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Jun 07, 2024

Have You Complained About Google Lately?

In my job, it’s quite common to grumble about the platforms we have to promote our customers on, be it organic search, paid advertising, or social media. None of the platforms is perfect and everyone in the industry will have gripes with minor problems that occur every now and then. But we’ve always known the value the platform offers and why it’s important to work past our irritation.

But the biggest of the platforms we use seem to be having more trouble than usual lately. The last twelve months haven’t been kind to Google.

Legal Troubles

The US Department of Justice took Google to court for an antitrust trial where dubious practices by the search giant were exposed for the world to see. What sort of dubious practices? Well, the $26 billion they spent making sure they were the default search engine on Apple devices and in the Firefox browser for one. The potential court case has rumbled on for years before finally being heard in Washington DC with closing arguments coming after seven months of detailed evidence being submitted and witnesses called.

Whatever the consequences of the DoJ’s antitrust trial, it’s likely to dwarf the last judgement against Google, when they were ordered to pay $700 million over their anti-competition practices relating to the Play store at the end of last year.

On this side of the pond, we have the recent decision to allow a £13.6 billion lawsuit against Google for their advertising practices. The EU are also once again looking at Google accusingly with an investigation into possible violations of the new Digital Markets Act (DMA). This investigation started in March, less than a month after the DMA came into force, and will also look at Apple and Meta.

Unhelpful Search Results

A core update to the search algorithm last July resulted in Reddit appearing far more often in the search results. Then earlier this year the motive for that update was given questionable context when a deal between Google and Reddit for Google to be allowed to train their AI on Reddit’s content came to light.

Various updates since have been touted by Google to be making the search results a more helpful place for users. However, there have been accusations that they are penalising smaller publishers in favour of big companies that have backroom deals with Google.

A study done in the US shows that over half of people are spending longer with search results trying to find what they want. This includes rewriting the search query, scrolling through more search results, and testing multiple results by visiting the websites, before finding what they had searched for in the first place.

Breaking the Ads

One other frustration the survey uncovered is a frustration shared by those who pay to show their ads in Google’s search results; Ads are becoming less relevant. Google’s drive to force advertisers to use their automatic systems for things like ad targeting and bidding have removed control about who is shown the Ads and is putting that decision-making in the hands of an AI.

This may be fine for businesses who have simple audiences that Google understands, but for anyone advertising in a niche (especially B2B), this loss of control has been an expensive learning curve while we find ways to wrest back some precision.

Making the situation worse for Google’s reputation with the people who actually pay them, advertisers were (to varying degrees, depending on their inherent cynicism) shocked by the revelation in the antitrust trial that Google have been “fixing” the ad auctions to increase their revenue.

Users are certainly noticing this as well, with 35% of users stating that they ignore the ads in the search results by default now.

Users Vote with their Feet (or Fingers)

While it was initially only those in the SEO industry who were complaining about Google’s actions with their search algorithm, it has hit Google in more substantial ways. Google’s market share is slipping (although, they are still the biggest game in search town by a huge margin). While it may only be down 2% in total, the drop is far more pronounced for users of the desktop version (where the ability to switch between search engines is simpler), with a 7% drop in monthly users from May 2023 to May 2024.

It might not sound like much, but Google clocks 8.5 billion searches a day, so that 7% is almost 600 million searches every day being done on their competitor’s search engines instead. That’s lost ad revenue for Google, and a boost for their more diminutive (at least in terms of user volume) competitors like Bing and Yahoo.

Artificial, but Not so Sure About the Intelligent

Google used the USA as a guinea pig for their AI-based search results. Initially rolled out to selected users as Search Generative Experience (SGE), it was recently renamed AI Overviews (AIO) when it was given a more widespread release (again only in the USA). Essentially the concept was to provide direct answers to questions right there in the search results, often to the chagrin of the publishers who actually came up with the answers in the first place. The cause of the dispute is that publishers are being denied ad revenue as users are getting the answer without visiting the websites in the search results.

Aside from the questionable skirting of copyright laws by various AI systems, the other issue that has plagued Google’s new AIO is that it has been giving the wrong answers. While that may be fine if you’re looking for “who scored the winning goal in the 1981 FA Cup final” sneakily on your phone while at a pub quiz, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish when it’s what Google themselves refer to as YMYL (Your Money or Your Life).

YMYL is something Google have always treated very carefully. These are topics relating to finance or health, where a wrong answer can have devastating real-world consequences. That AIO was allowed to be released to the public while being able to recommend “jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge” as a recommended treatment for depression is somewhat shocking. Not all of the failures were quite so striking, but we did have Google’s AIO recommending people add glue to pizza to help the cheese stick (it did at least recommend non-toxic glue), eating rocks, drinking urine (which isn’t sterile, regardless of what you have heard), that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or that strawberrum is an example of a fruit ending in “um”.

Google took steps to mitigate the damage, limiting how often AIO was shown in search results, and claiming that the “wrong” answers were only being given for “never before seen searches”. SEO experts worldwide were quick to point out that, by Google’s own admission, 15% of all searches have never been seen by Google’s systems before. Given the billions of searches carried out every day, it’s striking to think that almost one-in-six of those searches is something nobody has ever typed into that search box before.

This isn’t the first time this year that Google’s been embarrassed by its AI. In March they had to stop their Gemini AI from allowing users to have it make images of people after it made poor diversity decisions when asked to produce representations of historical groups. While diversity is a good thing, it’s stretching credulity to have black Nazi stormtroopers or female popes, which the Gemini AI quite happily served up to users.

What All This Means

Well, it doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to market websites on Google’s platforms. We’re still doing SEO in line with Google’s best practices. We’re still running Ads accounts that are configured for the best return on investment. We’re even still using Gmail.

It does mean that we do have to pay close attention though. We’re making sure we keep up to date with everything that Google is doing to ensure that we’re doing the right things for our customers.

We’re also keeping close eyes on the best routes to connect our clients with their customers, be it social media, SEO, or paid advertising, and which of the various networks would serve them best.