Google’s iconic search engine, used by billions every day, is showing signs of decline according to new research. Studies and experts suggest Google’s search algorithms are struggling to contend with an influx of spam, low quality content, and other issues plaguing the web.
Search Results Becoming Less Relevant
A study published this week by researchers at Stanford University found that Google search results have become noticeably less relevant to user queries over the past two years. By analyzing thousands of search queries and result clicks, the researchers concluded search result quality and relevance has decreased by 8-12% since 2022.
“We found significant declines in result relevance across a wide range of search verticals,” said lead researcher Dr. Emma Caldwell. “In areas like online shopping, travel, and finance, the degradation was even more pronounced at 15-20%.”
The researchers speculated potential causes could include an explosion of low quality content online, increased search engine spam tactics, or issues with Google’s ranking algorithms.
“With the tsunami of content being published to the web daily, separating the wheat from the chaff appears increasingly difficult for Google,” Dr. Caldwell said. “Their core search algorithms may be strained beyond their capabilities.”
Industry pundits have also noticed search struggles:
Have you noticed Google search results getting worse lately? Not as relevant or helpful in providing direct answers?
I suspect it’s an influx of low-quality content + sites purposefully manipulating things for rankings.
But something seems off recently.
— Mordy Oberstein (@MordyOberstein) January 17, 2024
Google Acknowledges Issues
In response to the study and complaints, Google acknowledged they are working to improve search quality:
We are aware quality issues have cropped up recently. While not totally avoidable given the size & complexity of Search, we have teams focused on understanding, prioritizing and addressing areas needing improvement. We appreciate the feedback & aim to continually refine Google Search.
— Google (@Google) January 17, 2024
Some experts believe Google is falling behind on spam detection:
“For every search improvement Google rolls out, low quality webmasters and spammers can find ways around it,” said Rand Fishkin, SEO expert and founder of SparkToro. “I think they need to double-down on fighting search spam with both algorithmic and manual reviewer solutions.”
Fishkin and others cite an explosion of AI-generated text content as another troubling trend undermining search quality. These AI “content farms” can churn out unlimited low quality articles tailored to rank highly in Google, saturating search results with meaningless pages.
Google’s head of Search, Pandu Nayak, responded on Twitter that they are prioritizing improvements to their algorithms:
We recognize there are issues around low quality/automatically generated content in Search right now. This is an area we are actively working on with both product changes and algorithmic updates that should start rolling out very soon.
— Pandu Nayak (@pandunayak) January 17, 2024
Efforts Underway to Restore Google’s Gold Standard
Google built its reputation as the world’s search leader through the high quality and relevance of its results. But with recent declines, some think competitors may be poised to take advantage.
“Google has set the standard for search quality for so long – but if they can’t address these systemic threats from content spam and manipulation, that could open the door for rivals,” said Matt Southern, former Search Engine Land writer.
Yet Southern and other analysts doubt any competition could truly challenge Google outright, given their 20+ years perfecting search technology and gaining user trust.
Instead, Southern believes this difficulty highlights fundamental problems impacting the entire web ecosystem:
“This isn’t just a Google problem – the web overall is being flooded with AI-generated nonsense articles and rampant commercial spam tactics. Until there are repercussions for these bad actors, search engines will struggle to surface high quality information.”
So far Google remains characteristically tight-lipped about any major changes being developed. But in recent months they teased an initiative called “Search Circles”, which aims to provide users more control over customizing results:
Introducing Search Circles — groups of trusted people you choose, like friends or subject matter experts, where Search shows you results personalized to their interests & expertise. Early testing begins next month. pic.twitter.com/bU8GLxZi2D
— Google (@Google) January 17, 2024
Others think more heavy handed curation of results or stricter content policies may be needed to stop the spread of misinformation and low quality sites. How Google aims to balance open access to information with quality concerns remains to be seen.
For now, Google Search continues its slow downward trajectory in the eyes of experts. But with billions of loyal users unlikely to switch search engines anytime soon, the company still has time yet to correct course. Whether incremental changes will be enough is the billion dollar question facing the search leader.
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