Google Search Results Are Dumbing Down

Is it me? I always go there first. But still, I’m under the impression that Google search results are getting stooopider.

I first noticed it in Google Earth, when the company took out the crowd-sourced Panoramio photo layer and inserted its own. Cursory Web research tells a tiring story of two Spanish entrepreneurs who founded Panoramio and sold their company to Google, which promised to keep the layer as part of Google Earth, but then reneged on it. Both founders left Google a few short years after the acquisition.

Google’s statement on what happened is a classic of disinformation — which is pretty much what we have come to expect from the new titans of tech. According to Panoramio’s Wikipedia entry, in June 2015, Google’s James Therrien, stated: “Among Google’s geo-imagery efforts, we strive to balance what makes sense for you, the pro or enthusiast photographer, with the needs of consumers. Achieving this balance can be a challenge, especially when publishing tools are managed under separate products, such as Panoramio, Views, Google+ and Google Maps. So today, after listening to community feedback about the future of the platform, we’re pleased to let you know that there won’t be any immediate changes to Panoramio. Instead of aligning the community with Views, we’ve gone back to the drawing board to work on a more integrated solution that supports you and your content directly within Google Maps. We’ll be taking the necessary time to get this right as we build a solution that strives to meet the majority of your needs. Thanks for your input, and for your patience in the year ahead.”

Perhaps Therrien was confusing Google Earth with Google Maps. Or maybe the doublespeak was too much for him, and he just lost track, despite having plenty of time to think about what he wanted to say before putting it in a written statement.

Nowhere in that quote is any mention of Google’s actual target constituency: advertisers. There’s talk about photo pros and enthusiasts and consumers. What is this nonsense about balancing the interests of photogs and viewers? That one is easy. Photogs post. Viewers view. Done.

So here’s the thing. Panoramio made Google Earth really useful. When you were interested in a place, you could home in on that location, and then click on all the photos posted in the area to get a real sense of the place on the ground.

What do we have now? Paid placements. Big surprise.

So, now, click on, say, Santa Fe, NM, and look through the photos, and what do you get? Project Tibet Inc.; Hotel Santa Fe, Hacienda & Spa; somebody’s sculpture for sale; Guadalupe Inn; Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers. You get the idea. In monetizing its property, Google has made it less useful.

But that’s not all. A few days ago, I was looking for a restaurant in Ithaca, NY, called Mia. I was in Ithaca. So, I just typed in Mia to see what would happen, figuring the geolocate function would help with narrowing down the results. What came up were pages and pages of links to a rapper called M.I.A. I’m thinking, okay, but what about the abbreviation for “missing in action”? That was M.I.A. before the rapper. But no. It wasn’t anywhere in the top few pages.

Sports figures, entertainers, and companies that support them. That’s what Google is serving up today.

If you want real information, turn to Wikipedia, Google’s impoverished second cousin. Eschewing advertising, Wikipedia at least gives a reasonable accounting of events in a timeline, with references and quotes from published sources. And comes around begging for donations like National Public Radio. I’ve given $5 the past two years. I imagine that most people don’t give anything and just use the service when they like. It was Google, after all, who taught everyone that things are free. The Android OS is free. The Chrome browser is free. Google Search is free. Google Earth is free. And, of course, you’re the product.

But initially, Google produced good results, way back before its heavy commercialization phase. And, it’s true, I was able to find the restaurant simply by inserting the term “Ithaca” alongside the string “Mia,” The restaurant popped right up at the top. But, goodness. It’s a restaurant. A commercial outfit. You’d think it would be there just for that.

The evolution of the Internet has led to a sort of federalization of information, broadcasting from the top. And the quality has gotten thinner, just like the gruel of the lower classes. There’s still some nutritional value there, but it ain’t what it used to be.

Of course, you can make smarter queries, which was how search started. Academics put search strings together. And Google does have basic and advanced search operators for the truly ambitious. But in the drive toward consumerization, structured querying has been subsumed by natural language processing, first by letting people type the way they talk, and then by digesting the spoken word à la Alexa. More of the smarts have gone under the hood so fewer of them are required by the human. Nonetheless, there remain degrees of query quality. That having been said, today we’re being dealt a greater proportion of our hash as interspliced advertorial “content.”

It makes me nostalgic for libraries with printed books in them, and periodicals. They got dustier, but the information stayed the same.

Nostalgia notwithstanding, it’s the immutability of print that’s interesting. Web content comes and goes, often has no date or any reflection of edits, and may disappear entirely. A need for immutability drove my decision, decades ago, to start keeping my own offline archive of indexed content on the technology industry. The archive doesn’t morph on its own. Years in advance, I built my scalable index for a time when I could no longer know all the information, only where it’s likely stored. And the archive is chronological, so I can graze in whatever historical period is of interest at the moment. For good measure, I often rewrite file names with memorable headlines that better summarize the content while absorbing the material and deciding where to put it. I know the information won’t stay in my head, but in order to file it, I need to understand its significance and assign it metadata. So, there’s a meeting of gray matter and content at a moment in time. Simple string search can help find things, but mostly, it’s my data cave. I know my way around.

Public libraries are struggling. Information is no longer a pubic good. Bill Gates got the ball rolling when he declared that software isn’t free and started suing everybody. And over time, all the open frontier we gazed across at the dawn of the information age got fenced in. The closest we still have to public information these days is Jimmy Wales — coming to us as a mendicant — as he tries to guard some semblance of human knowledge.