Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Man Who Killed Google Search

Edward Zitron (Hacker News):

In emails released as part of the Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Google, Dischler laid out several contributing factors — search query growth was “significantly behind forecast,” the “timing” of revenue launches was significantly behind, and a vague worry that “several advertiser-specific and sector weaknesses” existed in search.


The thread is a dark window into the world of growth-focused tech, where Thakur listed the multiple points of disconnection between the ads and search teams, discussing how the search team wasn’t able to finely optimize engagement on Google without “hacking engagement,” a term that means effectively tricking users into spending more time on a site, and that doing so would lead them to “abandon work on efficient journeys.” In one email, Fox adds that there was a “pretty big disconnect between what finance and ads want” and what search was doing.

When Gomes pushed back on the multiple requests for growth, Fox added that all three of them were responsible for search, that search was “the revenue engine of the company,” and that bartering with the ads and finance teams was potentially “the new reality of their jobs.”


A day later, Gomes emailed Fox and Thakur an email he intended to send to Raghavan. He led by saying he was “annoyed both personally and on behalf of the search team.” in a long email, he explained how one might increase engagement with Google Search, but specifically added that they could “increase queries quite easily in the short term in user negative ways,” like turning off spell correction, turning off ranking improvements, or placing refinements — effectively labels — all over the page, adding that it was “possible that there are trade offs here between different kinds of user negativity caused by engagement hacking,” and that he was “deeply deeply uncomfortable with this.” He also added that this was the reason he didn’t believe that queries were a good metric to measure search and that the best defense about the weakness of queries was to create “compelling user experiences that make users want to come back.”

John Gruber (Mastodon):

Long story short, Ben Gomes was a search guy who’d been at Google since 1999, before they even had any ads in search results. He was replaced by Prabhakar Raghavan, who previously was Head of Ads at the company. So instead of there being any sort of firewall between search and ads, search became a subsidiary of ads.


The story is an old and sad one. The founders have quit active involvement with the company and the first thing the “professional managers” did was to sideline anyone still carrying the torch of the founding principles. As one of the commenters put it, Google moved from being a search company to being an ad company.

Nick Heer:

This is not the same thing as what Gray claimed, even though it is along similar lines. Google allegedly sacrificed an update to its search engine which improved the quality of results for users because it was less profitable. This was done, according to these emails and documents, with cooperation between search and ads.


I know a lot of the veteran engineers were upset when Ben Gomes got shunted off. Probably the bigger change, from what I’ve heard, was losing Amit Singhal who led Search until 2016. Amit fought against creeping complexity. There is a semi-famous internal document he wrote where he argued against the other search leads that Google should use less machine-learning, or at least contain it as much as possible, so that ranking stays debuggable and understandable by human search engineers. My impression is that since he left complexity exploded, with every team launching as many deep learning projects as they can (just like every other large tech company has).

The problem though, is the older systems had obvious problems, while the newer systems have hidden bugs and conceptual issues which often don’t show up in the metrics, and which compound over time as more complexity is layered on. For example: I found an off by 1 error deep in a formula from an old launch that has been reordering top results for 15% of queries since 2015.

Barry Schwartz:

Google sent me the following statements in response to this:

(1) On the March 2019 core update claim in the piece: This is baseless speculation. The March 2019 core update was designed to improve the quality of our search results, as all core updates are designed to do. It is incorrect to say it rolled back our quality or our anti-spam protections, which we’ve developed over many years and continue to improve upon.

(2) As we have stated definitively: the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems.

Edward Zitron:

Google can play semantics all it wants, but if changes were made to an algorithm that increased traffic to previously-suppressed sites, how does one interpret these changes as anything other than a rollback, especially when these sites were suppressed in previous updates?

The one party that could actually clear this up with meaningful data and thorough explanations is Google, and it has instead chosen to vaguely and unilaterally state that I was incorrect.


Furthermore, in another email revealed as part of the Department of Justice’s antitrust trial, where Jerry Dischler on 5/3/2019, Jerry Dischler asks Anil Sabharwal, then the Vice President and General Manager of Chrome on an email including Prabhakar Raghavan, Nick Fox, Ben Gomes, and several other Googlers, whether it was “worth reconsidering a rollback,” and that he didn’t want the message to be “we’re doing this thing because the Ads team needs revenue” in a sentence referring to the ads team asking the Search and Chrome teams to do stuff to increase revenue.


I found it peculiar that Google responded with unlinked and uncited testimonies “from the DOJ trial that puts these misleading claims in context.” I will now go through each quote.

Carl Hendy:

Remember why Google banned all those AdSense publishers for blurring the lines between ads and links?

The Luddite (via Hacker News):

This is not actually where the Apportionment Calculator lives, but instead, a link to what the site looked like last week, before Google made me make it worse on purpose to make money. It is common knowledge that Google is cluttering the internet with SEO blogspam ad-driven garbage; less known is how direct, and even banal, this causal relationship really is.


The unanimous conclusion was that Google wants you to have a lot of content before they will approve you [for AdSense], and more importantly, the quality of the content doesn’t really matter.


ChatGPT made us several blogposts, each more deranged than the last.

Nick Heer:

Both of those are claimed by Google as things I said were qualities of the 2017 base model iPad, but that is not the case for either. (The third phrase, “pretty great value”, is cited correctly in context.) I did not make a list of “pros and cons” anywhere in my review; neither word appears anywhere in its text. But most upsetting is that Google does not make it apparent anywhere on this results page that it is responsible for this description, not me.


2 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

In my experience, the search results seem to have gotten better in the past year or so, but the problem is that there are so many ads now that everything above the fold is usually just garbage. Legitimate results look so similar to ads that even scrolling down to find the proper results has become a chore.

On the plus side, it's pretty easy to just hide all of the garbage with some simple site-specific CSS.

The other day I was looking for an article about how Apples ATT reduced financial fraud and Google was no help. Then I asked ChatGPT and got very good links.

But then I put my chatty prompt into google search adn got much better results.

What's absolut garbage though is any product search on Google. It happily puts a bunch of paid for "related" products top and center.

Leave a Comment