Google search is broken is an article on Google search and its quality issues written by David Amerland.

In the 21st century we know the world is data. In that sense search is not just a ubiquitous technology but also a fundamental navigational aid. In theory that should be good news for every search engine company (and mainly Google). 

In a world where data is representational of the external world search becomes the tool through which we conceptualize, categorize and successfully navigate our way through this world of information. Except that search has been fragmenting for some time.

There are two basic reasons why this fragmentation has happened and they are key to understanding what has led to search being broken and why, ultimately, this doesn’t matter for marketers and online business owners, even as it makes life harder for search engine optimizers and search engine owners. 

The first is human behavior. When data is contained within silos: walled gardens like the Apple environment or Meta and its bouquet of online verticals or stand-alone apps, people will use whatever means are available to them to navigate that environment. This is behavior that sticks because it incrementally erodes the “I will Google it” response. Anything that incrementally erodes the need to go to Google first, incrementally affects the number of search queries Google gets and that, in turn, affects the amount of money it earns from Google ads. 

This, then naturally leads to the second reason why search is fragmented: Quality. Google wasn’t the first search engine to come online but it managed to solve two fundamental aspects of search that gave it an immediate and undeniable advantage which, in time, translated in online search dominance: first, it cracked the cost-per-query issue managing to significantly lower the computing load required to address a query and secondly it delivered consistently high-quality results making for a better end-user experience. 

In the 21st century search is a utility much like electricity or water (even though we have not yet addressed it as such from a legislative point of view). We need it to be as fast and reliable as those two other utilities. There should not be time lags, delays or extra steps from the time we throw a switch or turn a faucet to getting what we want and what we get shouldn’t be questionable in its reliability and quality (Flint is the exception that proves the rule). 

Google Changed

 In 2019 Google sundowned Google+. Closing down a social network that gives you a clear signal which you can use to refine semantic search is a massive step back for a search engine company. By then however Google was no longer just a search engine company. Its founders moved away that same year and Alphabet became a global, multi-point business that happened to get the lion’s share of its income from online ads (predominantly from search). 

As Edward Zitron writes in detail (and you should spend some time going through all he says) a number of in-house political changes happened that cemented the inevitable transformation of Google from a in-your-face startup determined to not be evil to a Wall Street-presentable legacy business corporate investors could get behind. 

It worked. The share price of the company is hearing towards the $2 trillion mark. But, its core business has changed from one determined to trim time and drive quality to the end user to one that’s tasked with bringing in as much money as possible to the company. 

This is a fundamental shift in the mindset of the company from putting the end-user first (the very first edict in Google’s internal philosophy) to placing the interest of Alphabet first (which is its fiduciary duty as a corporate entity primarily accountable to investors and shareholders). 

On its own none of these events should be enough to upend a business philosophy that bore fruit. But collectively they represent a seismic shift. The literature abounds with examples of companies that lost their way the moment their founders took their hand off the tiller: HP, Microsoft, Intel, Disney and, to bring things a little closer to home, Twitter (I still refuse to call it ‘X’) 

The absence of Larry Page and Sergei Brin now adds Google to this list of names of tech giants that grew out of nowhere to global status because of the vision of their founders and faltered when that vision went away. 

Complexity Messes Things Up

Were these to be the only changes at Google it would have led to some deplorable but kinda understandable changes in the quality of its search. Logic dictates that, over time, common sense and the profit motive would move things towards the middle where search will continue to improve and end-users will continue to exert some collective influence through their behavior on the company. 

Other things prevailed however. As Google+ was shattered end-user behavior, in general, changed across social media networks. Much of this change was sometime coming. The closure of Google+ didn’t materially affect it but it catalyzed some of it accelerating the process as rivals sprung up and decentralized networks started getting the upper hand (which has led to the rise of the fediverse). 

The world is data. Faced with increased complexity in unstructured data that amplified poor-quality content, spam and bad actors Google’s reliance on AI created more problems than it solved (and you should dive into this conversation)

Legacy issues that had been left unaddressed and were accumulating were compounded by reliance on machine learning ‘black boxes’ whose working can't be successfully queried and which have, over time, added significant layers of complexity on an already difficult problem. This has helped turn what was manageable but difficult to fix into something that is impossible to correct without starting again from scratch. 

Twitter conversation on quality of Google search

Unfortunately, “starting from scratch” is not an option. At least not with the current management at Google and the current state of play with tech businesses everywhere. 


So, Now What?

Just because Google search (and maybe search everywhere else too) is broken doesn’t mean that search is dead. The need to find, categorize, store and retrieve information is a fundamental aspect of our behavior. We gossip and Doomscroll for that very same reason.  

Search provided a convenient leaderboard to measure findability and an easier means to navigate information and it will continue to do so in a fragmented piece-meal format. But the embrace of artificial intelligence in search has changed things significantly and it will continue to do so. There is no viable vacuum when it comes to search. Either incrementally or wholesale Google will be replaced by competitors if it cannot fix its issues. 

Because search engines (and algorithms) chase human behavior which, in turn, is affected by them we’re caught up in a constant cycle of change between the tools that emerge for us to use and the use we put them to which, over time, change how we behave. 

Call this evolution or progress or whatever other name you want to attach to it, the fact remains that its simply adaptive behavior and for us this is normal.

Regardless of the means we use to do so we all will still gravitate towards: 

  • Solutions that quickly solve the problems we face
  • Quality we can rely upon
  • Information we can trust

We will willingly advocate for anything and anyone who offers those things to us. 

Marketers

Marketers who get this will understand that their role has changed only marginally. Information still needs to be presented in ways that make it easy to consume and understand and close the gap between those looking to make a purchase decision and the provider who offers what they need. 

We now have more digital tools to use than ever before. The apparent ease of “one-to-many” messaging may no longer be effective. Regardless of this, marketing still should be about presenting value at the right moment to connect people with business so that the former can solve the problem they have with the solutions offered by the latter. 

Businesses 

Businesses still need to present what they do in as clear, accessible and user-friendly fashion as possible. The more barriers that exist between a business and its customers the less opportunity exists to establish trust and loyalty. The former is needed to do business in the first instance while the latter is required to ensure long-term viability for the business. The less is known about a business outside its own website the less trustworthy it appears. 

Individuals

Individuals are now squeezed between the two verticals of businesses and marketers. While businesses and marketers are the power users of the web (slanting what we perceive) individuals constitute its bulk of information consumers. 

Many still will continue to use social media platforms for identity curation, information gathering and entertainment while wrestling with fake news, false narratives, and disinformation.

Each of these issues will, over time, result in more complex, nuanced and guarded online behavior making it harder for marketing messages to penetrate (unless they’re authentic), branding to take root (unless it resonates with individual values) and intent to surface and be understood (unless there is consistent engagement). 

When all these challenges have been parsed and rendered what remains is what has always remained: individuals seeking information and entertainment and a solution to their pressing problems and businesses offering various menus to satisfy each of these demands. 

Bridging the two is the role of advertising and marketing. A broken search is just a bleep in a massive horizon where endless iterations of technological peaks and troughs have changed the details and the execution of tasks but not the fundamentals. 

As the Battlestar Galactica reboot refrain goes: all of this has happened before and it will happen again. And just to make this exact point consider this iconic phrase was in the Disney version of Peter Pan and also Ecclesiastes 1:9 because, truly, nothing is truly original