Is Google Turning the Web into Spam?

Dec.14.09 | About: Alphabet Inc. (GOOG)

Over the weekend I tried to buy a new dishwasher. Being the fine net-friendly fellow that I am, I began Google-ing for information. And Google-ing. and Google-ing. As I tweeted frustratedly at the end of the failed exercise, "To a first approximation, the entire web is spam when it comes to appliance reviews".

This is, of course, merely a personal example of the drive-by damage done by keyword-driven content -- material created to be consumed like info-krill by Google's algorithms. Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn't kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches -- from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons -- churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you're done. On the web, no-one knows you're a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed. It hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter.

Google has to know this. The problem is too big and too obvious to miss. But it's hard to know what you can do algorithmically to solve the problem. Content creators are simply using Google against itself, feeding its hungry crawlers the sort of thing that Google loves to consume, to the detriment of search results and utility.

For my part it has had a number of side-effects. One, I avoid searching for things that are likely to score high in Google keyword searches. Appliances are an example, but there are many more, most of which I use mechanisms other than broad search. Second, it has made me more willing to pay for things. In this case I ended up paying for a Consumer Reports review of dishwashers -- the opportunity cost of continuing to try to sort through the info-crap in Google results was simply too high.

Something has to give, but I wonder what will -- the snake, its tail, or us?

More reading:

  • The end of hand-crafted content (Arrington)
  • The answer factory: Demand Media and the fast, disposable, and profitable as hell media model (Wired)
  • Content farms: Why media, blogs and Google should be worried (RWW)