Technology

Google critics say ads, spam sites are killing search

Is Google search getting worse? From viral TikTok videos to posts on techie forums, frustrated users seem to think so.

They say that Google’s search results are increasingly stuffed with paid ads — and argue that spam sites are getting better at pushing themselves up in search results by gaming the company’s algorithms.

The end result is that Google’s search is gradually deteriorating, critics say, becoming less helpful and more annoying even as it remains the primary tool more than 4 billion people use to search the internet.

“If you’ve tried to search for a recipe or product review recently, I don’t need to tell you that Google search results have gone to s—t,” Dmitri Kyle Brereton, a software engineer and writer, wrote in a blog posts that rocketed to the top of influential Silicon Valley forum Hacker News in February. “Google is dead.”

ads and spam

For example, imagine someone who works from home is looking for a new laptop.

If they go to Google and search “best laptop for working from home,” ads for Microsoft, LG and Capital One take up the entire screen. Scroll down past yet another ad for Dell, and they’ll reach the first non-sponsored link to a bizarre website called corporateshields.com.

Google search results
Google search results for some queries are overrun with ads.

The article, which is written by a faceless author named Patricia and is itself overrun with advertisements, appears to have gamed Google’s algorithm by repeating keywords over and over again, including the phrase “laptop” 155 times, “remote work” 14 times and “ working from home” 10 times.

This process — called search engine optimization, or SEO — can result in awkward, robotic sentences that repeat key phrases.

“Working remotely from home is more common than ever before, requiring a high-quality laptop computer,” the article reads. “Their prices range from hundreds to thousands. So, how do you find the best laptops for remote work?”

The second, third and fourth Google search results are also no-name sites that use keywords over and over again. While the products on the sites are real, there’s little evidence that the articles are being created by real writers with any other goal than to hoard traffic by gaming Google’s system.

“The first few non-ad results are SEO optimized sites filled with affiliate links and ads,” Brereton, the Google critic, wrote. “To be fair, this would probably be an issue with any search engine, but you’d expect Google to be able to come up with a less gameable algorithm.”

In addition, critics argued that Google is upping the amount of ads that appear in search results.

“They’ve dialed [ads] up to the max recently to squeeze out every last cent before their inevitable collapse,” he said.

In a statement to The Post, a Google spokesperson argued that “the quality of Google Search has drastically improved over time.”

“Every year, we make thousands of improvements to Google, and our testing gives us clear evidence that these changes truly make Search better for people,” the spokesperson added. “Over the last seven years, we decreased irrelevant results by over 50%.”

Google also said that it’s made improvements to how it ranks search results, including product reviews, and said that ads have not appeared on 80% of search result pages on average over the past four years.

Even Brereton admits that Google searches for factual questions — like, for example, “what was the population of London in 1700” — are “absolutely amazing.”

“They’ve built the best question-answer system ever,” Brereton told The Post. “But for everything else, like regular web results, that’s where the issue is.”

Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, foresaw problems with advertising when they first created the search engine in 1998.

“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers,” Page and Brin wrote in a 1998 paper while PhD students at Stanford University, warning of the model’s “mixed incentives.”

Yet Page and Brin nonetheless started selling ads alongside their search results in the year 2000 and Google’s ad business has ballooned ever since. Ads across Google’s network — which includes YouTube and ad placements on third-party sites — brought in a whopping $54 billion in revenue during the first quarter of 2022 alone.

Google
Critics say that search engine optimization techniques and ads have made Google search worse.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reddit

Some frustrated Google users have found a way around spotty results: adding “Reddit” to the end of their searches.

The popular forum’s name often crops up in the Google search suggestion box — and a tik tok videos about the trend racked up more than 100,000 likes in April.

“That’s the only way to avoid trying to find the answer in a blog post full of ads,” the top comment on the video reads.

“I thought I was weird for doing this,” another top commenter said. “I didn’t know so many others did it.”

Reddit
Some users say adding “Reddit” to the end of their Google searches helps them get better results.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

“It literally gives better answers than google,” a third said.

Brereton argues that adding “Reddit” to searches helps filter out “fake” parts of the internet, such as spam sites. Google searches that include the word also often have fewer ads.

“The SEO marketers gaming their way to the top of every Google search result might as well be robots,” he wrote. “Everything is commercialized. Someone’s always trying to sell you something. Whether they’re a bot or human, they are decidedly fake.”

And while Reddit posts might lie, people can at least reasonably assume they come from real people.

“How can we regain authenticity?” Brereton wrote. “You append ‘reddit’ to your query.”

Reached for comment, Reddit spokesperson Courtney Geesey-Dorr declined to comment on Google but said that Reddit has upgraded search options on its own site.

Asked about potential Google alternatives, Brereton told The Post that Bing and DuckDuckGo suffer from many of the same problems as Google, such as algorithm-gaming spam and ads. He said the most exciting new alternatives are sites called Neeva, Brave and You.com.

But Google’s vice-like grip on the search market makes it difficult for a competitor to emerge, I added.

“The alternative can’t just be two times better, it needs to be so much better that it’s worth the inconvenience of switching,” Brereton told The Post.

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