It’s a popular notion these days Google has lost its “mojo” due to failed products like Google Wave, Google Buzz, and Google TV. But Google’s core business — Web search — has come under fire recently for being the ultimate in failed tech products.
I can only ask: What took so long? I first blogged about Google’s increasingly terrible search results in October 2007. If you search for any topic that is monetizable, such as “iPod Connectivity” or “Futon Filling”, you will see pages and pages of search results selling products and very few that actually answer your query. In contrast, if you search for something that isn’t monetizable, say “bridge construction,” it is like going 10 years back into a search time machine.
Search has been increasingly gamed by link and content farms year by year, and users have been frogs slowly getting boiled in water without realizing it. (Bing has similarly bad results, a testament to Microsoft’s quest to copy everything Google.)
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But here’s what these late-blooming critics miss: Yes, Google’s search results do indeed suck. But Google’s fixing it.
The much acclaimed PageRank algorithm, which ranks search results based on the highest number of inbound links, has failed since it’s easy for marketers to overwhelm the number of organic links with a bunch of astroturfed links. Case in point: The Google.com page that describes PageRank is #4 in the Google search results for the term PageRank, below two vendors that are selling search engine marketing.
Facebook, which can rank content based on the number of Likes from actual people rather than the number of inbound links from various websites, can now provide more relevant hits, and in realtime since it does not have to crawl the web. A Like is registered immediately. No wonder Facebook scares Google.
But the secret to Google’s success was actually not PageRank, although it makes for a good foundation myth. The now-forgotten AltaVista, buried within Yahoo and due to be shut down, actually returned great results by employing the exact opposite of PageRank, and returned pages that were hubs and had links to related content.
Google’s secret was that it could scale infinitely on low-cost hardware and was able to keep up with the Internet’s exponential growth, while its competitors such as AltaVista were running on expensive, big machines running processors like the DEC Alpha. When the size of the Web doubled, Google could cheaply keep up on commodity PC hardware, and AltaVista was left behind. Cheap and expandable computing, not ranking Web pages, is what Google does best. Combine that with an ever-expanding data set, based on people’s clicks, and you have a virtuous circle that keeps on spinning.
The folks at Google have not been asleep at the wheel. They are well aware that their search results were being increasingly gamed by search marketers and that this was not a battle they were going to win. The answer has been to dump the famous blue links on which Google built its business.
Over the past couple of years, Google has progressively added vertical search results above its regular results. When you search for the weather, businesses, stock quotes, popular videos, music, addresses, airplane flight status, and more, the search results of what you are looking for are presented immediately. The vast majority of users are no longer clicking through pages of Google results: They are instantly getting an answer to their question:
Google is in the unique position of being able to learn from billions and billions of queries what is relevant and what can be verticalized into immediate results. Google’s search value proposition has now transitioned to immediately answering your question, with the option of sifting through additional results. And that’s through a combination of computing power and accumulated data that competitors just can’t match.
For those of us who have watched this transition closely and attentively over the past few years, it has been an amazing feat that should be commended. So while I am the first to make fun of Google’s various product failures, Google search is no longer one of them.