Is Google Dumbing Down Search Results?

    September 29, 2013
    Chris Crum

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… and…
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:

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.