A septic tank emergency, which is as horrible as it sounds, occurred at my home a few weeks ago. I did what any smartphone-dependent person would do as horrible things started to burble up from my shower drain: I hastily Googled something along the lines of “feces coming from shower drain” and “what to do.” I was greeted by a plethora of cookie-cutter websites, the majority of which seemed quickly created and were so densely packed with buzzwords that they were hardly readable. Almost nothing I looked up was useful, so we decided to hire a professional instead. The crisis passed, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those average search results and how they exemplified a zombie-infested digital wasteland.

Like many others, I turn to Google to find the majority of the uninteresting answers to my day-to-day inquiries. However, it seems as though the first page of search results has been producing fewer pleasant results lately. I’m not alone; the belief that Google Search, which many people perceive to be a necessary utility of modern life, is on life support is a persistent meme. People have been saying that Google’s main product is broken in viral articles for the past few years across a variety of forums and social media platforms. You may find complaints about Google dying on Twitter and Reddit dating back to the middle of the 2010s. But lately, the criticisms have been more strident.

A Google developer by the name of Dmitri Brereton compiled the top explanations for why the search engine’s “results have gone to shit” in a blog post he published in February. The article soon rose to the top of tech discussion boards like Hacker News, received a lot of Twitter shares, and even caused Google’s Search liaison, Danny Sullivan, to issue a public statement disputing one of Brereton’s assertions. “In the post, you said that quotations don’t always provide exact matches. They do, in fact. Sullivan penned a string of tweets that were all sincere.

The most surprising justification Brereton offered for the extinction of Google Search was that sophisticated platform users no longer just input terms into the search field and press “Enter.” The greatest Googlers—those searching for specialty or actionable information, reviews of products, and engaging discussions—know a cheat code to get beyond the plethora of business-related search results that take up the top third of the screen. Brereton claimed that because “the majority of the web has become too inauthentic to trust,” “we resort to utilising Google, and putting the word’reddit’ to the end of our inquiries.” Brereton referenced Google Trends statistics demonstrating an increase in the number of searches for the term “reddit” on Google.

Ingenious searchers saw active discussions with testimonies from actual people discussing and talking with one another instead of reading through lengthy articles loaded with pop-up advertising and lines of barely intelligible SEO muck to get to a review or a recipe. The majority of people who use the Reddit hack do so for practical reasons, but it’s also a little act of defiance against the Search Engine Optimization and Online Ad Industrial Complex and an attempt to reach a more open and human-feeling area of the internet.

Google has created massively popular mobile operating systems, mapped the globe, revolutionised email and photo storage, and attempted—with varied degrees of success—to create self-driving automobiles. For instance, I used Google Search to conduct some of the research for this piece. I then wrote it in a Google Doc and submitted it to my editor via Gmail. Although Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is still predominantly an advertising business, the corporation has amassed an unimaginable amount of data on billions of individuals along the way, usually without their knowledge. The corporation generated $147 billion in income in 2020 solely from advertisements, or around 80% of its overall revenue.

The majority of the internet giant’s products, including as Maps and Gmail, are stooges for a massive tailored advertising industry, and Search is the one that got it all started. It serves as the current model for “surveillance capitalism,” as technology critic Shoshana Zuboff put it.

With the exponential growth of the internet and Google’s expansion with it, some of the web’s more avaricious and extractive traits began to emerge. Scale, however, is not necessarily advantageous for technological goods. Are we being dramatic for no reason, or is Google’s flagship product, Search, becoming less helpful as a result of its own success?

The impact Google Search had on how people utilised the internet when it launched in 1997 cannot be overstated. Search engines were at most somewhat useful until Google launched with its mission to explore the whole web and arrange the world’s information. Even yet, there was a lot more search rivalry in the beginning than there is now; notable websites at the time included Yahoo, Altavista, and Lycos. However, Google’s “PageRank” ranking system assisted in solving the issue. The programme tallied and catalogued the quantity and calibre of links pointing to a certain website. PageRank reasoned that the best outcomes would be websites that were connected to by several other high-quality websites rather than just a straightforward keyword match. The algorithm worked, and in the late 1990s, using Google appeared almost magical: You put in your search terms, and the results were obvious as well as relevant. The computer recognised.

Most people already know that Google has changed; they don’t need to be taught about it. If you try searching for a product on your smartphone, you’ll notice that what was once a small teal bar with one “sponsored link” has grown into a confusing, multi-scroll slog that is filled with paid-product carousels, numerous paid-link ads, the dreaded, algorithmically generated “People also ask” box, another paid carousel, a sponsored “buying guide,” and a Maps widget that displays stores selling products nearby. The organic search results may be found many screen lengths below that once you’ve gone through that. It feels too commercialised, lifeless, and tedious in 2022, much like most of the internet.

There are several explanations about why advertisements are so obtrusive. One is that Google’s cost-per-click rates are declining as a consequence of competition from Facebook and Amazon, a slowdown in spending on sponsored search results, and this year’s rollout of larger commerce-search ad widgets by Google. Another problem may result from the modifications Google is making to its cookie-tracking practises in response to privacy regulations like the California Consumer Privacy Act and the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe. Google has been preparing to eliminate third-party cookies from its Chrome browser for the previous two years.

Although the cookie restriction won’t apply to Google Search, the abundance of search advertisements may be an effort to make up for the revenue Google expects to lose as a result of the changes to Chrome. If so, this is an instance of solving one issue while introducing a new one. But when I brought this up to Google, the firm was adamant, claiming that there “is no relationship” between Search advertisements and Chrome’s intentions to gradually stop supporting third-party cookies. The business said that it “has been capped for several years, and we have not made any modifications” to the quantity of advertising it displays in search results.

Any investigation into Google’s Search algorithms will bring you into contact with SEO professionals like Marie Haynes. Haynes, a consultant, has been avidly researching Google’s algorithms since 2008. She has to keep up with every little adjustment made by the business’ engineers and public announcements made on Google’s Search team blog as part of her work. Businesses that can predict Google’s algorithms’ whims are rewarded with highly sought-after page real estate. Being highly ranked attracts more attention, which should bring in more money. Haynes sought to determine how “passage indexing,” a new method for the business to extract and rank distinct portions from webpages, would alter what consumers eventually saw when Google announced in October 2020 that it would start rolling it out.

She and her colleagues try to strike a balance between upholding a page’s integrity and appealing to the algorithm rather than reverse engineering postings to seem like bot-written nonsense. Despite the fact that Google frequently updates SEO insiders, the company’s Search algorithms are a black box (a trade secret that it doesn’t want to divulge to rivals or to spammers who will use it to manipulate the product), so determining the types of information Google will prioritise requires a lot of educated guesswork and trial and error.

Haynes said that the company’s choice to give its own goods and services precedence over organic results is aggravating and that the prominence of adverts on Search is worse than before. She contends, though, that Google’s flagship product has improved and become far more difficult over time. She speculates that this intricacy may be the reason why searching now seems different. She informed me that we were in a transitional stage and that the business had made considerable strides in machine learning and artificial intelligence to understand customer inquiries. It has moved away from the PageRank paradigm as a result of those technical improvements.

But she pointed out that those initiatives are still in their infancy and may still be ironing out some issues. Google unveiled MUM (short for Multitask Unified Model), a 1,000 times more potent natural language processing algorithm for Search, in May 2021.

According to Haynes, “The AI tries to grasp not just what the searcher is typing, but also what the searcher is attempting to get to.” It is attempting to comprehend the material included within sites and within queries, and this will alter the kind of result users receive. There may be fewer direct word matches when consumers put in keywords as a result of Google’s emphasis on searcher intent. Instead, Google is attempting to scan the query, interpret it, and then surface pages that it believes correspond to that interpretation. The move could feel like a loss of agency for searchers, despite being a little sci-fi and spooky.

Google may begin to act more like, well, a person—a concierge with its own ideals and procedures—in contrast to how search used to seem like a tool that you could manage. A Google researcher went viral while claiming he was put on administrative leave after alerting the company that one of its AI chatbots—powered by a different technology—had developed sentience. The company disputes this claim. The negative effects of increased AI inference over time are easy to imagine. Such technology might be used by Google to divert more individuals from their intended searches and into its own offerings and sponsored advertisements. Or, less slyly, it may just subtly steer individuals in unexpected paths using algorithms. Think about all the choices you make in a year depending on information you gather from Google. This indicates that there is a lot riding on Google’s AI correctly reading a searcher’s intent.

Nevertheless, some of Google’s lifeless results were created by people. Zach Verbit is familiar with what it’s like to service Google’s Search algorithms. Verbit accepted a freelance writing position with the HOTH, a marketing firm that specialises in search engine optimization, after graduating from college. Writing blog entries to promote clients’ websites’ rankings was Verbit’s “soul-crushing” task at the HOTH. Listicles with names like “10 Things to Do When Your Air-Conditioning Stopped Working” took him hours to write. Verbit posted things that “seemed artificial or like they were written by someone who had just learned the language. He was required to write up to 10 posts each day on topics he had no knowledge about. He quickly began recycling previous content for the blogs of other clients. “Those posts that appear to have been written by an AI? According to Verbit, occasionally they come from actual individuals who are cramming in as many keywords as they can.

He was frustrated that his quickly researched pieces were coming up high in search results. After a year, he left his position and declared the search-gaming sector to be a house of cards. The collapse of Google Search, probably the most straightforward, efficient, and ground-breaking product of the contemporary internet, was foreshadowed by his experience working in the SEO mines. The more work I did, the more I came to the conclusion that Google Search is now absolutely useless, the man remarked.

Marc Hardgrove, CEO of HOTH, refuted claims that client blog entries were “over-optimized” for SEO and said that the business opposes jargon-filled pieces since they don’t perform as well. He noted in an email that “overusing keywords and producing uninteresting material would be damaging to our business as an SEO company. Because of this, The HOTH does not require—or even encourage—the writers we collaborate with to stuff their blog entries with keywords in order to improve SEO.

Although many people still find Google beneficial, it is more difficult to understand why its results now seem more impersonal than they did five years ago. According to Haynes’ opinion, this is the outcome of Google’s efforts to combat false information and poor-quality material, particularly surrounding important search topics. The firm began discussing its “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness” (EAT) Search effort in public in 2017. The business has released a number of quality rater rules that aid in assessing the validity of material. One such initiative, called Your Money or Your Life, holds any pages that appear when consumers search for financial or medical information to strict criteria.

Haynes said, “Take crypto.” It will be challenging to get a site to rank unless it has a significant online presence and Google recognises it as an authority on the subject because there is a lot of fraud in that field. This implies, however, that Google’s results on any subject judged delicate enough will probably come from reputable sources. Instead of user reviews, WebMD or Mayo Clinic pages are far more likely to appear when searching for medical information. According to Haynes, this is particularly difficult for those seeking for homoeopathic or alternative medical treatments.

All of this has a certain irony to it. Researchers, engineers, legislators, and journalists have fretted over and issued warnings about the internet’s ferocity and propensity for propagating conspiracy theories, controversial topics, and outright incorrect information for years. Even at the sacrifice of business, many individuals, including myself, have urged that platforms should expose high-quality, reliable content first. And it’s plausible that Google has listened in some way (even though it’s been much too long since any action was taken), and that they may have partially succeeded in displaying results of greater quality in a few disputed areas.

However, rather than ushering in an era of flawless knowledge, the adjustments may be to blame for the complainers’ perception that Google Search no longer produces fascinating results. Theoretically, we seek out reliable knowledge, yet reliable information can be dull and dry. It reads less like a fiction and more like a government form or a textbook. Contrary to popular belief, the internet is untidy, chaotic, and unpredictable. It is tiring, never-ending, and even hazardous. It is extraordinarily human.

But it’s important to keep in mind how that humanity appeared in search results. Google has grown better at avoiding boosting conspiracies and hate speech, but it took the firm far too long, according to Rand Fishkin, creator of the software startup SparkToro and a search expert since 2004. He said to me, “I don’t know if you looked for material about the Holocaust between 2000 and 2008, but deniers frequently popped up in the top results. The Sandy Hook hoaxers experienced the same thing; in fact, some of the search engine’s modifications were a result of campaigns launched by the Sandy Hook family to refute the conspiracies.

“All I can say is that I guess they don’t want a return to that if someone complains, ‘Hey, Google doesn’t feel as human anymore,'” Fishkin said.

Due to its rigorous commercialization and maturation, Google Search may perhaps be worse than it was in the past. Parts of it could be less wild in an effort to escape regulation and be business-friendly. But a portion of what we may see as Google’s demise or death may simply be our own nostalgia for a younger, less developed internet. The Search Liaison, Sullivan, is aware of my nostalgia for the past but assured me that what appears to be a Google shift is really the search engine adapting to the web’s development.

Over time, some of this blog-style information has moved to private forums or social media. We occasionally can’t find the blog article we were looking for. According to Sullivan, some of the current issues with Google Search really show how advanced it has grown. We search for things now that we never thought we could search for 15 years ago, and we are certain we will find what we are looking for, he added. “Over time, our expectations grew. Therefore, we ask more of the instrument. It’s a fascinating, if practical, reaction.

Google has completely changed how we think about, assess, process, access, and even conceptualise information. One Reddit user commented on Brereton’s “Google Is Dying” post by saying, “I can’t live without that stuff since my brain is now conditioned to remember just snippets for Google to fill in.” Users of Google also influence search. Haynes informed me that “the younger generation searches significantly differently than I do.” They literally talk to Google like a person, whereas I only do keyword searches, which is outdated. But for the search engine giant, these peculiarities, tics, and varied behaviours are simply data. Google tends to anticipate this and starts acting like a human when younger generations instinctively start speaking to it like a person.

According to Fishkin, the quality of Google Search—as well as many of Google’s other products—improved the most from 1998 to 2007; he relates this to the company’s need to fight for market share. Since then, additional Google items have been displayed at the top of search results, according to him. He contends that this tactic has actually resulted in a number of disappointing Google products. If compared to other services, are Google Flights, Google Weather, or Google’s stock widget better? No, but because to the Search monopoly, nobody can truly compete.

It’s silly to wonder if Google Search is going away. Practically speaking, we are concerned about Search’s future since it is still the main access point to the internet’s promise of limitless information availability. However, I believe that we also care on an existential level, since Google’s debut product serves as a platform to examine our aspirations and worries over the role that technology will play in our lives. We desire for greater comfort, more invention, and more opportunity. But when we do, we frequently only see what we gave up in the process. It is a genuine and intensely felt loss. It feels like we are losing a part of ourselves. The utility of search makes it much riskier.

The majority of people don’t want their information to be filtered via bloated, monopolistic, spying tech businesses, but they also don’t want to completely go back in time. We truly need something in the middle. The development of Google Search is concerning since it seems to imply that there isn’t much opportunity for compromise or balance on the internet that we have created.