If you are not satisfied with the quality of search results try some alternatives, but don't expect anything revolutionary.

Get acquainted with the "new Google" and use it for your benefit.

Adapted from my Twitter thread. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe for more!

Tags: internet

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