Originally posted on gizmodo.
Google swears everything is fine. A new study—and many people’s lived experience—says different.
For the past few years, a growing number of users, analysts, and experts raised alarms about a truth that feels obvious to a lot of people who surf around in web browsers: the quality of Google results is in serious decline. Google disagrees.
When you ask the company, the search giant’s PR teams promise its flagship product is best in class. In fact, we’re told Google Search is better than ever. Strange, then, that yet another study just confirmed what feels obvious to so many denizens of the internet.
When it comes to product searches, at the very least, it seems Google is losing the war on junk sites that sneak around to get their low-quality content up at the top of the page. That’s according to a new study by a team of researchers from Leipzig University, Bauhaus-University Weimar, and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, first reported by 404 Media Tuesday.
It all comes down to something called affiliate marketing. Even if you don’t know the term, you’ve seen its effects.
One path to monetization for a lot of websites is product reviews and roundups. These articles include special links to buy products from retailers like Amazon, BestBuy, and Walmart. If you buy something after clicking one of these “Affiliate Links,” the website that referred you gets a commission.
Just about every journalistic outlet does this, Gizmodo included. Major publishers tend to have strict policies that firewall reviews and editorial decisions from these business concerns. A lot of less scrupulous sites that are just trying to game the system for quick profit don’t care, and they’re filling the web with junk.
What this means for Google is that everyone can review the same product, so whoever gets more eyes on the page gets more money. That creates a constant war on who will show up first on Google for popular search terms like “best umbrella.”
There are lots of tricks to show up higher on Google, some more vile than others. As a whole, these strategies are called SEO, short for “Search Engine Optimization.” SEO is a necessary evil in a world where Google runs the internet, and it can be used to help people promote great content. Google even encourages it. The company wants to show users the best, highest quality results, and Google offers tips for websites that want to do better. But lots of skeezy websites just want the money, and there are all kinds of hacks and underhanded techniques to beat the system. Lately, it sure seems like they have the upper hand.
The study looked at 7,392 product-review search terms over the course of a year on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo. The results were clear: the highest-ranked pages are more optimized, they feature more affiliate links, and in general, their text is lower quality. In other words, the jerks pumping out garbage content to make a couple of extra dollars are winning.
“SEO is a constant battle and we see repeated patterns of review spam entering and leaving the results as search engines and SEO engineers take turns adjusting their parameters,” the researchers wrote.
Google and its competitors don’t want this to happen, and they’re constantly making adjustments and tweaking their algorithms to push back. According to the study, those efforts aren’t working, but “search engines seem to lose the cat-and-mouse game that is SEO spam.” These changes often lead to a “temporary positive effect,” but the spammers just find new loopholes.
The study did find, however, that Google performed significantly better compared to Bing and DuckDuckGo. Also, despite the severity of the problem, Google’s results did improve over the course of the study. A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo that the research doesn’t capture the full picture of Google’s overall performance.
“This particular study looked narrowly at product review content, and it doesn’t reflect the overall quality and helpfulness of Search for the billions of queries we see every day,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve launched specific improvements to address these issues – and the study itself points out that Google has improved over the past year and is performing better than other search engines. More broadly, numerous third parties have measured search engine results for other types of queries and found Google to be of significantly higher quality than the rest.”
Bing and DuckDuckGo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Still, none that changes the growing body of evidence and intensifying narrative that suggests Google—and the search engine business in general—has a serious problem. Google may have improved during the course of the study, but experts tend to agree that overall, Google has gotten a lot worse in recent years .
“It feels like someone is asleep at the wheel,” said Lily Ray, Senior Director of SEO and Head of Organic Research at Amsive Digital.
Ray says she and the entire SEO community can see that Google is working on this issue, but there’s widespread agreement that to one extent or another, things are falling apart.
“We’ve never seen Google in this state of disarray,” she said.
The company is aware it has problems in these areas, and it’s hard at work to fix them. Google is constantly reviewing websites and revising its systems to try and improve results. These efforts are impactful, but so far, some evidence suggests they may not be enough.
“Google has been getting better in certain ways, but in others, it’s getting worse,” Ray said.
Google handles billions of searches every day, which makes it close to impossible to get a full picture of what’s happening to the search engine from the outside. But this isn’t the first time researchers have demonstrated Google is on the decline. That’s to say nothing of an endless list of anecdotes. Just last week, Gizmodo covered a bizarre situation that saw Google turning up what looked like a child’s homework assignment for a search about former president John F. Kennedy’s stance on the death penalty.
Then there’s the fact that Google has ramped up the number of ads showing up at the top of search results over the years, and increasingly favors search results that show information from Google’s own services, even in cases where you might assume better information is available elsewhere. Google maintains that its ad experience is useful, relevant, and non-intrusive for users. The company says ads only showed up at the top of 20% of searches over the past four years.
But the SEO problem is an entirely different animal. It’s gotten so hard to find authentic, useful results that people have started adding the word “Reddit” to search terms to turn up content written by someone who actually cares, instead of someone just trying to make money. Google’s become so reliant on user-generated content, something that spammers are increasingly finding ways to manipulate, that Google Search results got worse during a recent blackout at Reddit. Meanwhile, SEO has become such a critical part of doing business on the internet that websites are cannibalizing their own content through bizarre schemes to please Google’s robots. In 2023, a Gizmodo investigation found the tech news outlet CNET deleted thousands of articles because its team felt that would aid in the site’s performance on Google Search.
This is all pretty significant when you consider that the entire internet economy, and therefore a massive portion of our whole society, is built around Google.
“I don’t understand how anybody in the SEO industry is doing anything other than complaining about Google right now,” Ray said.