New York – For years now, Google users, analysts and experts have sounded alarms about the apparent decline in quality of the tech giant’s flagship search engine. But despite growing evidence that something is amiss, Google maintains its product is better than ever.
According to the company line, Google Search continues to be best-in-class. Yet study after study confirms what many regular Google users already feel to be true: search results today are rife with low-quality content optimized for affiliates’ financial gain rather than internet users’ needs.
The latest research comes from a team of computer scientists at Leipzig University, Bauhaus-University Weimar and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Their new paper, published this month, examines 7,392 product search queries over one year across Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo.
What they found validates long-held suspicions: The top search results today are heavily optimized for search engines rather than human readers. These sites feature telltale signs like massive blocks of affiliate links and thin, formulaic text. In other words, “junk” sites built to game the system now consistently rise above content made to inform.
This trend is driven largely by the rise of affiliate marketing, in which websites earn small commissions by driving sales of retail products. Affiliate links to major merchants like Amazon or BestBuy are ubiquitous across the internet today. Virtually every news outlet, including the New York Times, uses affiliate links in some form.
For content creators, affiliate links provide a means of monetizing product recommendations and reviews. But in the high-stakes world of search engine optimization (SEO), affiliate links have also spawned an industry of spammy middleman sites. These sites churn out endless streams of formulaic “best product” articles with the primary goal of earning commissions, not providing useful information.
The researchers found extensive evidence that these low-effort, affiliate-heavy pages now dominate the top of Google’s product search results. Search engines like Google aim to surface the highest quality, most relevant results for each query. But for product terms, it appears aggressive SEO tactics are winning out over quality content.
SEO is a constant battle, and we see repeated patterns of review spam entering and leaving the results as search engines and SEO engineers take turns adjusting parameters,” the paper states. According to the analysis, search engines’ efforts to demote spam sites only yield temporary gains before new SEO ploys arise.
The researchers did find Google performed significantly better than rival search engines Bing and DuckDuckGo. And Google’s product results did improve over the course of the year-long analysis. A Google spokesperson emphasized that this narrow study does not reflect overall search quality, which Google maintains has continued improving.
We’ve launched specific improvements to address these issues – and the study itself points out that Google has improved over the past year and is performing better than other search engines,” the spokesperson said. “More broadly, numerous third parties have measured search engine results for other types of queries and found Google to be of significantly higher quality than the rest.”
Still, this latest computer science research adds to a chorus of voices arguing Google Search quality has severely deteriorated. Lily Ray, an search engine optimization expert and director at the digital marketing firm Amsive, says the SEO community widely recognizes Google is struggling with issues of relevancy and authority.
“It feels like someone is asleep at the wheel,” Ray said. “We’ve never seen Google in this state of disarray.”
With billions of searches a day, assessing overall Google Search quality is impossible from the outside. But troubling signs are rampant. Reddit threads have devolved into tech support for fixing bungled Google queries. Data scientists have shown Google results worsened during a Reddit outage, indicating over-reliance on the site’s user-generated content.
A bombshell Gizmodo investigation last year found news publisher CNET deleted thousands of articles after determining the pieces were hurting its Google rankings. That dramatic action epitomizes the extremes websites now go to chasing the Google algorithm.
Ray says Google has clearly taken actions to improve problematic areas like local listings and featured snippets. But issues like content spam continue to plague other verticals. She points to growing reliance on ads and Google-owned properties as other areas of concern.
“Google has been getting better in certain ways, but in others it’s getting worse,” Ray said.
This declining relevancy affects more than just internet users. Businesses across the web depend on Google Search visibility, so volatility harms commerce and industry. For better or worse, Google remains the internet’s most influential company. Its stumbles have far-reaching implications.
Consumer distrust in Google’s objectivity has already fueled the rise of independent alternatives like DuckDuckGo. There are also calls for reining in Google’s dominance, including ongoing antitrust litigation across the U.S. and E.U. But so far, Google remains the world’s predominant gateway to information. Most agree the company still provides enormous value to billions.
The question now is whether Google can right its course and restore users’ trust. The computer scientists behind this latest study argue that building a healthier search ecosystem requires tackling SEO abuse at the root. Search engines must get better at detecting and demoting spam sites.
But quality issues don’t have a quick fix. And with vast influence comes immense public responsibility. As long as Google controls the modern flow of information, its missteps make waves across the internet.