The New York Times published a very interesting (and very long) article over the holiday break that raises a lot of questions about Google and search in general. I'll let you read the 8-page story yourself if you want all the details, but what it boils down to is that Google doesn't always point you to the best possible results.
Do you think Google's results need improvement? Share your thoughts here.
Some of you probably don't need an 8-page article to tell you that, but this story in particular paints a picture of a business that goes out of its way to treat customers poorly so that they'll leave negative comments, which have (in the past) worked to boost its visibility on Google, as the search engine has given more focus to local businesses. It sounds crazy, but it has apparently worked, though since the story brought exposure to it, Google appears to have dropped the rankings in this instance. The point is that there is no telling how widespread this kind of thing is - not businesses intentionally treating customers poorly for search visibility (though I'm sure this one business isn't the only one to engage in such behavior), but just Google giving undeserved visibility to businesses that get more bad reviews than good.
Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, who was tapped as a source for the NYT piece, provides a great deal of further analysis on Google's practices here.
"Having seen the crazy things that Google will rank high over time, it's easy to become jaded and think 'that’s the way it is,' he writes. "Many SEOs I know feel this way and have largely given up assuming anything will change, or that Google will take the SEO view of its ranking problems seriously. Heck, Google still won't let people look up all the backlinks leading to a site, which might allow outsiders to do a better job helping them police their results."
This is one of the key selling points of Blekko, the new search engine to the party, which both lets people look up said backlinks and relies on community to establish relevancy. See our interview with Blekko co-founder Rich Skrenta here:
"It's all stuff that can be dismissed as 'inside baseball' and not what typical people care about," Sullivan added. "But typical people do care, do get puzzled...what Google ranks tops can have a terrible impact on real consumers."
This is true to some extent. If Google places the bad results over the good ones (and as Sullivan points out, Bing is no better at this than Google, and Bing provides results for Yahoo now), and consumers are duped into going with those results, it is those consumers who will pay the price.
However, it is ultimately the user's responsibility to use their own judgment and do their homework before making any decisions or suffer the consequences. As Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine says, " The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of 'dell sucks' before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed."
There's something to be said for this kind of consumer investigating. The information is out there. It's up to you how you go about getting it, which is why social media has become an important go-to channel for trusted results. You can just as easily get poor results from social media, but you define who your friends are and what their opinions mean to you.
Google and other search engines know this of course. It's why Bing made a deal for Facebook results. In fact, it's why Google recently launched a social recommendation engine (Hotpot) directly tied to local listings.
It's not as if Google isn't trying to overcome this problem. Google knows it's not perfect. The problem with that recommendation engine is that it's not where consumers' friends already are. That's why Facebook is such a key component to this whole thing, and that's why Facebook in turn is a direct competitor to Google and why Google is trying desperately to build consumers' social graphs on their own properties.
It's Ultimately in Users' Hands
If users want Google to be their way of finding trusted information, it's in their interest to build their social graphs through Google. For Google's part, it's a matter of a. getting customers to realize that, and b. getting users to care that much about Google being the place where they get their info. There are plenty of people out there that would just as soon go elsewhere, and plenty that simply don't trust Google.
Neither of these are easy tasks, and this bodes well for Facebook, which continues to get integrated into more of consumers daily habits.
The trust that comes with social and human curation is important across the entire search board. It applies to shopping. It applies to news. It applies to information in general. As the web continues to grow, so to will the importance of knowing who to trust. That means real relationships (social media), and as far as search is concerned, that means access to those relationships.
This is why social is critical to Google, and why search will continue to become more important to Facebook. It's also why Twitter (along with Twitter search) is such an effective news medium.
Do you think social adds relevance? Tell us what you think in the comments.