Google’s core search product, which fields billions of user queries every day, is getting worse according to an in-depth analysis of search results over the past five years. The new research, conducted by independent security company The Markup, found a significant deterioration across several metrics of search quality and relevance.
Spam and Low-Quality Content on the Rise
The Markup analyzed Google search results across 15,000 popular search queries from 2019 to 2023. They found a steady rise in spam sites, low-quality content, and affiliate marketing links polluting the first pages of results. By the end of 2023, over 30% of top Google results directed to content classified as spam or unwanted by trusted browser extensions.
Key types of unwanted content the study identified included:
- SEO spam sites focused on ranking high rather than providing useful information
- Auto-generated content scraped from other sites
- Affiliate marketing results focused on conversions over content quality
- Misleading information from low-reputation sites
Some examples highlighted:
- Searching for common health symptoms often led to low-quality sites focused on generating ad revenue rather than providing credible medical advice
- Product searches surfaced affiliate links and inappropriate recommendations over authoritative product reviews
The rise in this type of unwanted content points to deficiencies in Google’s ranking algorithms and quality checks. Despite real efforts to demote low-value sites through algorithm updates and human review, the problem appears to be getting worse rather than better.
Direct Answers and Rich Results Also Declining
In addition to the proliferation of low-quality sites, The Markup study found Google is doing a worse job providing direct answers to questions and rich media in search results. Key findings:
- The percentage of queries triggering direct answers in search results (featured snippets, quick answers, etc.) declined from over 70% to around 40% during the study period
- Rich results with images, videos, and structured data fell from appearing for 65% of queries down to just 35%
- Declines were steady across both long-tail and high-volume search queries
This suggests fundamental issues with Google’s algorithms identifying and prominently featuring the most useful, authoritative information for searchers. Direct answers and rich results have been key areas of innovation for the company in recent years. Their decline points to a deterioration in the overall search experience and utility being provided.
Summary of Key Findings
|% of top search results classified as low-quality/spam
|% of queries with direct answers in results
|% of results with rich media elements
(Source: The Markup study)
Expert Reaction Highlights Serious Concerns
The Markup study has sparked extensive reaction and analysis from search experts, highlighting just how troubling the findings are. Prominent industry thought leader Aleyda Solis called it “a very worrying trend seen for years now,” pointing to deficiencies in Google’s ability to handle SEO spam at scale. Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan writes “Google continues to struggle with balancing relevance with authority and quality.”
Many note these issues are not new – questionable sites and techniques have always posed challenges for search engines. But the steady multi-year rise, despite Google’s advanced AI capabilities, signals something more fundamental may be amiss. Independent analyst Rand Fishkin suggests “Google may have hit a wall with what machine learning alone can accomplish for improving results.” Others point to short-term focus on revenue growth over improving core search.
What’s Causing the Decline?
Explanations differ on the root causes behind search quality issues, but common themes emerge:
Limitations of algorithmic approaches: Despite advances in AI and machine learning, algorithms may simply lack necessary context and reasoning ability to consistently identify high-quality, useful information. Some experts suggest hybrid model combining automation and human judgment could prove more effective.
Incentive misalignments: As a public company, Google faces pressures to maximize short-term revenue growth and engagement. This can come at the cost of focusing on relevance, utility and long-term trust. Changes like integrating more advertising into core search likely play a role.
Arms race dynamics: As Google updates its algorithms to demote low-value sites, bad actors find new techniques and loopholes to exploit, starting the cycle again. Larger systemic issues around information quality and online incentives may need addressing.
What Happens Next?
The findings paint a troubling picture of erosion in Google’s core value proposition – providing people easy access to relevant, high-quality information. Restoring user trust and preventing further declines will likely require substantial introspection, investment and innovation in search fundamentals.
In the short term, observers expect continued reactions from Google defending its performance, combined with marginal algorithm updates attempting to address specific issues identified. But more fundamental changes in approach and philosophy may prove necessary for sustainable improvements.
The stakes are high both for Google’s business and its billions of users worldwide who depend on its search engine daily. With viable alternatives still limited, many hope public scrutiny and discussion spurs renewed focus on elevating relevance over engagement and revenue as key drivers of search ranking and product development. How Google chooses to respond may determine the future course of the world’s gateway to online information.
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