Is Google Dumbing Down Search Results?

    September 29, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

There has been an interesting discussion about Google and search quality this week thanks to comments made by a Googler who suggested that a site with higher quality, better information is not always more useful.

Wait, what?

Hasn’t Google been pounding the message of “high quality content is how you rank well in Google” in everybody’s heads for years? Well, sometimes dumbed down is better. Apparently.

Do you believe there are times when Google should not be providing the most high-quality search results at the top of the rankings? Tell us what you think.

Web developer Kris Walker has started a site called The HTML and CSS Tutorial (pictured), which he aims to make a super high quality resource for beginner developers to learn the tricks of the trade. The goal is to get its content to rank well in search engines – specifically to rank better than content from W3Schools, which he finds to be lackluster.

“The search results for anything related to beginner level web development flat out suck,” he writes.

“So the plan is to create a site, which I’m calling The HTML and CSS Tutorial, with the goal of winning the search engine battle for beginner level web development material,” he says. “To do this it needs to have the best learning material on the web (or close to it), along with comprehensive HTML, CSS, and JavaScript reference material. It needs to provide high quality content coupled with an information architecture that will get a beginner up to speed, meeting their immediate needs, while allowing them to go through a comprehensive course of material when they are ready.”

Okay, so it sounds like he’s got the right attitude and strategy in mind for getting good search rankings. You know, creating high quality content. This is what Google wants. It has said so over and over (and over and over) again. The Panda update completely disrupted the search rankings for many websites based on this notion that high quality, informative content is king when it comes to search visibility. It makes sense. Above all else, people searching for content want to land on something informative, authoritative and trustworthy, right?

Well, not always, according to one Googler.

Walker’s post appeared on Hacker News, and generated a fair amount of comments. One user suggests that higher quality sites are often further down in the search results because they’re not as popular as the sites that are ranked higher.

Google’s Ryan Moulton comments, “There’s a balance between popularity and quality that we try to be very careful with. Ranking isn’t entirely one or the other. It doesn’t help to give people a better page if they aren’t going to click on it anyways.”

In a later comment, Moulton elaborates:

Suppose you search for something like [pinched nerve ibuprofen]. The top two results currently are http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/pinched-nerve/DS00879/DSECT… and http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20071010035254AA…
Almost anyone would agree that the mayoclinic result is higher quality. It’s written by professional physicians at a world renowned institution. However, getting the answer to your question requires reading a lot of text. You have to be comfortable with words like “Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” which a lot of people aren’t. Half of people aren’t literate enough to read their prescription drug labels: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1831578/

The answer on yahoo answers is provided by “auntcookie84.” I have no idea who she is, whether she’s qualified to provide this information, or whether the information is correct. However, I have no trouble whatsoever reading what she wrote, regardless of how literate I am.
That’s the balance we have to strike. You could imagine that the most accurate and up to date information would be in the midst of a recent academic paper, but ranking that at 1 wouldn’t actually help many people. This is likely what’s going on between w3schools and MDN. MDN might be higher quality, better information, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more useful to everyone.

Wow, so as far as I can tell, he’s pretty much saying that Google should be showing dumber results for some queries based on the notion that people won’t be smart enough to know what the higher quality results are talking about, or even capable enough to research further and learn more about the info they find in the higher quality result. If you’re interpreting this a different way, please feel free to weigh in.

Note: For me, at least, the Mayo Clinic result is actually ranking higher than the Yahoo Answers result for the “pinched nerve ibuprofen” query example Moulton gave. I guess literacy prevailed after all on that one.

If Google is actually actively dumbing down search results, this seems somewhat detrimental for society, considering the enormous share of the search market Google holds.

Meanwhile, Google itself is only getting smarter. On Thursday, Google revealed that it has launched its biggest algorithm change in twelve years, dubbed Hummingbird. It’s designed to enable Google to better understand all of the content on the web, as it does the information in its own Knowledge Graph. I hope they’re not dumbing down Knowledge Graph results too, especially considering that it is only growing to cover a wider range of data.

Well, Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” There’s nothing about quality, accuracy, or better informing people in there.

Hat tip to Search Engine Roundtable for pointing to Moulton’s comments.

Should Google assume that people won’t understand (or further research) the highest-quality content, and point them towards lesser-quality content that is easier to read? Let us know what you think.

Image: htmlandcsstutorial.com

  • eydie

    he lost me when he used the non existent word “anyways.”

  • Robbie

    Google has severely messed up.

    I have one retail site that provides more products and more relevant unique information than all the competitors in the business, and I am completely beaten to a pulp by Google – mainly because I don’t spam my links around and I don’t use black-hat SEO tricks that all the others do.

    Google consistently promotes weaker content based solely on the popularity of it, whether it’s good or not. They “claim” that providing unique and high quality content will gain you attention, increase your traffic, and therefore make you a leader, but it’s a chicken/egg situation.

    All those other crappy sites have already spammed the world with links, already outrank everyone playing by Google’s Mafia rulebook, and we are beaten into obscurity because of their unfair practices.

    The best thing to do is to ignore Google entirely. Create great content for your visitors, update with something as often as possible, paste your links anywhere and everywhere, and tell Google to go sit and swivel.

    People are moving more and more to other search engines anyway. I have seen a considerable balance shift in the source of organic clicks, Yahoo and Bing are climbing and Google is declining.

    I used to love Google, but the way it controls, manipulates and attacks small businesses is sickening to me, and I hope that one day it is wiped out and replaced by a fair market.

    • http://Www.kobemidwest.com Rock winters

      I buy American Kobe beef online a lot and have bought from many sites, kobemidwest.com has about the best but they do not rank high all the time the bigger companies with more money to throw at google rank high and the meat isn’t as good. I think it depends how much money you want to spend on where you rank. Which gives bigger guys a unfair advantage

  • http://www.seniorcenterdirectory.com RobertF

    You know Kris I have notice over the last few years that I get more traffic from Bing and Yahoo than from Google. And I have not tried to optimize for Bing. I am always trying to figure out Google. Well I have made a drastic change and hardly ever pay attention to Google. I just watch my Bing Webmaster tools instead.

  • http://www.skinsecrets.in Tejash

    I agree with some points however we have been lucky enough. Google launched Hummingbird since last 1 month and our site Skinsecrets.in has seen great increase of search traffic ( 90% from google) since last 15 days.

    Yes credit goes to my team as well for doing extraordinary seo.

    Cheers !!

    • http://doityourselfcomputing.com Robbi Drake

      I honestly believe that we have to strike a fair balance between the people who desire more information and those who desire easy to read information.

      To do less is in essence to censor for the reader and to assume that we know their level of intelligence as well as what they may or may not want to know.

      To “dumb it down” for them, means to lower the information level and to give them what may be one sided or lower quality information which is certainly not what the search engines are for by any stretch.

    • http://doityourselfcomputing.com Robbi Drake

      I’m not sure I’d be applauding my team’s SEO because my rank rose when the title of the article is.. “Google is dumbing down search”..If search results are being “dumbed down” and your site rose in rank, you’d certainly have to have a few mixed feelings about that.LOL.

  • Bob Rodriguez

    After being loyal to Google since its inception I have jumped ship. My default page is now Yahoo. It took a long time and much consideration. But Google has “played” with my results one too many times. I predict that Yahoo (if they keep going in the direction that they are currently) will overtake Google and leave them in the dust. It may take a year or 10 years. Either way, I’m finished with Google. And furthermore, I am not going to advertise with them. My business is established and my ranking is in Yahoo’s top spot under my most important search term. Why is it in the top spot? Because I have the best and most relevant content. So much for trying to steer me toward their advertising campaign. So long Google. Not need to send me those nifty little Google blankets and thank you letters for spending thousands of dollars with you.

  • pgadeyne

    Google says that the different changes have been to counter spammers, it may have been in the past, but the recent changes point more towards making SEO as hard as possible to coerce users into giving up and spending money on Adwords, their main source of revenue.

  • http://www.park-south.com Jamesy O’Ryan

    We all reckon that Google dumbed down the results for Ireland ages ago. After all, if they serve up the best pages, people stay on the site and are not tempted to click on adverts out of boredom.

  • http://www.ebizprinciples.com Tony Tsitses

    I aggee with Walker, I see it in almost any niche, popularity wins over quality content most of the time, and to get your content popular you need a strong social media strategy.

    • http://www.extreme-cleaner.com Deep Thoughts

      I agree with Tony T and a strong social media strategy costs alot of time or money. Internet marketing in general can be difficult for small business, especially when you sometimes have to jump through invisible hoops.

  • Shiloh

    I “used” to give Google about 2500/month on Adwords campaigns. Then they penalized my site for “bad” links that I had nothing to do with. Now I give them NOTHHING and will never be a PPC advertiser with Google again. Good job Cutts! You just lost another advertiser. You must be a genius :)
    Now all my ad money goes to Bing and my organic results are excellent with Bing and Yahoo.
    Google can SHOVE all their guidelines , rules and policies! Their results stink now anyway.

  • http://bestmoviesevernews.com/ Curt

    It’s going to be another one of those ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.

    It’s a big announcement for G’s 15th birthday plus final fiscal quarter hits next week so timing was crucial for them on this.

    When you listen to G’s version of what Hummingbird does, it sounds amazing for the user, but putting it in practice is pretty much showing the same results coming up that have for the past year. Personally, I’d love a search engine that could take my entire query and get the exact results, but G’s still not there yet. I have been finding better results on Bing though.

    I’ve been saying for years that G will keep peeing off webmasters who just want to be able to deliver good original content without having to worry about being penalized for something they didn’t do or being collateral damage with the latest animal named update and wind up relying more on Bing or other search engine traffic. History shows that every company that secured a monopoly position on their industry usually went too far and wound up crumbling down while competitors quickly jumped in.

    For so many of us who started our sites with a passion for what we were writing about, G has certainly tested us to see how far we can be pushed before just giving up. I think with the ‘Unnatural links’ that have turned out to be wrong, G’s backing back a little since many good sites who didn’t have unnatural links wound up getting that message slap. Our included and it took just two weeks before G saw that we didn’t have any unnatural links. Several over sites have been vocal in the media about it which caused G to step back a moment and realize that their algorithms aren’t always fullproof.

    It will be interesting to see how the next year plays out for G as Bing will continue their heavy marketing push against them.

  • http://www.thenewageblog.com/ Newager

    We have become obsessed with Google, once you start using Yahoo and Bing you realize that the results are far more accurate with regard to information and relevance.

    I have been writing unique content and obviously research on the web, I follow all the guidelines and check with all the tools available. However, as far as Google rankings is concerned I cannot compete with the low quality duplicated content from popular and paid sites that dominates Google’s search results.

    Therefore, I give up and as others have suggested if we all used Yahoo and Bing where the little people can get high rankings by using quality content then the problem would resolve itself.

    I also find Bing webmaster tools far more helpful especially the tool for checking any SEO violations. I also find the increased impressions and clicks an incentive.

  • http://www.gbepackaging.com Bob Teal

    Why are you using the internet. My kids use it for entertainment for for us it is to sell packaging supplies at the lowest cost. You cant sell anything at the lowest price if you do it Googles way. Just how much do you spend to save someone else money? Thousands – Millions. Not. If the internet is for selling you don’t spend 20 dollars to sell a 2 dollar item when it costs 5 times that amount to ship it to your customer. I think Google has not even considered that many people use the internet to buy product or run their business. Why would I pay hundreds of dollars to sell product as cheap as we do. We are lucky to make 10% before shipping. Google will not listen to us so I guess if you want lower prices it is up to you to find them on page 20 of google or just pay more on page one. We will continue to offer the lowest price until Google forces us out of business.

  • http://www.bizwaremagic.com Titus Hoskins

    I Am An Atheist – I Don’t Believe In Google

    Anymore… like one of the respondents below, I used to
    spend 1000’s on Google each month but their results have
    become so unstable/crappy in the last few years I have
    completely ignored them. I now spend my adverting bucks
    on Facebook and Bing. At least those sites don’t twerk
    me around!

    • http://www.edegreecolleges.com/teaching-degree-online.shtml Master Degree in Teaching

      Yes, I agree with you as lately I too noticed that traffic from FB, Being & Yahoo start converting well compare to last couple of years :)

      • http://www.edegreecolleges.com/teaching-degree-online.shtml Master Degree in Teaching

        was in hurry and typo Bing … sorry

  • http://www.edegreecolleges.com/teaching-degree-online.shtml Master Degree in Teaching

    I don’t think so….

    Google did a smart job, just today while I search for an answer to my query, I found various pages (search result) from wiki to anything but none of them giving me EXACT ANSWER but long long narration, text, examples… I’m neither teacher… nor student who is preparing for phd etc, I don’t know explanations… just give me answer…

    after 35 minutes I got my answer and that from page which are not on top 3 with google… so… moral of story…

    Top 30 pages/site ARE NOT GOOD FOR ME .. but the 41st ur/site.

    Go ahead Google, you are meant for same … Quick Search… Quick Answer… Save Time…. stop visors from going to other Search Engines…

    Hats OFF :)

  • http://www.frontlineweb.biz Mick

    So long as as they get rid of web spam carry on google

    • Steve

      But that’s the point! The search results since some weeks bring up more and more spam (or low quality content) sites before the quality content sites! Google seems to do something dead wrong at this moment.

  • http://career.com.ng/factors-to-consider-when-making-a-career-choice/ Darlington

    I have notice that sometimes i have to search through so many pages before i can find what i am looking for. I think Google always give these website they trust higher ranking, even if the information they are providing doesn’t really get detail about you searched for.

  • http://www.eutouring.com/ Martin

    Google dumb..well the report I read in a UK newspaper Google reps have more access to No 10 downing Street than top MPs!!!! now that makes you wonder whats being cooked up with all the web results being as they are…would add the response I had from google with regards traffic and clicks quote ” it seems like there were no clicks on September 23. At the same time I have to say that at this level of traffic this kind of fluctuations are quite normal. ” un-quote…would like to add that in 7 years of having google adds I have never seen a no click rate, so not sure what they mean by normal!!

  • http://canadawebservices.com Renu

    Google is keep on changing the algorithms and applying various techniques, though you are right that google is dumbing the results as non-optimized and poor content websites are ranking high in the SEs,
    I have also saw many good websites with high quality content ranked below then the poor sites..

    • Ed Davis

      “Dumbing down?”
      “High quality?”

      If one’s criteria for quality means a site with a big design budget and SEO budget, then we need to consider that there are many website creators out there who have well written, well researched content but do not have the time nor budget to make their sites “look good” to search engines.

      Does an “official” site from a big institution such as the Mayo Clinic always provide high quality information? Maybe. The problem with institutional sites is that information provided tends to be that which is created by committee, consensus, non-controversial and oftern lacks depth. Such sites have information that is safe but often far from cutting edge.

    • http://www.rawfunkgames.net.au rfg

      I agree with you 100% Renu. This article certainly seems plausable, given, I’m also seeing numerous sites ranking above mine and others which look like they’ve been written by 1’st graders. Albeit I’m in the highly competitive gaming vertical but when sites with poor quality guides, sub-standard articles; effectively glorified doorway pages, out ranking quality sites then you it kinda blows the rhetoric Google has been force feeding webmaster for years!

  • http://usawebseo.com/google-encrypts-keyword-searches-provided-data-analytics-gone-3-things-seo-now/ Ayush


    Google has been facing brickbats for being on the wrong side of recent scandal of NSA…In fact, this effort I see as a make-up thinggie when the trust of users’ hold immense importance.

    And other players like Bing, Yahoo, Hubspot, Wordtracker etc have great leeway now to make their presence felt.

  • Randy Fox

    High quality website content. Hello if I’m providing house cleaning in a city, why do I have to pay a webmaster to continually change my site. High quality content! Does that mean I say We can’t clean your toilit and put pictures of the Mona Lisa on the page. When Google says High quality content it means your buying their adwords or using a Google service or product.

  • Rickey

    I’ve come to depend more on Sites like Zeekly.com and Bing for both Ads, and our search engine of choice, because I’ve long been unhappy with the results from Google. It should be the best-Longest Established-most relevant sites that appear in the first order of returns. That no longer is the case with Google. I tire of Matt coming out with new lines, rules and changes that run us around in circles, so my choice seems to be working for us. We still rank good in Google, but get more traffic from other sources now, and I think it’s a good thing for all of the site owners to change up a bit.

  • http://www.computershowto.pro Attila

    The greatest mistake on the part of ALL the search engines, google included, is that average people, who actually use the search engines, will search using language the programmers behind the search algorithms speak.
    In other terms, they think, that their native language – which is in most cases, of academic level, and they have a dictionary probably 5 times larger then the average searcher – is the language the searchers will use.
    Totally wrong. Average Joe has no idea what ibuprofen is, average joe wants “headache remedy”, or “my head hurts”, smt like that. I have blogs that were terribly hit by panda, simply because I INTENTIONALLY use in the articles a native romanian, “folk” language, and that language has nothing to do with the academically approved, correctly spelled, and correctly spoken language.
    Now I presume this goes for every language, not just Romanian. The google search team’s very, very, faulty presumption that average people on the street, your average plumber, carpenter, painter, auto mechanic, etc, will use the same words and / or phrases when searching for something, as they (the programmers or engineers ) would do, is what has FORCED me and a lot of other people in Hungarian and Romanian communities, to use bing and duckducgo, even yandex ever more often.
    ACADEMIC level search queries should be MOVED to a “scholar.google.com” or something like that, and leave the normal, average joe’s search queries-based google, at google.com
    My 2 cents :)

  • max

    Hi, this dumbing stuff is totally true and since they changed management and got rid of Mr. Schmidt the acceleration in the wrong direction is evident at least this guy had some basic knowledge about management, they current dont. This dumb stuff is clearly visible when you write a page the most important is dont write about the subject only some peripheral stuff which has a bit to do with the subject but never more than around 20% this substandard stuff google likes. Yahoo / Bing is much more relevant since they use precise targeted keywords, google uses bla-bla. I think this also has to do with the low education level of the employees they dont even know things what we have know after 4 year primary school. Even programming is lousy because they change everything every month, they are in a real mess. E.g. I try to start a adword campaign since 7 weeks now in vain. Every week I get a mail from India, they outsourced this, which tells me very sorry we know the problem, we are working on etc. but they cant finish it etc….. Oh, yes but they have time for a new gadget, what about their core business? > invest some money in capable people!

  • Steve

    Popularity is way before quality with Google now. Google has trasnformed into an Amazon and eBay search engine within the past months. Bing results are much better now. If you look for a product, first page in Google, it gets stuffed with 3, 4, or even 5 results from Amazon only. And this goes on. I am talking about organic search results only, of course.

  • http://www.boysclothingstore.co.uk Boys Clothingstore

    Wauw, and I thought that Google┬┤s position was untouchable. All these comments are a big learning school for me. Thanks people for this valuable advice.

  • http://www.makingfriends.com Terri

    Being in a field where “a picture is worth a thousand words” Google really falls short. We now have to write bunches of copy that no one will read just to get good indexing. There is only so much a good photo will do for SEO rankings.

    I do notice that on the really spammy key words google does do a better job at filtering out the spammers but the average search results are better on bing.

  • http://www.classickitchens.ca Chris

    Its all about the money! Brilliant actually. People are lazy, so the more irrelevant the search results are, the more inclined people are to accept the PAID ads as proper results, since they are on the first page.

    Google has steadily been becoming more and more irrelevant. I find other search engines such as Bing, etc. to be providing much more concise results than “Garble”. When people will wake up to this is up for debate, but the tide seems to be turning away from “Goofball”

    • http://www.sbwebcenter.com Steve B

      Interesting point, Chris. I never thought of it that way before, but it does make sense. However, Google should tread lightly because as their relevancy worsens, so do they risk losing market share to the other search engines.

  • http://meandmymac.net Arnan de Gans

    I haven’t really noticed much of Google’s tricks in Google Search itself. I usually type a keyword as part of the query; “wiki cidr addresses” and it shows me wikipedia stuff. Which I want. Or “w3 anchor tag”.

    However, Google completely lost sight of Youtube results, recommendations suck, it’s loaded with useless “suggestions” and trending shit I don’t care for. It completely ruined the fun of watching online videos. Or even posting them, with all their copyright nonsense and lack of trust towards users.

  • Debbie

    I have been hit hard by Google within the last few months and we’ve been in business going on 7 years. I think “dumbing down” search results is ridiculous. It’s like passing students who can’t read. Popularity is NOT a valid criteria for good or great information! All the the ‘reality’ shows on TV are a fine example of this! I’m not happy; can you tell? :)

  • http://www.sbwebcenter.com Steve B

    The thing is you can’t please everyone. Some people are going identify with “dumbed down” content, while others will identify with “smarter” content.

    Either way, Google still favors big brands over the little guys, which is really not fair but the issue isn’t about what’s fair. It’s really about who has the resources to produce the most volume of quality content.

  • http://www.webox.net/ Conner

    I use to pay google lots of money for nothing your article was very helpful thank you !!

  • http://sourcedesign.com/ Steve

    I think google want to push people into adwards that is the point !!!

  • poes

    Google gives you search results (automatically) of 3 years ago.
    WTF, i want the latest results.
    You get the feeling they want to hide the real information you want,and this is exactly what happens.
    The Internet is controlled, and gives you the results it wants to give you(in other words,they keep people uninformed and dumb.

  • MrBalrogwithsnowandfire

    Another problem is Google has been caught censoring information mainly Anti Left Wing sites that aren’t afraid to report what’s going on behind closed doors when leaks come out.

    In the mid 2000s Google had a scandal with China hacking into their emails and ever since then they have been going along with China with a *Let’s get along* policy trying to kiss the boots of their leaders.

    Ever since then Google has sucked and have goon too commercialized. They used to have neat products that got scrapped because of commercialization.

    One product I liked was the Google News Service which aim was to centralized all the news including archives and half way thru they canned it for unknown reasons.

    They are now into apps for mobile phones and crap instead of caring about desktop users giving us the finger. I believe Google + is more aimed at cell phone users then desktop which I think the majority of complaints are from PC users who don’t want it forced. It seems like Google is being mean but in reality they are catering to the phone and tablet crowd.

    PC’s are about to become ancient history and Google knows it. It didn’t have to be this way but people chose to be stupid not realizing the potentials of a PC. It shouldn’t have to be an either/or issue.

  • MrBalrogwithsnowandfire

    In fact ever since the first China incident in the mid 2000s Google has been in trouble with their street view cars collecting personal data and gone to court several times.

    I’ve notice since then the street view quality has gone down the tubes and they are focusing on third world countries when they do update.

  • MrBalrogwithsnowandfire

    One last thing. Now to even view Google Forums you have to be a member or you will get stuck at a sign in page to verify you’re account.

  • http://www.socialsu.com KARAJA

    I’m also one of those people who are frustrated by google search results. And decided to create something simple and socially optimized by people.
    That’s why we have created http://socialsu.com which is new search engine based on web 2.0 technology.