So Over Google

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.

Mr. Impersonality

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.

5 comments about "So Over Google".
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  1. Mark Moran from Dulcinea Media, December 9, 2008 at 10:22 a.m.

    To those of us who have been toiling to develop human-powered alternatives to search, this is music to our ears. When people with this level of Internet sophistication report that search simply doesn't work for them, one can only wonder what the experience of a more typical user is. Coupled with Techmeme hiring a human editor and Google dabbling with SearchWiki, the human powered movement is gaining quite a bit of steam; one blogger has already called it "Web 3.0". At findingDulcinea, we create guides to the Web that are filtered through human judgment and infused with context and insight. A sophisticated searcher could literally spend a week on Google and not find information as comprehensive and consistently credible as what can be found with a few clicks on our site.

  2. Steve Plunkett from Cool Websites Organization, December 9, 2008 at 10:54 a.m.

    I'm not complaining, except maybe about all the whining...

  3. Michael Mostert, December 9, 2008 at 12:32 p.m.

    I don't know if many people know about this search portal, but I like to use - it's an engine that accumulates a penny per search which is then donated to your favorite charity. A penny per search doesn't seem like much, but over time it adds up (especially if you are searching all day for your job or whatnot). It keeps track of how much you've donated and how many other "search donors" are giving to the same charity as well. I think the total donations are around $400,000 or something like that. And yes, you may see me as bias, but I think it's a nice search alternative that supports non-profits who could really use the help.

    Thanks MediaPost for all the great articles!

  4. Chris Baggott from Compendium Blogware, December 9, 2008 at 2:19 p.m.

    I'm really surprised. "Search doesn't work?"

    80% of all web interactions begin with a search. Google's market share continues to expand...for a reason. Search does work. It's great.

    What has marketers stewing is that they feel they can't control it like they could control traditional advertising. I Like this quote: "The same search on consecutive days can often lead to different result rankings"

    That's because search is a dynamic and competitive environment. You have to participate a actively, broadly and daily, to have success as a marketer. There are tactics and tools to help companies legitimately manage their organic search marketing and the organizations who are deploying them are seeing great success.

    I hate to use the word 'lazy' but let's face it, the old way of buying attention is lazy and frankly its gone. Marketing is not about advertising or interruption anymore, it's about content and it's about listening. If you want to rank consistently on search terms you have to be the content leader on that specific topic or keyword. If you want to consistently rank on a thousand keywords you have to be the content leader on a thousand topics.

    The reality is, with tools like Compendium Blogware, this isn't really that hard to do.

  5. Bill Messing from RIPL Corp., December 10, 2008 at 10:19 p.m.

    I'm always surprised how people fawn over the quality of Google search results. They're okay but the signal to noise ratio is awful. If you went to an ecommerce site and you didn't have a way to conduct an advanced search or to sort or filter the results you'd think it was really lame. Unless you're searching on something very predictable where the right link comes up at the top of the list...the miles of undifferentiated links just aren't that wonderful. Why so in love? Are there people for whom Google is just incredibly intuitive in delivering the best search result at the top of the list?

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