There has been a lot of hubbub growing recently about the declining quality of Google’s search results. Some are noticing a rise in popularity of scraper sites, an overabundance of low-quality hacked-together articles, or just the general decline in effectiveness of their web-spam team. Most of these complaints are coming from the technical world, which I’ll touch more on later, but it has begun a slow creep into some business sectors.
Google “spam” comes in a variety of flavours. There are
- Sites that scrape (read: steal) content from other sites and publish it on their own (with ads)
- Sites that contain nothing but a few pages of low quality mumbo-jumbo nonsense on a single topic (with ads)
- Sites that contain thousands upon thousands of low quality mumbo-jumbo nonsense on many topics (i.e. Demand Studios) (with ads)
- Sites that employ “black-hat SEO” techniques to rank better
- Sites that buy links or get links from mostly spammy techniques and sources
The complaints that have popped up recently are primarily geared toward the first three. This is most likely due to the fact that they are easy to spot, while the sites that use unordained techniques and spam rank well take a little more digging to identify. In doing SEO research I have certainly noticed a number of sites that are ranking but should not be.
tl;dr Most of these spammy results make money for Google, so why not include a certain percentage of them knowingly? The average person doesn’t realize that Made for AdSense websites are complete garbage. Even if they did, Google dominates the market in the same way Microsoft owns the desktop operating system. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, so they’re squeezing out every penny… because they can.
It Uh… Makes Them Money
Ironically, the reason those first 3 types of websites exist is to make money from Google’s AdSense program. They make money for themselves, but also for Google. This makes one think that Google wants to strike some sort of balance between legitimate quality search results and low quality sites that some would consider “spam.” That certainly explains the reason this sort of website exists in the results in the first place. (Come on man, don’t try to convince me that Google can’t algorithmically identify the dozens of websites scraping Stack Exchange sites and simply remove them.) The sites that mass produce content in an assembly line fashion that would make Mr. Ford proud probably even have an agreement of sorts with Google.
We have seen Google act aggressively over the past year with their display of Pay-Per-Click advertisements in the search results. In some instances, organic search results don’t even make an appearance above the fold. Google Instant made it appear as if paid results would gain more value, although I have yet to see any solid data to prove it (without a doubt it makes money for Google somehow). Vertical searches like Google Maps and even some peripheral applications such as GMail have seen a growth of screen real estate devoted to advertisements. When you write an email you are surrounded on 3 sides by ads. Why not go all out and include some popups?
If Google does indeed have some sort of ratio for including Made for AdSense websites in their results, it is quite possible they just kicked the setting up a notch. I’m not often a conspiracy theorist, but this idea doesn’t sound too far fetched. Certainly it’s no more outrageous than aliens abducting us in our sleep to perform experiments. They’re being increasingly aggressive with their advertisements, why wouldn’t they try being more aggressive in other areas?
Not convinced? The other reasons that Google doesn’t care about the declining search quality tend to support this idea.
Google Dominates the Market (And Probably Always Will)
Remember how Microsoft underwent all that scrutiny a decade ago for being a monopoly and all that jazz? A lot of good that did. Google drives the Internet. Find a hundred Internet users and you might have 1 among them that doesn’t use Google at least once a week. You can talk about search shares all you want, they hold the keys to the Internet.
They only have 1 serious competitor. Yahoo! folded last year by loaning their searches to Bing, but anyone who is in the search industry will tell you they were dead as a search engine long before then. It took Microsoft billions of dollars to revamp their search engine, make it a worthy competitor, and gain a decent foothold in the market. Now it’s just the two of them, Bing and Google, with Google dominating the market.
Remind you of any other tech war? Oh, right, the operating system. While most Macintosh users are passionate about their choice, the general public still thrives on Windows. Let’s be honest here, the Mac OS is and nearly always has been a superior system to Windows. (Disclaimer: I haven’t ponied up to try Windows 7, I only used Mac for a 6 month span last year, and I’m an avid Linux fan. However, I think these views are objectively accurate.) I can’t begin to explain why Windows dominates in this manner. In the same way, I can’t explain Google’s dominance. Other search engines have come and gone that compared in quality to Google.
Hear that? Regardless of which product is superior, the one that has won the hearts and minds of the average user is the one that will continue to thrive and dominate. Google certainly has done that. It’s a household name. A verb. People go there out of reflex at this point. They don’t think about it. There is no deliberation. When they need to search for something they google it. It takes a conscious effort to change those habits.
Bing will succeed. They’ll grow and be a worthy second choice. In my opinion, they are no threat to Google and never will be. Regardless of the quality of Google’s search results.
What The Average Person Doesn’t Realize
“As goes the Alamo, so goes Texas!” So a handful of technical users are getting pissed off about Google. Eventually, as the technical users begin transitioning to alternative search engines, that mentality will spread into the average user, right? Wrong! If that were the case:
- Microsoft would have died 15 years ago or at least become a smaller player than Mac and Linux are now.
- We wouldn’t still have to be making backwards compatible websites for IE6. *sigh*
- In fact, Internet Explorer would have such a small market share by now, we wouldn’t care.
- People would be bragging about the new Ubuntu upgrade, and how awesome open source is.
- Flash would be a laughing stock.
- Web standards would be 15 years ahead of where they are now, not having to worry about backward compatibility. (Everyone upgrades on schedule, right?)
- VIM would be the most popular text editor.
See a trend? The average user doesn’t care about what the technical user says or does. Try convincing your grandmother that they should upgrade from IE6, or switch to Chrome.
Take this test to your mother, or grandmother, or someone who is not particularly tech savvy. Someone who would be considered an “average search user”, not a power user. Ask them to search things which you know will bring up results from Made for AdSense websites. Particularly sites like eHow. Allow them to click on the results like they normally would.
Chances are they click on one or more of those websites. Chances are those websites are good enough for them. They give them what they need – even if it is a click through on AdSense.
You see, these websites are effective. They make money, in some cases a lot of money. People don’t identify them in search results as spammy websites. As low quality, mass produced garbage. The average user doesn’t recognize them for what they are. So the site is scraped from a top quality website that deserves the click? They don’t know or care.
The average user doesn’t realize how much Windows sucks. How much better the experience could be. Windows is their computer (they probably can’t separate the operating system from the computer, in my experience). Google is their search. To use something else would be… foreign. Outrageous. What does it matter to them that a website is scraped content? Or mass produced?
Windows philosophy seemed to be to keep feeding them sub-par, buggy operating systems. Google’s philosophy seems to be turning to the same mantra. Feed them low quality, mass produced garbage that they won’t recognize as such.
(Think about how many other markets this has applied to over the years. Some of the most popular cars produced have been the worst and most likely to break. The best selling bicycles are largely junk. Large home appliances are flimsy, cheap, and won’t last you more than a few years while your grandma’s pea green, lead lined fridge from the 50s is still chugging away. Surely Wal-Mart is a large purveyor of this way of doing business. There must be some economical term for it that I don’t know.)
Where is Google in All of This?
I am what many would call a Google Fanboy. I don’t want them to turn into spewers of garbage. Where have they been lately with their PR department or their search quality team?
The only (possibly) response I have seen is the release of their reading level filter in December. This could have nothing to do with the rising level of spam in the results, or the rising murmurs of unsatisfied searchers. I think it might. Sure, it’s on the advanced search page that very few people seem to use and the average person doesn’t even realize exists. Sure, it’s not perfect and sometimes Urban Dictionary shows up as an “Intermediate” reading level.
It does, however, find much more high quality results when using it on the Advanced setting. That seems to weed out the Made for AdSense sites and the mass produced garbage. More than that it tells us that Google does have the ability to comprehend the quality of their search results. Not every search warrants an advanced reading level result, but at least we know that Google has the capability to use content quality as a ranking factor.
I’m Just Saying
I don’t know if Google has a sort of thermostat switch they use to turn up and down the Made for Adsense websites. It’s a possibility. Just as likely is the fact that the Internet is growing at exponential rates, spam is growing along with it, and it has become much, much harder to keep the web’s highways and biways clean of it all.
Nor do I seriously think that Google will ignore this fact. I’m a fanboy, after all. Somewhere deep inside the steel and concrete, climate controlled, maximum security datacenters rests a not-so-fleshy heart. Google has always been great with the PR, and they aren’t letting this one slide on by. We will see some serious action from them within a year and those doubters will be cozying up by the fire with their loved ones bragging about how they helped make Google a better place for everyone, and that Linux is a better operating system.
Meanwhile, their grandmas and grandpas chug away on Windows 98 with IE6 and drink beer from their pea green refrigerators.