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Google’s Decline: Myth or Fact?

“Prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”Google

Wear Sunscreen, Baz Luhrmann

“Human beings seem to take a morose pleasure from believing that once there was a Golden Age, some lost Eden or Camelot, or superior ancient civilization, peopled by heroes and demigods, an age of greatness long lost and irrevocable.”

George Will, Men at Work

This weekend saw a flurry of articles bemoaning the decline in the quality of Google‘s search results, most notably:

Clearly, Google doesn’t always produce the results we’d like. So, is Google in decline or are people comparing Google 2011 to a mythical Golden Age of Google that never existed? I don’t know. But AFAICT neither do the people who are making those claims.

AFAIU here’s the basis for the aforementioned authors‘ claim of decline:

  • In a 2009 article Paul Kedrosky noted problems with certain Google searches. All four pieces cite this article as the primary source. Quotes from that article make up about a quarter of Dash’s piece, and more than a third of Patrick’s piece. It merits 5 links from Wadhwa’s post. This is a post from 2009! How did this become proof that Google is currently undergoing a decline?
  • Atwood’s primary claim is that Google started ranking pages that copy others’ content. To show how bad this is, he writes “when was the last time you clicked through to a page that was nothing more than a legally copied, properly attributed Wikipedia entry encrusted in advertisements? Never, right?” Meanwhile, Patrick writes the opposite “The other main scamsite type is one that copies part of the relevant Wikipedia entry and throws lots of Ads at you.” Atwood is way off in citing this as an example of Google’s decline. A few years ago there were many sites that copied Wikipedia content and sometimes outranked it. Google cleaned that up. In fact, we (Answers.com) incorporate Wikipedia entries in our reference source (legally, with full attribution, to serve our users, and as part of a long-standing and mutually beneficial relationship with Wikipedia in which we support their activities). Since 2007 we’ve put a NoIndex on our pages that only have Wikipedia content, because in 2007 Google greatly reduced the amount of traffic it sends to sites that index pages that are just copies of Wikipedia. As for content scrapers outranking the content source, that’s been a big problem for us (and I presume others) for years. Atwood is noticing it now because now it’s happening to him. Atwood’s main proof of decline is actually an area where Google has been improving.
  • They cite some specific examples where their results were disappointing. But AFAICT none of us know whether or not those results were better or worse a few years ago.
  • They cite each other as proof.
    • Patrick is mostly based on Kedrosky’s 2009 piece.
    • Atwood writes “I can’t help noticing that we’re not the only site to have serious problems with Google search results in the last few months. In fact, the drum beat of deteriorating Google search quality has been practically deafening of late.” This deafening drum beat of articles in the last few months is 5 articles, including 2 articles from 2009 and Patrick’s and Wadhwa’s that quote them.
    • Dash’s “Three’s a Trend” uses Kedrosky, Patrick, and Atwood as proof of Google’s decline.

So more than a year ago Kedrosky had problems with a certain type of search, and this weekend Patrick found Kedrosky and Atwood found Patrick and Dash found Patrick and Atwood.

Ross Hudgens’ Tweet

What we don’t have is any real indication that things were better a few years ago and then got worse. Where I differ with these authors is not in our opinion of today’s Google.  Google is extremely flawed. For example, a bug caused them to ban the world’s greatest blog (this one) for five months. But Atwood writes

“The idea that there could be something wrong with Google was inconceivable to me. Google is gravity on the web, an omnipresent constant; blaming Google would be like blaming gravity for my own clumsiness. It wasn’t even an option.”

Really?

Google (like Jeff Atwood and probably those other authors) is a significant intelligence and talent trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. They get it right far more than others do, but they’re often wrong. Are they getting it wrong more often than they used to? I don’t know. But as AFAICT, neither do any of the people who wrote these articles.

My guess is that the perceived decline is only relative to a mythical past. What do you know about this? Anybody have any evidence indicating a decline or an improvement?

BTW, also see Andrew Goodman’s Search Isn’t Broken Because One Guy Had Trouble Using Google.

Update (Jan 22, 2011): Matt Cutts just chimed in.  Here’s my summary: Matt Cutts on Search and Spam.

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