When I Googled “best toaster” on my phone recently, thinking about replacing the appliance in my apartment kitchen, the search immediately yielded a carousel of product images from various high-design brands : Balmuda, Hay, Smeg. (Guilty: I had certainly searched for Japanese Balmuda’s steam toasters before.) Further down the results page were advertisements for online retailers such as Amazon and Wayfair, then another carousel of “toaster -popular breads” with user review metrics, then a list of suggested queries under the “People Also Ask” heading. (“Is it worth buying an expensive toaster?” “You can’t make much more than the $100 models,” an answer from CNET reads.) Sliding lower, I reached Clearly Designed Aggregated Listings to Exploit Google’s Search Algorithm and Benefit Affiliate Marketing: Toaster Tips from Good Housekeeping, Wirecutter’s “4 Best Toaster Ovens of 2022”. Further down was a map of toasters that could be purchased in physical proximity to my apartment. I felt lost among the suggestions, inundated with information and yet constrained by none of it.
This kind of cluttered onslaught of seamless e-commerce options is what recently prompted Dmitri Brereton, a twenty-six-year-old engineer at a recruiting software company in San Francisco, to post a blog post titled “Google Search Is Dying”. When it comes to product or recipe reviews, Brereton said, Google’s search engine results “became crap.” Rather than settling for the default, those who want to know what a “real, real human being” thinks of a certain product have learned workarounds, such as adding “Reddit” to their searches. to surface relevant threads on this platform. . On Reddit’s “Buy It For Life” forum, for example, they’ll find users showing off a Soviet-era toaster, a restored vintage Sunbeam, and other toasters to “age with it,” like we said it. Brereton’s post – which ended with “Google is dead. Long Live Google+ ‘site:reddit.com’”—became the #10 most voted link ever on the Hacker News tech industry discussion board. #11 is a complaint about Google’s search results being too similar to its ads, while #12 is a link to an alternative independent search engine. Obviously, others share Brereton’s sense of dissatisfaction with search engines.
Brereton told me recently that his frustration started in late 2020. “I was browsing the internet one day and I started to feel like something was wrong,” he said. “A lot of the content doesn’t feel authentic, it doesn’t feel real.” He seemed puzzled by the meteoric popularity of his post, which was part of a personal research project into how information is organized online. Better information could be found on social networks, discussion forums and small-scale personal blogs, but Google search discredited these platforms in favor of corporate websites, which could afford the money and efforts to optimize Google’s search algorithm. “The Authentic Web” seemed hidden, Brereton said. “Algorithms tell us what to read.”
Google Search accounts for approximately eighty-five percent of the global search engine market. It’s been such a part of our online experience for so long that it can be hard to imagine anything different. The Google search page today looks much like it did when it launched in 1998: blue links on a stark white background. From the start, the company’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, recognized the tension between useful search results and profitable results. “The goals of the advertising business model do not always align with providing quality research to users,” they wrote as Stanford students, in a 1998 paper. Yet the ads were introduced in 2000 and have proliferated ever since. Links to websites have dropped from search results pages, replaced by Google’s “quick replies,” which borrow snippets of text from sites so users don’t even have to click. Decades of search engine optimization have resulted in content formulated not to inform readers, but to rank high on Google pages. Maybe that’s one of the reasons my toaster results seemed so redundant: every site is trying to solve the same algorithmic equation.
Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of privacy-focused search engine company DuckDuckGo, cited three other sources of dissatisfaction with Google Search. The first is the company’s practice of tracking user behavior, which generates the kind of creepy, internet-hunting advertising that Google profits from. The second is that Google prioritizes its own services in search results, such as answering a travel query with quick answers pulled from Google Places instead of a richer, more social source like Tripadvisor. Finally, according to Weinberg, users are simply tired of Google’s domination of their Internet experience. Google would pay Apple more than fifteen billion dollars a year to remain the default search engine on iPhones. On Google’s own Android phone, changing one’s preferred search engine requires tedious adjustment of settings, and pop-up messages along the way prompt the user to return to Google. “Most people never chose their search engine,” Weinberg said.
DuckDuckGo, which does not engage in any user tracking, has over the past year doubled both its estimated number of users, from fifty million to one hundred million, and its search traffic, from 1.5 billion to three billion queries per month. It serves ads based solely on users’ search terms rather than their past behavior patterns. According to Weinberg, every time you search DuckDuckGo, “it’s like being there for the first time.” In reality, however, choosing from existing search engines has only a modest impact on results, as all major engines operate based on a model established by Google’s original WebCrawler and PageRank technologies. DuckDuckGo, for example, makes extensive use of Microsoft’s Bing product search algorithm. A DuckDuckGo search for “best toaster” brings up more or less the same results on my phone as Google does, with ads, sales alerts, and affiliate marketing listings. (The Times recently reported that DuckDuckGo has become popular among conspiracy theorists who believe Google’s results are censored, but DuckDuckGo disputes that it features more controversial content than Google.)
Viktor Lofgren, a Swedish software developer and consultant who created his own independent search engine called Marginal notes, told me, “Part of the similarity is that the recommendation and prediction algorithms often seem to work almost too well.” Marginalia, which Lofgren started working on a year ago, is a minimalist website run entirely from a computer in his living room. The search engine’s stated mission is to “show you sites you may not have been aware of”. Its results, based on its own custom algorithm and data collection, prioritize text-based websites that lack ads, mobile support, encryption and other features that qualify as good SEO “Google punishes sites that are not outdated with modern web technologies,” Lofgren said. “Legitimately old websites also deserve some attention.” A Marginalia search for “best toaster” brings up 90s tech blogs and vintage internet jokes on the technology companies of the time. (“If Apple made toasters… It would do everything Microsoft’s toaster does, but 5 years earlier.”) There are no images on the page, let alone carousels or “Buy Now” buttons. Marginalia’s results wouldn’t help you choose a new device, but they do offer a fascinating insight into just how much material there is on the internet, and how much is never making it to the top of Google’s current results.
Danny Sullivan, Google’s “public liaison for search,” told me that people who use Google to find Reddit threads are actually proof that search works the way it should. Users have generally become passive, relying on Google to anticipate their desires. If they wanted to, they could refine their queries, limiting the results by, say, price level (“toaster $40 . . . $100”) or listing certain terms to exclude (“toaster bread” NOT “oven””). As machine learning algorithms have become more prevalent, we have lost some of the search fluency that older Internet users may have learned in a Boolean tutorial in high school. “There’s a shift now where if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you blame the search engine,” Sullivan said. At the same time, he admitted that many users wanted “more non-commercial information, more community information”.
If it wanted to, Google could adjust its search algorithm to prioritize Reddit or other social platforms, for example, by pulling more of their content into its quick replies. Already, its algorithms are constantly changing. In 2020, for example, I noticed that my Google Image search results were often images from the moodboard site Pinterest, devoid of any identifying titles or source information. (I clearly wasn’t alone: A complaint about the phenomenon I started on Twitter got nearly a hundred thousand likes.) . Today, however, Pinterest doesn’t show up in my results with nearly the same frequency. When I asked Sullivan about the change, he cited the company’s recent work to “increase domain diversity” that they show.