On the growing, intentional uselessness of Google search results

New Google LogoAs most people are aware, Google search results are constantly changing and evolving. In the past couple of years, there has been a conscious and very deliberate shift – and not just by Google – to go from showing you what you want to see to showing you what they want you to see. Be it social network integrations (Google+, Facebook connections, twitter feeds, etc), local results, results based off of previous queries (at least this one is in an attempt to show you “relevant” information), and more. This is all old news and has been hashed to death (and to no avail).

But in the past week or so, I’ve personally picked up on a rather annoying and dramatic uptick in incidences of Google’s penchant for – much like a three year old – understanding perfectly-well what it is that you want and pointedly doing anything but that.

I am speaking of course about the dreaded “Missing: important_search_term that seems to pop up in just about every search result, with an uncanny ability of picking the most relevant keywords and conveniently “forgetting” to include them in your search. Initially, this search feature was reserved for only the most esoteric of search queries that typically turn up only a handful of results (under a few pages total) with all search terms included. In an attempt to be helpful, Google would include additional search results with some keywords removed, so as to remove the burden of extra constraints and widen the search parameters somewhat. Now? It seems like Google’s either come down with a rather bad case of human-robot transmitted alzheimer’s or else we’ve reached an all-new high when it comes to dumbing down the web (newspeak, anyone?).

Let’s take a simple example: a two-word search query. You’d assume that a two-word search query means a very high probability that each and every word1 means something, as anyone – let alone a company whose entire raison d’être depends on natural language processing – could easily tell you.

Out of complete curiosity and having not used it out of a preference for Transmission, I decided to launch Deluge.app, a once-popular torrent client, and see how it fares. Dismayed to find that all these years later, it still doesn’t support “retina” DPIs2 and set out to see if anyone cared or if this software was really as dead-in-the-water as it seemed:

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.00.37 PM

The first three results entirely omitted what is arguably the most-important of my two – only two! – keywords (and that’s only a call I would make if someone were to put a gun to my head and demand that I pick which of these virtually-equally relevant keywords was more important). The first result that Google bothered to actually look up with both keywords is exactly what we are looking for – but it was banished to fourth place thanks to Google’s overly-“intelligent” algorithm!3

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.01.34 PM

What does Google have to say on the matter?

If you use a long query, Google might ignore some of your keywords. Maybe there aren’t many results that match all your keywords or maybe some of them are redundant.

Yeah. Right. Google did this because there weren’t enough results in a search with both the keywords and it felt bad about coming back empty-handed? Let’s check: 238,000 results with both keywords included – definitely not the case. And an overlap between “deluge” and “retina”? I think not.

Unfortunately, this slippery slope of trying overly-hard to “interpret” what the user was “actually” looking for when 99% of us have already learned how to clarify that for the sake of search is only making Google’s results more-and-more useless.

Before anyone pipes up and comments about Google’s “literal search terms” option – been there, done that. I use Google because it’s smart enough to include words like “help” or “assistance” when you search “aid” or “disk” when you search “drive” or “disc” – without them, we might as well go back to the days before full-text search and when the furthest NLP research had reached was dreams of HAL 9000.

Alas, it’s 2016 and there’s still no serious competitor to Google. And I don’t mean a competitor to Google, a competitor to Google circa 2010 or even 2006 would instantly become my go-to engine. But unfortunately we have only a handful of startups re-using results harvested from the same APIs everyone but Google uses (Bing’s and sometimes Yandex’s). Maybe Wikimedia’s new search engine will be the first, but with the way search engines have gone in the past, likely not.


  1. Ideally, even punctuation – something that the world has been begging Google to offer an ability to include in the search terms since forever *cough* C++ *cough* C# *cough*, but let’s focus on features they actually offered and have since taken away for now. 

  2. Though as with most other GTK (or Qt) ports to OS X, I shouldn’t be surprised by the shoddy cross-platform GUI support. 

  3. OK, confession time: the article linked to in the fourth result – the one that says “no retina support […] Deluge” actually talks about another app’s lack of retina support on OS X, but just go with it! 

22 thoughts on “On the growing, intentional uselessness of Google search results

  1. The real problem with Google is spam. Here’s a random headline from the Wall Street Journal.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=Apple,+FBI+Wage+War+of+Words

    In no sane universe are “dailyreadlist” “hotapplenews” “globetopnews” “myinforms” “rebootdaily” “follownews” “scoopnest” “3novicesafrican” (!) “bizdailies” “thehornnews” finanzen” “newstral” “newsflow24” “gadispensaries” (!!) “wopular” or “brunchnews” legitimate bloggers nor reposters of WSJ content.

    And that was just the first 3 pages.

    Google *REALLY* needs to up its game against robogenerated spam results.

  2. If you search for “deluge.app” “retina”, google does return only 7 results. For some reason if you search for “deluge.app” retina, you get 8

    I don’t think it’s that unreasonable in that case to assume you wanted something a little different and broadened the search.

  3. @Ralph: I’m not seeing only eight results, but anyway, I think you’re missing the bigger problem: the very first result in OP’s first screenshot that actually includes both terms is the one he is looking for. If there aren’t enough specific terms, shouldn’t the broader-match results turn up after and not before the most-relevant content?

  4. Imagine if I told you I have someone who might be the perfect soulmate for you, but unfortunately because the pool of candidates for “perfect soulmates” is so small, I’m also including people that are maybe compatible with you or maybe not – a kind and thoughtful act, on my behalf…. And then I proceed to introduce you to these latters while holding back the perfect match until a random time that I saw fit?

  5. Yea, I’ve noticed the same thing. Most recently when trying to do some serious research. Academic papers on the subject I was interested in were buried somewhere on page 3-4 of my search results in preference to “top 10 this”, “7 best ways to do that” type articles on low rent blogs like Buzfeed.

    I suspected that the algorithms may have incorrectly decided that your search about Deluge was navigational. I thought that adding more context would help, so I went to Google and searched for “does deluge.app support retina”.

    The number 1 search result they gave me for that search term was your blog post!

    Again, the rest of the SERP seems to consist of poor quality “top 10 retina apps” articles, and the article that directly answers the question is below the fold (on my phone anyway).

    I suppose, in fairness, your article does indirectly answer the question, but it’s going to throw the user for a loop when they see a completely unrelated headline.

    I suspect Google will eventually see users digging way beyond the first organic result for answers, taking them further away from the monetized portion of the SERP (particularly since they’re killing ads on the side on desktop), and then they’ll start to pull back a little on their latest changes.

  6. Hate Google, always have – its not a true Boolean search. I dont want my words re-spelled additional terms assumed or and such stuff. And if I have a choice between complex as hell but under my control, and “easy”, I never take easy, F easy.

  7. thanks for this interesting article re: Google Search, which I haven’t used for about 2 years now. Normally my searches are much less esoteric than your example and generally from the desktop so I don’t mind scrolling down to successive pages. As noted by Pete Morris, eventually their bottom line will force them to adjust.

  8. I call it the quote-creep effect. I started noting that I was using double-quotes in the queries a lot more (almost did not realize it). Maybe Google’s intention is to force user to use quotes more often? Nah, majority don’t even know its use…

    So what possessed them to do this? And why, after more than a year of bot-sites (say copying stackoverflow into their CMS) haven’t they figured out to use the timestamps of their cached material and bounce this pollution out? what, google cannot take a 10-word string and put quotes at beginning and end and check its own results?

  9. to add… it used to be that sites that parroted other sites were penalised.

    It feels like a 180º turn… (in a google car 8-0 )

  10. I use duckduck go and switch to Google if I have to. Because of SEO keywords you often need to use long tailed keyword searches. This means a 2 keyword search will pull up useless stuff in most cases while a 4 words or higher search will get you much better results as those aren’t used by SEO as often. I also find mixing words around and trying to use different words that mean the same thing. For example: app, application, program, etc. greatly improve the results. You could also join this free course by Google on doing power searches: http://www.powersearchingwithgoogle.com/

    https://bynd.com/news-ideas/google-advanced-search-comprehensive-list-google-search-operators/

  11. I remember 2004 when I was in school – our teacher tought us about which keywords to select. Propose an answer, but do not ask a question, since you want to find a full answer!
    Very few people got it right and where able to utilize Googles index.
    Around 2012 keyword harvesting sites started to destroy search results.

    I stink google strived to assist people who could not utilize the searchengine by keyword selection and later hung itself while fighting spam.

    I miss 2004’s tiny index and powerful keyword refining.

  12. Yeah they ignore quotes for exact phrases, they ignore the + sign which used to tell Google to make sure that particular word was always included and they straightaway change many words. e.g. I was searching about NVDA, the open source Windows accessibility screen reader but it kept showing me results about NVIDIA. At times like this, I am glad Bing and DuckDuckGo exist. Although none of them is perfect, we don’t want a search engine turning evil scenario like what happened with Microsoft’s PC OS monopoly.

  13. Amen, I thought I was going crazy!

    I tried everything
    word0 +word1
    “word0” “word1”
    word0 AND word1

    clearing cookies
    rinse repeat

    clearing cookies
    search through google.com/ncr

    clearing cookies
    install googleDisconnect

    It’s became annoying beyond description.

    1. > If the goal is to push more adds just please have some common sense and make an option for a google search service with a subscription fee I will pay for it!

    2. > If the goal is to be clever and “deep mind” my search query than please have some common sense and give me a “2009 web crawler that actually crawls” opt-out option.

  14. I’ve been obsering Google’s gradual decline for a few months now. Every week it’s getting harder and harder to find EXACT matches to my query. If I search for something SPECIFIC (like lyrics) based on a few keywords, I have to waste about 20 minutes refining my search and trying various other queries… until I give up. This month I’ve had at least 5 searches for “x y z” that end up only showing results for “x y”.

  15. Seems like useless results with a 1 in 20 dose of the search is the norm…. what a crock…sad I let them waste my time.

  16. I am really amazed people are not seeing the deliberate effort by Google is called obfuscation and it is intimately linked with politics. In a global, corrupt society the only way to CONTROL your people is to control what they believe. Its an elementary form of psychological warfare. Our spec ops teams who specialize in the area of psychological warfare do all sorts of plays on information in other countries but unfortunately, if you look closely, you will see if is being practiced on the American populace in various forms. For example, if you perform a search for the ENTIRE video of Vladimer Putin’s interview here in the states, (not the common edited one) you will almost never be able to pull it up even though its out there. Search for something controversial that is favored by the right and watch which sides viewpoint comes up first… its quite obvious. There is a profound, strong political bias present in Google that reveals there are agendas at work here.
    Every declining civilization attempts to control more and more what information its citizens have access to, especially prior to a takeover effort. By limiting the information resource citizens cannot confirm truth or communicate it if they know it and the masses can be controlled and minorities of enemies nearly perfectly suppressed. Its a systematic pretense to a change in a system of power and has been in every age, from the dark ages, to Nazism, to modern communism. People can be prepared to support atrocities, accept lies, and create socially oppressed minority people at will, and ultimately accept something they never otherwise would have. Our special ops, nsa, ets may be at work on us via google, and thats why ther is no competition…. the situation is getting serious and must be made know so more people can refuse to use google products before they have a full monopoly.

  17. Great read. I’ve been looking for someone to put into words what I have been noticing. It seems that when you search negative things about Google, in a Google search, the results are very limited. Hmmmm…

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