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:

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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

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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! 

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

  1. Image the frustration of website owners whose content is now invisible in search because Google is burying it under pages of irrelevant garbage. Yes… for the very key words that people are searching for. My traffic for keywords relevant to my content has plummeted. Google serves up all sorts of unrelated or nonspecific crap instead.

  2. So true, and why is it that when I include my city and country when searching for nearby places they fill the screen with Australian and USA results?

  3. LOL This article was written in 2016. Google now much worse. Starting to see a pattern however. If 70% of the population goes in a certain direction, then Google will direct the remaining 30% in the same direction. So, it really doesn’t matter what your search terms are, Google tries to figure out which herd you belong to and just puts you there.

  4. If 70% of the population goes in a certain direction, Google will still send the whole population in the direction of the largest source of income for Google.

  5. This “feature” has been around for a few years judging by blogs like this that are years old but it has never bothered me that much until the last few months. Now I keep getting this “missing keyword” more and more so it costs me more clicks and typing to get the results I need (which seems to be a common issue with Google (and Microsoft too) lately in all their products). Not only that but the results I get are also more and more useless – previously I rarely clicked through to the 2nd page of search results, now I try all the time (but still don’t find what I need).

    Did they change something recently? (And can’t somebody write a script to fix this?)

  6. I am glad I’m not the only one screaming at my screen with despair.
    Sick of seeing clickbait pages and news appoearing above what I’m actually searching for.
    As a small business owner beginning to struggle this is infuriating.
    Google is just a money machine now and we need a serious alternative very soon.
    I feel that a proper advertising campaign for one of the other bigger players could turn the tides but it’s as though they’ve given up

  7. The comments here are more relevant than the article, which I found interesting, but being more than two years old, isn’t reflecting the worsening Google algorithm changes. As a multi-website owner I can see clearly that Google is purposely misdirecting keywords and directing search to an increasingly irrelevant list of results on the first page. Google doesn’t want the visitor to end up on the website that most closely matches their search. They want to render sites that achieve Google’s criteria. It is an absurd assumption, and it is a dictatorial rendering of the internet according to Google. It is like a spoiled brat who wants to mess things up for everyone else just so he can prove he’s in charge. Google’s algorithm changes over the past year render judgments on sites based upon dubious and absurd criteria. As to the question of a decent search alternative, I have found the duckduckgo search engine to be a viable contender, with tons more relevant results, with the bonus of not having the search engine tracking your every move. (PS I’m not affiliated with this search engine – but I’ve set up duckduckgo on all my browsers and have had an excellent search experience.)

  8. I guess the next logical step for GOOGLE, is to replace ALL of the user’s search criteria–and replace it with what GOOGLE feels the user SHOULD be searching for!

  9. This adopting the Microsoft philosophy and approach to customer requirements.

  10. Google has become a garbage search engine since the company went political. They now promote their own agenda to the point where even mundane searches are wrong.
    I just searched for ‘soft money lender’. Google returned a series of hard money lenders.
    A new search engine is needed. Bing is sometimes better than Google but it still doesnt give accurate results.

  11. Touched a nerve here! I gave up Google years ago now and went with Duckduckgo, but the problems with the search results are exactly the same. If I’m looking for a product and minus things like Ebay or Amazon, I still get results from Ebay and Amazon and the minus is ignored. This is not just frustrating. My stress levels are through the roof these days, and 95% of that is down to constantly wrangling with search engines that just ignore my terms. It’s come down to this: before the Internet came into my life, if I wanted to know something I went to the library or bought a book. I’m now seriously considering putting the brake on my habit of expecting ‘instant answers’, and either using my own (barely touched) brain, or dusting off my library card. I think we’ve seen the best of the Internet. As far as search engines go anyway, it’s now pretty much unusable.

  12. “I think we’ve seen the best of the Internet. As far as search engines go anyway, it’s now pretty much unusable.”

    Sadly, I am certain that you are totally correct in that assessment.

  13. Well, my library has dumped 98% of its source reference materials in favor of doing internet searches, which, by the way, the MSL – high tech librarians do not know how to do – not that it matters, because, as is stated here, the internet searches have become useless – or all but useless.

    Want horror? Medical research is done on the internet. You can look at the National Institutes for Health pages, and read that the researchers are oftentimes solely using internet searches. Makes you cringe.

    I have a fairly good reference library at home, but it does not contain everything. (Example: having the right plant-related book). And, the public libraries as previously stated, have ‘burned’ their source materials.

    The most recent problem with Google searches – I have not tried others – is that it is picking up only the last word in a search. Now, I’ve always been really good at choosing the wording; it no longer matters.

    Between the internet search failings, and the ‘burning’ of original source materials, frankly put: this is a frightening situation

  14. PS I agree with this comment. I mean, just get it over with.
    “Robert D. on March 11, 2019 at 12:48 pm said:
    I guess the next logical step for GOOGLE, is to replace ALL of the user’s search criteria–and replace it with what GOOGLE feels the user SHOULD be searching for!”
    –and far too many of “the general public” continue to believe every (wrong) bit of information they see.

  15. PPS and THEN, “the general public,” accepting garbage as factual, spread it. Talk about a virus. Yes. the final straw landed on my back today.

  16. Well, as vaccines do not cause autism and naturalness.com is a collection of unscientific, religious, conspiracy nutjobs, I have to support Google on this one.

  17. So sayeth the lord on the book of Hezekiah Chapter 1 & Verse 7: “Go thou unto Google Search fora on NeoSmart and defæcate thereon with screeds of drivel, for thus is your place in Heaven assured.

  18. Here is the wisdom:

    When Thor hit your head with his Holy Hammer, He did more damage than originally thought.
    You, Sir, are evidence of the growing, intentional uselessness of your particular religious beliefs.

    NURSE! The anti-delusional meds have worn off, again.

  19. Bing is crap….. let’s get that straight. I could search for “movie where guy goes to college for several years and doesn’t get degree” and things were all over the map with bing but Google knew it was Van Wilder… I code for a living. I need the intuition of Google vs bing to do my job effectively, rarely do I get what I need from Bing. I literally type Google into bing to piss off analysts….

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