At MediaPost's Search Insider Summit last week in Park City, Utah, some attendees were frustrated over the economy, and most people were frustrated by the lack of snow. Yet the biggest source of frustration seemed to be Google.
It came up during a panel early on Friday specifically about Google. It also came up in the "What's Next" panel that I moderated. And when I facilitated a roundtable on e-commerce following my panel, the participants were most talkative when they started kvetching about Google.
It wasn't the kvetching I sometimes hear during search marketing events. There wasn't the talk about challenges with Google's Quality Score or pages suddenly dropping out of its index. The complaints were mostly from marketers responding like consumers. Below I'll share a number of these complaints, largely from the roundtable. You can share your thoughts or add new gripes in the comments.
I'm not doing this to beat up on Google; the stock market's done that enough lately, forcing Google to consider whether it swaps out its Naked juices for Tropicana. During my panel, SearchIgnite President Roger Barnette noted that Google's stock woes may make it even more aggressive in developing products that appeal to both consumers and marketers, so Google could emerge as an even fiercer competitor. Meanwhile, last I checked, Google's market share hasonlybeenincreasing. Still, these frustrations shed light on some of the challenges search engines face as they try to innovate while delivering on their core value.
'Badder' Than Michael Jackson
One roundtable participant was tired of Google's results pages changing too frequently. The same search on consecutive days can often lead to different result rankings, making it harder for the consumer to efficiently scan results.
Another participant offered a vivid analogy. She said Google's search engine results are like Michael Jackson's nose. In the beginning, with "Bad," Jackson looked good, but he kept changing it so much that it became hideous.
Some of the changes people were complaining about stemmed from Google's routine algorithm tweaking, but much of the variability is caused by its personalized search results. If you're logged in, Google customizes your natural results based on how you search and click.
This feature found little love at my table. Some people were concerned that they're only seeing a narrow subset of results deemed to be relevant, while they're missing on what the masses are exposed to. There was also the sense of loss over a shared experience, where everyone at the table might see different results (or differently ordered results) for the same query. I addressed that in a previous column when Google rolled out search personalization, noting that the top 25 results for a given query could be ordered 12 trillion different ways on the first page of listings.
Then there's Google SearchWiki, where users can bump up or bump down search results for a query to manually order the ranking. I asked my panel their thoughts on this and heard crickets chirping, not because the panelists were unfamiliar with it, but because no one thought SearchWiki would make much of an impact. I'm inclined to agree; this is a tool designed for early adopters who crave advanced customization, and it deserves to stay in Google Labs. I'm not a big fan of any engine that makes me work too hard to rank my search results (I noted that point in my summer column on Yahoo SearchMonkey, though Yahoo has since remedied my earlier gripes).
Habit for Humanity
The buzzword of the show that kept coming up was "the Google habit"; we'll see where it ranks in fellow columnist Aaron Goldman's forthcoming show recap. The roundtable participants discussed ways that they've tried to break the habit. One agency strategist described how she set Microsoft's Live Search as her default engine and will give it a shot, but she still isn't getting rid of her Google Toolbar.
Not everyone suffered from the addiction. One participant said she uses different engines for different kinds of searches. This sums up the range of angst over Google. Either it's so good that people become complacent and don't bother going anywhere else, o r it's not good enough so people need to bounce around.
I asked the table if anyone thought any search engine, even a niche site for specific kinds of searches, was better than Google. Emphatically, they all said no. One decried, "Search doesn't work. It's a terrible experience."
Has Google really gotten worse, or is it a sign that Google and the other engines keep raising our expectations? I wonder if Google's like Barack Obama, setting expectations so high that they can't possibly be met (and, yes, that's now two comparisons between Google and a public figure with a mixed racial identity).
In the short term, Google's market share of search volume and advertising budgets indicates it has little to worry about. But as it moves forward, it will need to keep executing in ways that set our expectations higher, even if Google can't possibly meet them.