When Google came to prominence 14 years ago it was a breath of fresh air compared with the main search engine at the time – Yahoo! The problem for Yahoo! was that it was subjective. Based on human editors who could not keep up with the pace of the growth of the web, it also meant that if they did not like a website it did not appear on the search results. Searchers were effectively prevented from finding much of what was available online. Google was a “game changer” because it used a mathematical algorithm to find web pages. No longer was there any subjectivity – if your website contained a word, Google would present your website in the list of results when someone searched for that word.
This is why Google became so popular. We could find everything on the web, no matter whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. Whatever you search for, you’ll be presented with all of the web pages which exist for that word – sometimes tens of millions of them…! That’s why we love Google – it finds everything.
However, over the years Google has made changes – seemingly to improve the results we get. The main problem for Google was that because it is based on objective mathematics it means that anyone can fiddle the results easily. Search phrases were “hijacked” by spammers and “black hat” search marketing specialists. They could get to the top of the list easily using their optimization techniques; meanwhile legitimate and more useful sites were pushed down the search results listings.
Google knew it had to act – otherwise people would desert the search engine in favour of one that presented more useful and more reliable results. After all, they did that once by leaving Yahoo! So, Google introduced quality controls and systems which meant that the rubbish content would still be in a search results listing, but relegated to page 100 or some such results page no-one looks at. The changes meant Google retained its objectivity and presented us with more accurate and useful results.
But Google is changing – and for the worse. The company is focused on the ever burgeoning world of social. Currently it is exploiting its fifth attempt at a social networking system, Google Plus. Previous Google social networks, like Buzz and Wave have bit the dust. The company has high hopes for Plus – so much so that it has now started to use data from the social network to influence the search results it presents to you.
And that could be the undoing of Google. It means that search results will no longer be objective – but subjective. The results you get will no longer be based objectively upon two factors – your search history and the mathematical algorithm. Now the results will be influenced by what you do on Google Plus.
According to Google this will personalise your results – but at the same time it could remove from your visibility objectively presented results which might be more useful to you and which do not rely on the chit-chat between you and your mates. According to the search engine expert Danny Sullivan these changes are “very un-Google-like“. He says the changes are “unfair”.
Whether or not they are fair is something which the American legal system is currently testing, as is the European Commission. But whatever their decisions, ultimately it is people who will decide, voting with their feet by walking away from subjective results. Google seems to have forgotten that what got it into the search business was the need for objective search results. The company’s clear desire to gain traction in the social media world is taking its eye off the ball; it is replacing objectivity with subjectivity – and that could be a fatal blow.
- Google’s Biggest Social Search Update Yet Features Google+ Content (hubspot.com)
- Google: Search, plus Your World (googleblog.blogspot.com)
- Google Search Just Got Extremely Personal (huffingtonpost.com)
- Google+ Status Updates Now Appearing in Organic Search Results (hubspot.com)
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+