Google.com is still one of the cleanest, calmest sites on the Web. At least, it is before you start typing. At this point, you don't even have to hit enter before the page starts filling up with noise. Google has been hard at work on its core product this year. The changes have affected search quality in uneven ways.
This year, Google's Panda updates seemed careful and prudent, punishing sites who game the system for better page rank. This was also the year of social SEO, in which the +1 button began to affect search results. Google is also moving away from historical results and toward real-time search. Is Google still as good as it used to be at finding what we're looking for?
"I am getting so fed up with Google."
Rick Webb posted an illuminating comparison on his Tumblrmajig yesterday. It's anecdotal, not a study of Google's search quality, but it's a reasonable experiment.
If Jane Q. Internet wanted to know the price of gold, she would be likely to enter a Google search for "gold price," right? Google tends to be good about those kinds of queries. It does math and checks spelling, so it would be reasonable for a user to expect it to return the price of gold.
But look what happens when you Google "gold price." From Rick Webb's illustration:
One could not ask for a better search result for "gold price." There are two problems with Google's result. One is the SEO crap from "goldprice.org." This is the kind of thing Google is actively fighting against, and the Web's snapshot of the price of gold is probably pretty messed up by conspiracy theories and other bad content, making Google's job harder.
But the other problem is one Google doesn't want to solve. The three paid ads, taking up half the page, are no better than the SEO crap below it. Google has made a compromise here and sided against the user. Let's look at some other aspects of the state of Google search at the end of 2011 and see who benefits.
"Freshness" Replaces "Timeline"
Google's "freshness" update to search results affected 35% of searches. Content and brand sites that update frequently benefited, and the sites that lost were all over the map. Google touts a user benefit of this change. When you search for "olympics" in spring of 2012, you're likely to be searching for content about the 2012 Summer Olympics, not the Wikipedia page for Olympic Games. Google's just trying to help.
But as Google brought the so-called Caffeine update in the front door, it kicked some historical search tools out the back. It eliminated the "Timeline" search view, which made browsing historical search results easier and more informative than the simple date range constraint that is now users' only option.
What does this say about Google's priorities? Could there possibly be some huge operational cost of supporting timeline searches that Google had to eliminate? Or is it rebuilding the way results appear chronologically in order to favor real-time search? The second scenario seems much more likely. It's a choice to encourage one kind of user behavior and discourage another, and Google's ideal user behaviors are determined by ad impressions.
Google+ Comes To Web Search
expired this summer. But Google+ also provides another new piece of Google's new search priorities: personalization.Google's new social network is also its new source of real-time search data, replacing the deal with Twitter that
Google Fellow Amit Singhal has offered a compelling defense of this move, explaining that personalization is all about context. Google can better figure out what a query means to a user if it has social signals.
So Google added public Google+ posts as search results, and that's fair enough. Tweets are search results, too. But it also began to allow the +1 button on regular Web content to influence search results in a variety of ways. There's a +1 button on image search now, as well as on Google News articles. And Google added the +1 button to one more important kind of content that ties it all together: display ads.
That may make ads more relevant, which makes Google money, but it also pushes users to rely on their social graphs for relevance, rather than a more objective standard.
Other Tweaks & Trends
Other changes to Google search will play out in 2012. As Google goes head to head with Siri and the iPhone for control of local search, Google Places will receive more prominence in search. This affects Google's notion of universal search, the effort, which began in 2007, to consolidate all kinds of content on to one search results page.
Google was once revered as the paragon of minimalism on the Web, but this effort to compress more and more content for maximum impact has resulted in pages that look more like the "gold price" results.
Has your satisfaction with Google search results changed lately? Share your thoughts in the comments.