Someone had to say it.
There’s been a torrent of criticism from tech writers, and even one major company, over the past week following Google’s introduction on Tuesday of “Search Plus Your World,” a radical new attempt by the search giant to promote Google Plus, its nascent social network, by displaying Google Plus content at the top of the every search results page for Google Plus account holders, among other stark changes.
Problematically for Google Plus users who don’t want to see the new results, they are default now “opt-out,” rather than “opt-in.” To turn them off, you have to press a small globe button in the upper right hand corner of the Google Search page to restore the search results to “global” rather than “personalized” results.
Obviously, not everyone uses Google Plus (in fact fewer people do so than still use MySpace) and yet Google seemed to think that this feature would be acceptable to its 1 billion plus users. But it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
Twitter, for one, surprised many by coming out vociferously against the new features. Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel (lawyer) and formerly deputy general counsel for Google, on Monday tweeted: “Bad day for the Internet…Having been there, I can imagine the dissension @Google to search being warped this way.”
Twitter later fired off another official press release to tech reporters, saying:
For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet.
Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic. As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results.
We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.
Essentially, what Twitter seemed to be saying was that because Google Plus was now prioritized at the top of every Google search, it would be tougher for people to find Twitter’s content.
Google defended itself, countering with statements suggesting that Twitter was just mad that the two companies couldn’t reach an agreement to allow Google to continue serving up live tweets in Google Searches.
As someone from Google posted on the official “Google” Google Plus page:
“We are a bit surprised by Twitter’s comments about Search plus Your World, because they chose not to renew their agreement with us last summer (http://goo.gl/chKwi), and since then we have observed their rel=nofollow instructions.”
Indeed, Google’s Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt defended “Search Plus Your World” when asked to explain just how Google Plus content wasn’t being favored over Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, an excellent question posed and captured on video by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan.
“Do think Google is favoring itself too much with the suggestions just to Google Plus?” Sullivan asked Schmidt.
“No,” he responded immediately, later telling Sullivan to ask Facebook analogous questions about why it won’t open its index for Google to crawl.
But as TechCrunch’s M.G. Siegler wrote on his personal blog on Thursday:
Facebook offered the exact same data deal to Google that they offered to Bing. Microsoft said yes. Google said no.
[Search blogger John] Battelle is right that Facebook had some requirements with regard to protecting the data. But they had the same requirements in giving the data to Bing. So this wasn’t about “Facebook’s willingness to throw data to their shareholder Microsoft while withholding it from Google”, any such argument made in court or elsewhere is invalid.
Forget the antitrust concerns raised by this prospect. Even if those weren’t a problem on their own (which they are, as the Electronic Privacy Information Center has already complained to the FTC), Google’s naked attempt to force Google Plus into the faces of its searchers is already causing at least some techies to publicly switch all of their default browser searching over to Bing. As Gizmodo’s Mat Honan explained in his post, tellingly titled “Google Just Made Bing the Best Search Engine”:
For years, Google Search has been the highest quality web product I’ve ever used. It has remained consistently essential as an information-delivery mechanism. I typically hit it hundreds of times a day—on my phone, tablet, laptop and desktop. But with one update it wiped out all those years of loyalty and goodwill it had built up. Sure, I can opt out of social results with a click—but as with all things I don’t want to have to opt out. I don’t want to have to make that extra click. I want to enter a query, and have the most relevant results returned to me as quickly as possible. (And if Google genuinely doesn’t think it’s a big deal for people to take the extra step oft opting out, why has it focused so relentlessly on optimizing speed for so many years?)
In fact, all of this recent controversy belies a much more pervasive and gradual problem: Google has been getting steadily worse for years, more so recently, as its engineers have added more and more features to it, bogging down what attracted users to Google in the first place and made it the most popular website in the world: Its simplicity.
Beginning in 2007, Google launched a series of what it said were improvements designed to make its search results more relevant, faster and more recent, “fresher,” in the words of Google.
The first of these was “Universal Search” in May 2007, in which Google began combining “Images, Maps, Books, Video, and News into our web results.” It seems unthinkable now, but before that, Google would only surface links to web pages and their titles, not specific news articles or images. While this proved to be an asset for searchers, things quickly went downhill from there.
In December 2009, Google began personalizing its search results for different users —showing different results based on a searcher’s previous searches and clicks — precipitating a larger trend that’s since swept the Web.
As Google software engineer Carrie Grimes wrote about the new “Caffeine” index in June 2010: “Whether it’s a news story, a blog or a forum post, you can now find links to relevant content much sooner after it is published than was possible ever before.”
However, recency doesn’t necessary (and frankly, doesn’t often) equal relevancy. Ben Parr, then of Mashable found this out when testing an early version of Google Caffeine, writing “You’ll notice that many of the blended search options, like image search and news, don’t appear in the new version. It’s more likely that the features haven’t all been implemented, but it does decrease its relevancy. ”
In November 2010, as part of its quest for speed, Google launched Google Instant, what the company called “search-before-you-type,” loading new sets of search results for every letter entered into the search bar. It provoked an immediate firestorm of criticism from tech bloggers and users who were unhappy with the new barrage of information (and also the selective omission of Instant search predictions based on controversial terms, such as “fuck.”)
Again, “speed” doesn’t necessarily equal simplicity, or even a pleasant user experience.
To be fair, some of the new search features Google has introduced over the years are great: Google’s left-hand options panel, launched in May 2010, is an excellent tool for any user, allowing them to search by a custom date range and by a specific category of content (images, blogs, news etc.) Google Instant Previews, launched in November 2010, is a commendable idea, allowing users to see a thumbnail snapshot of a webpage just by rolling over the link in the Google search results page. And Google Inside Search, a page about all of the changes its made to its search engine over the years, launched in June 2011, provides an easy way to go back and see just how drastically Google has altered its signature product over the years, even assisting in the reporting of this post.
But that brings up yet another problem with Google’s evolution, a problem crystalized by the recent Google Search Plus Your World update, which is arguably the final nail in the coffin for the Google Search of yore, the simple white box and search results that made the search engine such a joy to use in the first place: Google is now a chore to use for reporting.
Let’s say you’re a busy political reporter looking for some background on John McCain. Type “John McCain” into Google and what you’ll get (if you turn off Search Plus Your World) is likely to be his personal website first, followed by his Wikipedia page or Senate page, and then a stream of news results and news topics pages about the Senator from Arizona. While this might be useful for discovering what’s recently been said about McCain, it does little to provide insight onto his history or his whole life.
Don’t believe me on that? Take it from the words of Google’s search guys themselves. In November 2011, Google updated its Caffeine algorithm yet again to make it “fresher.” Here’s how Google fellow and Search algorithm engineer Amit Singhal described the change:
Even if you don’t specify it in your search, you probably want search results that are relevant and recent.
If I search for [olympics], I probably want information about next summer’s upcoming Olympics, not the 1900 Summer Olympics (the only time my favorite sport, cricket, was played). Google Search uses a freshness algorithm, designed to give you the most up-to-date results, so even when I just type [olympics] without specifying 2012, I still find what I’m looking for.
Google shouldn’t assume that because a user is searching for a particular term he or she wants the most recent information on it. What if I was searching about the history of the Olympics? Sure I could type in “olympics history,” or a specific year, but even then, the results I get will be likely in nearly descending chronological order.
More problematically, if you have Search Plus Your World on, and you’re an active Plus user, you’ll likely see many mentions of the Olympics discussed or linked by your friends. Again, this is not a problem in-and-of itself, but it is fundamentally altering Google Search, turning it into something more like Facebook.
That’s precisely the point, as some defenders have pointed out. Because Google implemented the change early in the week, we’ve now entered the backlash-to-the-backlash cycle of the coverage on Google Search Plus Your World, and so the defenders have stepped up, saying that Google moved into social search out of necessity — because otherwise Facebook or Twitter would have.
But that misconstrues the issue entirely: Google could have launched a separate social searching service. In fact they did: “Social Search” launched in Google Labs in October 2009, as an entirely “opt-in” feature.
Even before Google Search Plus Your World, Google decided to break traditional search conventions, eliminating the useful Boolean search operator “+,” which used to allow users to search to denote exact terms that they wanted Google to find. Now searching for a “+” brings up, what else, more Google Plus results. Ironically, earlier last summer, Alexis Madrigal, the Atlantic’s tech editor, posted a revealing Google Plus entry about how he relied on precisely on that “+” boolean search operator to do reporting for a piece on iceberg towing.
All of this is even more interesting when one considers the public testimony (accidentally shared to Google Plus) of one of Google’s own engineers, who in October 2011 revealed that Google Plus was developed not with any of the care and deliberation that Google Search was back in 1996, as a Stanford research project, but rather as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the success of Facebook. Google has been bolting on features to Plus ever since, with mixed success at best.
This post itself was inspired by a piece written in November 2011 by Slate tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, “Google + Is Dead.”
Not to be too clever here, but I think that time has proved contrary to noted contrarian Manjoo’s opinion: It’s not Google Plus that’s at risk now, per se, but Google Search itself. By watering down its once pristine search results with a number of mistaken notions about what users want, Google’s actually risking undermining the very core business that made it into the tech empire it is today.
Either way, like it or not, Search Plus Your World means that Google Search as we know it is no more.
Correction: This article originally misspelled the name of Gizmodo writer Mat Honan as “Matthew Horan.” The article has since been updated with the correct spelling. We regret the error.