Ep 70: Google Search Quality Declines?, Google Local Test w/o 'Self-Preferencing,' Shifting Search Behaviors

Ep 70: Google Search Quality Declines?,  Google Local Test w/o 'Self-Preferencing,'  Shifting Search Behaviors
Photo by the blowup / Unsplash

Part 1 Video start 0:13 - Is Google Full of 'SEO Chum' and Less Useful?

Part 2 Video start 4:18 - A Look at Google Local Results without 'Self-Preferencing'

Part 3 Video start 24:59 - Are people now searching less on Google?

Reference Articles:

The Open Secret of Google Search

Google Is Full of 'SEO Chum' (Greg’s take on Charlie Warzel’s article)

A Look at Google Local Results without 'Self-Preferencing'

People are now searching on TikTok instead of Google

Transcript Ep 70:

Greg: Welcome to Episode 70, episode seven - zero amazingly, of the Near Memo with David, Mike and me, where we talk about search social and commerce through a local lens. And today's a kind of special all search edition. We talk about search a lot, but this is going to focus primarily on Google and a cluster of kind of related issues.

And first up is David to talk about a pretty interesting piece that appeared this week in the Atlantic by Charlie Warzel who was a former New York times writer and he bailed, I think for Substack. And now he's a partial New York times columnist or no, excuse me. He writes periodically for the Atlantic.

And so why don't you lead us off at that, David?

David: Yeah, a very interesting article, very sort of classic Atlantic, well researched and pretty long. Held my interest. Certainly most of the way through it, he spoke with names that will be very familiar to most of our podcast listeners, I'm sure: Marie Haynes and Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin as his three primary sources.

The gist of the article was that he. I don't know, proposes, at least that Google's search results are getting noticeably worse and that this is a trend that's been going on for quite a long time. And that one of the reasons they're getting worse is that they're chock full of what he calls SEO chum.

And that they're very boring. That the results that get returned are also sort of very authoritative. Heavy brand focus, very dry results. He sort of laments the lack of this sort of natural human curiosity, I would say in discovering new things, that was a part of the early internet.

So that was, I don’t know if you agree with that characterization of the piece, but that's sort of the arc of the piece as I read it. I would argue that there's a couple of things there that stood out to me. First of all, he's he specifically talks about a couple of guys (sort of hardcore internet users) that he was speaking with that have figured out this hack to get better results on Google, which is to append the word Reddit to the end of each of their searches, which was pretty funny.

I, I thought just as an aside, but sure enough, the Google trends data, I went and looked to see if he was actually telling the truth. The searches for Reddit are just on a very steady increase from the, the moment of Reddit's existence. So whether or not that's as a result of the hack or Reddit building a better brand remains to be discovered, but sort of an interesting comment, but that to me also spoke to the people that are sort of in Charlie Warzel’s orbit, which are very online internet users.

And I think that those are probably the people that are lamenting this decline in the  Google search result quality and loss of being able to discover new sources and, and these kinds of things.

I don't know that we feel that the general public, if Pew did a survey, would necessarily come up with the same reactions. Now, the pieces that he specifically highlights, especially after talking with Rand in terms of the degradation of results have largely to do with way more ads and way more Google properties at the top of commercial queries.

I didn't think that is a distinction a, a nuance, that he explored fully enough is, is the informational queries maybe still actually return some of these longer tail, more interesting result types that he would like to see. But the commercial queries are the ones that have been cannibalized by Google whether through ads or through their own properties.

And so I think that that's maybe that maybe is sort of what's causing the angst and, and was the Genesis of this article, was this commercial aspect or the results that get returned for commercial queries. But anyway, I'll pause there.

Mike: Can I add an, an anecdote here the other day? I think it was just two days ago.

My wife came to me and said, Google, and she is not a sophisticated searcher. She's a, she does a lot, spends a lot of time on online and searches a lot. Her default search engine is DuckDuckgo, but she goes back to Google regularly and she said, Google search results suck more and more lately. And the every time I do a search for something that I'm looking for, like non-violence, I am constantly confronted with commercial results and I think Google should be forced to ask me whether I want commercial or non-commercial results.

So two things here. One is my wife noticed this and commented on it. And two, it is as much the perception as reality in terms of what it affecting Google's opportunities in the future. And if enough people think that, and there are viable, fragmented, currently fragmented alternatives, but one of those may ultimately take off and change that reality.

Greg: So that's right. And

David: Danny Sullivan to his credit, who I've not agreed with. Many things, maybe even most things, since he moved over to the Google side of the house, he did admit that that is a serious existential threat, whether or not it's true, that results have degraded that the perception that they've degraded actually does represent a threat to Google.

So, yes.

Greg: Well, I, I, I think this is an interesting question that, that you raise both of you raised about, about how, how widespread is this perception? I mean, we talked about. Earlier for this, is this in fact, a common perception or is this just a perception of a small number of, you know, ultra sophisticated internet veterans who are lamenting the uniformity or corporatization of, of search results or whatever we, however we want, describe it.

and I think, I think there is something more than just a subset of a subset of insiders who feel this way. And Mike's anecdotal example is a kind of illustration of that. Now what we can attribute it to, which is ultimately kind of what I saw the article trying to answer is like, there's this perception that Google results are getting worse.

Why is that what's going on with that? And I think as the article illustrated, there's no single answer. I certainly share that percept. Ads have a lot to do with it. And then also there may be sort of less long tail content in some, in some situations, but it's very, very hard to diagnose exactly what's going on.

I think there is a kind of emerging perception of degradation and quality. How widespread is a question, mark? I don't think the ordinary user ordinary users will talk about privacy and other issues. I don't think they're gonna say search quality. Has degraded necessarily, but I think that there is a that's the direction things are going.

Certainly. And I do think there is, as I've said before, in other context, I do think there's an appetite for alternatives that, that exist. Although we have to say that duck dot goes search query volume has declined. It was, it was above Barry Schwartz wrote about this. It was above a certain threshold.

I don't remember what that daily threshold was. A hundred million, I think. Yeah, something like that. And it has gone down recently, not by a huge amount, but somewhat. So, excuse me. Sorry. I had to cough. So something is, you know, Having said that there's an, there's an appetite for alternatives and ducto is kind of the most viable one among a group.

That's an interesting kind of

Mike: juxta though. I read that Braves search engine volume is way up. I don't know the numbers are how they compare to duct go and they just release this.

David: That makes sense. Cause those audiences have gotta be a they're the same diagram.

Greg: Yeah. They're they're the same. So maybe if brave is, is gaining it's at duck CO's expense.

At any rate one, one

David: quick, one quick thing I wanted to say is just that the, you know, I found the article again. I thought it was a very good article, which is why we're talking about it was interesting worth my time to read. I found it to have this sort of incoherent conclusion in terms of, in terms of what Charlie wants Google to do about this, because on the one hand he laments the SEO chum.

10 best list goals, which he highlights a funny example from the hath of content marketing agency. So he laments the sort of poor quality of results that Googles returning, and he also doesn't want these sort of boring corporate. Brand results getting returned either. And as we know, Eric, Schmitt's famous dictum, that brands are how you sort out the cesspool of the internet.

Yes, I think there, those are the two. Those are the two levers that Google has to pull. You can either show more brands which are gonna be too boring for Charlie, or we can show more sort of, you know, perfectly optimized on page stuff that he also laments from the hath. And so I don't know that there's this, I don't know that there's a middle ground of resource.


Greg: think there is. I think there is. I think there is a middle ground. I don't know how much, how, what, what percentage of results it constitutes? You know, I think there, there are sort of people who are sort of experts and people who are writing for because they have knowledge or interest in topics that are out there.

It may be a thin slice of the overall content pie, but I think it does exist. It just may be, those pages are not well optimized. And so they're losing out to the listicles. I do think, I do think on that point, the SEO checkpoint, which is a little unfair. I do think that there are, there's just an explosion of content that's created for SEO purposes and you see advice routinely, like.

Every blog post should exceed a thousand words or 2000 words, and there's a kind of formulaic approach to everything. And I experienced that within Uber. There were people that were sort of advising you know, this is how you write a blog post. It looks like this, and it has these components and so on and so forth and some degree that's true, but I, I instinctively recoil at that kind of thing, but that's, that's widespread.

It's very, very widespread. Marie

David: Marie Haynes, rightly points out that some of Google's latest. Advances like bird and mum are designed to reward content about a topic that a user is interested in, even if that wasn't an exact match to their search query, but I'm skeptical that, that, that. People who write for writing's sake are actually, even if they are experts, they may not be writing in a way that the internet wants to consume.

Right. And so I think it's gonna be very hard for Google to reward those kinds of experts with high search results, because by every measurable. Data point, that's gonna be a bad experience. If somebody lands on a page, doesn't get what they're looking for. Clicks back to Google. Like that's, they're not writing in a, in many cases, not all cases, but in many cases, the, the true experts are not writing in a way that's geared for internet consumption.

Yeah. I think

Greg: that, I think that that's completely accurate and they may have bad websites that are slow to load and things like that. Go ahead, Mike. I

Mike: think that there's a conflation in this conversation between Google's ever increasing ad surface. And commercialization that's on the one side and the other is the actual content that's it's delivered around.

Right. Great. Yep. And I, and I think that those are two separate issues within Google driven by two separate sort of demands of the organization. And we have seen this. Incredible March of ads into every ambiguous search you can imagine. And it, some of it is the increased use of AdWords, but some of it's just, Google's willingness to cover virtually every surface with an ad.

And I think that makes it very difficult to separate these two questions, which I think are both relevant questions and, but deserve

Greg: separate answers. Well, Danny, I


David: that's Danny defendant that 80% of Google search. Don't show or haven't shown ads over the past X number of

Greg: years. Well, that's, that's a, that's an empirical question that somebody could test out with a, you know, substantial enough keyword set.

But we,

Mike: you could look at the thousand top keywords and see what ads show up for, for those various porn searches. Well,

Greg: that that's, I think that that would be a. Go ahead, David, that would be a way to test though. Mike

David: is to say, okay, here's a subset of keywords that we're gonna extract Google ads and Google, Google self preference properties from are these results better or worse?

And show that to a set of. A thousand users and figure that data point out

Greg: two, two final points. One is, as we saw from the thousand keyword analysis, most of those queries are brand queries, which is interesting back to the, the corporate nature of the search. The se, and then on your point about conflating ads and organic content with, you know, commercial results, much of the content that's showing up in organic on the organic portion of the se is commercial.

these are, these are people who are paying experts, agencies, and others, and themselves trying to pitch a product or service. So there's, there's a lot of commercialization on that page. And so the, the I don't know what to call it. The pure pure information is less and less. The, the information that is untainted by a commercial interest or some sort of self-interested promotion is a diminished part of the overall search result.

And that, that may be the kind of intuitive thing that, that, that article is, is, is reflecting. Whether it's ads per se or commercially oriented content. It seems like more and more of the search result is dominated by that kind of stuff. Are we good to, good to move on to Mike's topic, which is a very closely related discussion about the C and what may happen if the, if the American, oh, I'm gonna, I'm gonna blow it to innovation

David: and competition online act

Greg: or something.

Something. Yes. The, one of the, one of the two major antitrust bills, which we can just call ICO or I COA, which sounds like a Alco, the the, the company. We can call it, I COA it's a bill to limit the capacity of so-called gatekeepers of which Google is one to self preference, meaning to advance their own properties above those of rivals or competitors.

And so, Mike, talk about what you discovered this weekend. You wrote a, a great analysis piece that published this morning. O on this topic. So

Mike: I was looking, there was some comment online about furniture, sales and Google showing new image results around furniture's sales. And so I started doing some furniture searches and on the search, I think it was cheap furniture near me.

I started seeing in the organic mobile results, what I call a local card within. A website result and the local. So for every website in the organic search result below the PA the ads below the pack and below say Yelp for every local website, there was a little card that was sort of abbreviation of their.

Business profile with their business name and their address, and a little map with a pin on it. And as you scroll down, every organic listing had one of these cards. And if one of the organic listings had multiple locations in that, in, in the distance of the query, then they had a scroll area with multiple cards.

You could see one and a half. Scrolling across. And then if you, you could see the rest of the location. So, and as I was thinking, as I was looking at it, I thought this is a new test result. Never seen it before. It was only visible on a very limited search query. I couldn't find it for any other products.

Clearly it's a test and I was thinking God with all the eyes on Google and their self-referencing, would they really have the courage I thought in terms of testicles, but would they really have the courage to insert more local? Self preference results in organic. And I, and it, it struck me that it wasn't so much that they were going to expand local results, but that this is likely or possibly a test to see how they could integrate their knowledge graph into their organic results.

If they were forced to get rid of the pack, which is one of the threats of the American. Hang on innovation and choice online act, otherwise known as I COA. Oh, self-referencing act if they're forced to get rid of the pack at the top, how do they respond? And this result struck me as a potential response.

It has problems. It's not very aesthetic. It takes up a lot of room. Doesn't give the user a lot of information, but it does do what Google likes to do, which is keep people on Google with another click. Instead of them going over to the small business website, they then go in directly into the business profile for that particular business.

So I thought it was an interesting test. One that I. It might be some form of this might be what the search result looks like. But bottom line is even if it isn't. I think the article that Rand wrote two weeks ago is very germane is that these laws are coming or some form of these laws are coming.

They're very likely to impact the results and what we do as marketers. And I think everybody needs to be aware and prepared for potential changes in the SES, including the three pack going.

Greg: So just, just to, oh, just real quickly. So, so if you wanna see what that SERP actually looks like, Mike includes screenshots and the whole, you can download a PDF featuring the, the entire SERP at, in the analysis section of the near media website.

So that's, that's where you can get a look at what he's describing. So David go.

David: I was gonna say, as president of the tinfoil hat society, is it possible that Google is introducing what they know to be a substandard user experience as a data point to show just how badly this would affect the consumer experience on Google for local searches.

Greg: Well, that's not entirely, that's not entirely conspiratorial because they did something like that with the news results in Spain, before they eliminated them, I believe it was Spain. So when there was then early on, there was a big push by a lot of the European governments to get Google, to pay news publishers for their content.

And Google said except in cases where they were just tiny little snippets or you could have a headline or something and Google. We're gonna be forced to get rid of all this content or strip away the offending elements, images, descriptions, and so on and so forth. And they showed what those pages would look like.

They did a test where they showed what those pages would look like, and they were just not desirable. They were just terrible from a user experience standpoint. So what you describe is not entirely out of the. We

Mike: don't know, it's a test, obviously, a very small percentage of searches it's showing up on.

And, but it, it, it was, it was shocking to see and hard to envision what the purpose of the test is. If it isn't your theory or my theory, but although I suppose they could want more

Greg: surface for local. Well, so, so they've done, they've done as an alternative. They've done. Stuff in Europe that may be rolled out here.

If, if this passes one, one example was the comparison shopping engine inclusion of third party, you know, in their, in their shopping carousel, the inclusion inclusion of third party comparison engines in those results, which have been controversial and problematic. So instead of just showing Google ads or Google product related, Content, they have have added third party directories in there and they did a version of that for a local result.

I did in France. I was

David: gonna say with solo

Greg: and a couple of others, right? I did, I didn't remember the country, but it was the same, exact same treatment where they were putting third, third party directories in there with individual business results. And you know, the interesting thing there is that it gets them back into the.

Kind of arbitrage world that they tried to get out of with the local pack, meaning where the directories were grabbing the lead and then reselling it to the, to the business owner.

David: Yeah. I just don't know. I also don't know that that solves the pro to me, it doesn't solve the innovation portion of the goal of this act.

However, because there's, Google's still gonna be picking from a oligopoly of winners in terms of who, who is at a large enough scale to do a, a data partnership where these results can be returned in that, in that form. Right. If you're starting a local, you know, whatever Bordeaux, plumbers.com directory, you're not, Google's no way are they gonna do a deal with you to feature you in the local results alongside of solo?


Mike: Mike, I was just gonna say that this result that we're seeing, I don't know if you remember David back. I think it was 2008 or 2009. They had a similar. Product where they inserted a little map pin below in, right in the organic results. Maybe they included the phone number and this looks sort of like the evolution of that.

It's like, as we've always said, too, Google, doesn't throw this stuff away. Right. They just keep it at the ready when they might need it. So, interesting tests and interesting

Greg: times. My, my thought though, just to, just to add another comment is that they could preserve a version of the local pack. A new anti self prefacing regime.

If they got rid of the Google map, the local finder and Google map, and they just linked to business websites. In other words, that's their, their, they could put some of their G P content on that top level reviews and whatever else. But then the click goes through to the local website. I think that might be a viable solution for them that would.

Much of the existing experience, but they would just remove the Google map backdrop.

David: Totally agree. In fact, I propose, I, I had a back and forth with Luther Lowe about this probably eight years ago at this 0.7 years ago, back when he was running those focus on the user quote studies and quote he was just adamant that no users expect to see.

Yelp, if they click reviews and I'm like, I'm not actually sure. That's true. If the user wants to know about this business, they probably are more interested in going to the business's website. So I think that this is an idea. I'm not certainly the only person to suggest this, but I think it's the idea's been out there for a while and I'm not sure it would necessarily make Yelp happy, but I do think it would satisfy this Zero click search self-referencing scenario pretty well.

Mike: Yeah, they wouldn't make Ruth PO at happy though, because they would be selling less ads and they'd have less ad services. She's the CFO, by the way, who has instilled some amount of financial discipline in Google and made them the amazing profit engine that they. And I think it, I don't think that they would do that.

They don't, they, for two reasons, one hubris, they think their results are better, faster, and two it's not consistent with their economic needs.

Greg: Well, the, the small business website very often, although improved from a decade ago is gonna be a bad experience for the end user. So, well, there's so much more about

David: Google knows so much more about the quality of small businesses websites today than they did.

10 years ago, all this work around incorporating page speed into the algorithm and the user metrics that we know they're looking at. Even if they say they're not, I think is they could simply reward small businesses with better web experiences. They could probably even detect if they're integrated with some third party ordering system where they know it's gonna be a good transactional experience.

Fair, fair point. I don't buy that argument in the year 2022, the way I would have in 20.

Greg: yeah. Okay. Fair point. All right. So let's turn to the third and final item, which is a kind of more ambiguous, but interesting idea that younger users and certain other users are using Google less than they would have before for discovery purposes.

So what prompted? This was a TikTok that somebody on Twitter had reposted. And I link to it from the Atlantic story and the woman whose name, I don't recall in the TikTok, she's walking down the street somewhere and she's saying, I don't use Google for anything anymore. I used to go to Google for this and for this and for this.

And now I go to TikTok and get the same information or get better information. And even though it's just one person saying this, I thought that it was somewhat representative of something that's going on, especially. Younger people who are using Google probably I'm, I'm speculating probably much less than we did, for example, at a comparable period in our lives, when we were in our well, Mike, you were not 20 when Google was founded, but, and neither was I probably, but anyway, putting that aside, I, I, I think that there's something interesting here and.

Tell me what your thoughts are about that. Do you think that Google faces some sort of threat from social media alternatives that are better, that are more trusted that may be doing the thing that Charlie war Elle complained about, which is giving you real human to human information or advice or experience?

David: Yeah, we saw Twitter roll out there, little location cards this week as well. Potentially right. Which I didn't, maybe which feeling something similar, that there is an opportunity seeing, seeing the anecdotal success of TikTok and maybe snap, I don't know, in these kinds of scenarios.

Mike: They also rolled out an integration with Shopify and a longer form content structure called notes.

So it's unclear all to me in Twitter's case, those the ships have sailed in all those cases, but maybe I'm wrong. There is Google has always suffered the threat of fragmentation and we saw it actually happen in product search. They lost product search. Big time to Amazon. I think that apple is got its sites on a certain percentage of searches.

I use apple a lot as an alternative because I don't like giving up all my information to Google. I'm not 20. Older than that. In fact I was, I, I just calculated Greg. I was 48 when Google was first came out. Okay. And I became an SEO shortly after. So how's, that is that today. Right. And I wrote a lot of bad content for many years.

Greg: I

David: really well, back in the glory days of the internet,

Mike: it did it's right. Did I, I mean, it was easier. A doorway page just replicated and change out the city names. Whoa anyway. So I, I think Google is always threatened by that. And they've historically though, they've been able to respond, whether it's leveraging their monopoly or some other way to maintain their hold.

It will be interesting to see whether they're willing to give up any advertising to gain trust back or whether they would it's. It'll be interesting to see how they deal with the threat. Misinformation, all these other things. I mean, I think they are vulnerable. The question is who's gonna take 'em down and I don't, it could be 10 years before we see an answer to.

David: Yeah, I, to your point about the, you know, users wanting a more human to human experience that Charlie brought up and TikTok being a means of doing that. I think this is definitely happening. These, these kinds of discovery searches in a place you're not familiar with are definitely happening on Instagram as well.

I mean, I think that there's plenty of interest around. City hashtags and, you know, influencer recommendations and all this kind of thing for local discovery. You know, I, but in both of these cases, they're really targeting just the sort of travel and hospitality type businesses that are, that are going to be.

Visually interesting in a piece of discovery oriented content, you're not gonna look for a plumber on TikTok. I don't think. Or a, as Charlie tried to do a septic tank emergency technician on TikTok. So,

Greg: well, you might, you might on some, on some place like next door, for example. Right. But, but you know, it's interesting the, the about seven or eight or 10 years ago, maybe now there were a whole slew.

Q and a, you know, when I was writing for search engine land, we didn't know exactly what to call them, answer engines or Q and a engines, answers.com. Amazon had one, Facebook had Facebook answers. There was a bar which Google acquired Yahoo answers. There were a lot of these human expertise kinds of.

Solutions jelly was one that biz stone started after the kind of a little bit later. And none of them, none of them was able to break through and succeed. And the idea is very sound that human expertise is more precise and more authoritative than some sort of algorithm that's matching queries and pages, which are ultimately created by humans anyway, but the none of them break broke through.

Somehow the social media phenomenon is somewhat different than that. There, there is. There is traction there for people who are looking to influencers or to certain kinds of sources to get recommendations that otherwise would've probably gone to Google. I, I, I see it with my, my kids. It's it's worth it's.

This is something that Piper Jaffrey or somebody who surveys teens should, should investigate, or we should investigate, which is, Hey, gen Z, what are you using for, for discovery and see what those results are. And I bet you would see TikTok and Instagram, as you say, David, and some other sources there.

And Google would be there, certainly, but it's Google is like a second choice, I think in some of these cases and whether that translates into any market share erosion is another question entirely, but it's an interesting phenomenon that sort of ties back into the initial discussion about perception of quality or perception of value on the Google.

Okay then. Well, see we've well ended. All right. We've reached the exciting conclusion of another near memo. Please subscribe to near media.co and tell your friends and we'll be back next week. Although David will not be with us. He'll be on a fabulous golfing vacation, and we'll have a special guest bye.