Google search results are becoming less useful. Have you noticed?

I started thinking about this last fall, when I noticed that most of the Google alerts coming into my mailbox led to spam sites – sites with no real content other than random snippets vacuumed up from around the web and surrounded by advertising.

Then I started to notice search results that included a lot of fluff – sites listed high in the search results with lots of advertising but no real content. At first it was just a small irritation, but I started to recognize the seeds of a real problem.

It’s a real problem.

Placing high in Google search results is worth money. It’s worth money to the sites running advertisements hoping to get a few cents from commissions or clicks. Paradoxically, it’s worth money to Google to take you to pages filled with Google AdWords links instead of a useful page. The only way that works out badly for Google is if you start using a different search engine out of frustration. That seems unlikely but the first rumblings are afoot.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the mantra of many people running legitimate web sites – designing a web site so it is more likely to turn up high in search results for certain terms. There are roughly three ways to accomplish that:

  • Create an interesting web site that has frequently changing content that people find valuable and link to from their own web sites and blogs. Build up an audience and become an authority that is frequently referred to online. This is hard.
  • Create a site that appears to have lots of valuable content about a topic by repeating the likely search terms over and over and over. There are a steadily increasing number of sites that have information like this on the front page. When you see this, recognize it as the crudest form of SEO:

“Francis Enderby is a Santa Rosa attorney skilled in handling drunk driving cases, because drunk drivers frequently need help from an attorney in Santa Rosa to handle their drunk driving DUI alcohol arrest lawsuit case in Santa Rosa. A Santa Rosa drunk driving attorney is the perfect person to handle drunk driving arrests in Santa Rosa. Francis Enderby has been representing people arrested for drunk driving in Santa Rosa longer than any other attorney lawyer barrister in Santa Rosa Sonoma County.[And so on, ad nauseam.]”

  • And the third method of rising high in Google search results, the one that is overwhelming Google now: game the system. Rent space on high-powered servers and give them algorithms that assemble tens of thousands of pages every day with no original content. Scour the web for scraps and paragraphs and phrases that have certain commonly used search phrases in them and mash them together. Surround it all with advertisements. Smother it with advertisements. And then the piece de resistance: link all the pages together in a constantly shifting maze of web links that is indistinguishable to Google spiders from real web pages linked from other real web pages.

Types Of Google Searches

The former lead developer of Tumblr wrote an article a few days ago breaking down the problem nicely. He identifies four types of Google queries:

  • Address bar: Where is this specific page that I know exists but I don’t know its URL? Examples:
    • usps hold mail form
    • google closure compiler
  • Reference: What is the answer to this specific, unambiguous question? Examples:
    • 2010 ira contribution limit
    • hotmail iPhone setup
  • Guide: Where is some good information on a specific topic? Examples:
    • electrical outlet wiring
    • glass kettle safe on gas stove
  • Product research: What are some opinions, recommendations, reviews, or even general information for a certain kind of product or need, even a specific one?
    • large sensor compact camera
    • garage door opener review
    • westchester duct cleaning

Google Spam

Product research on Google is almost completely useless. That’s been true for a long time. At the moment it’s still possible to get more or less useful information about products from the dedicated pages at Google Product Search and Bing Shopping, but not from the main Google search page.

Lately the “guide” pages have been overwhelmed with spam sites that turn up high in search results for way too many typical questions. From the same article:

Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask.

“Hey, anyone know how to wire an outlet?”

“Did you say ‘how to wire an outlet’?”
“I can help you with how to wire an outlet!”
“Here is info on how to wire an outlet!”
“Bargain prices on how to wire an outlet!”
“Guide to wiring outlets in New York, right here!”

And none of them actually know a damn thing about what you’re asking, of course — they’re just offering meaningless, valueless words that seem to form sentences until you actually try to make use of them.

They call this “content”. But it’s not, really — it’s filler. And by a more common-sense definition, it’s spam.

The same process is starting now for the “reference” type of Google search. I’ve started to see spam when I research technical questions.

And perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing I have – when I search for a specific company name or product, the official site is not necessarily the first result, leading to the ominous possibility that the spammers might even start to game that kind of query.

Google is certainly aware of the problem but no one can predict when – or whether – it will change its algorithms and try to defeat the web spammers. More and more people are commenting about it, suggesting it might rise to the level of an Internet meme that Google is forced to acknowledge. Some of the recent articles:

Bruce Sterling weighed in a few days ago in this Well thread:

There was a halcyon period there where people seemed lost in the info overload and the search machines were full of limpid lucidity. But we may be approaching a period where the machines will feed you an infinite amount of cunningly-engineered gibberish and you have to climb to the mountaintop and talk to some human greybeard in order to have any idea what’s going on.

When you get to a site that is not very useful and seems to have a lot of advertising, just leave. Don’t help them make money by clicking on links. Eventually you’ll run into a link that leads to a poisoned web site, and then you’ll have to call me and we’ll have one of those depressing conversations that leads to a nice drive out to Sebastopol to drop off your computer.

Be careful out there! May all your searches be productive and safe.

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