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The Hellscape that is Google’s Web in 2023

Alternate title: "were we better off in 2015 2007?"

Time now for another anti-capitalist, “get off my lawn” posting for all the folks out there who won’t see it anyway, because they don’t read real blogs for the reasons specified in this very article.

The web has existed for 30 years now. One would think our ability to access information on it would keep getting better. However, I watch as web search is instead devolving every year, to the point where people are giving up and hoping for the next thing.  While this sounds dire, this kind of behavioral change has historical precedent. Remember running your own mail or web server, or better yet, having a phone that you might actually answer calls to, even if you don’t recognize the caller’s number?  Yes, those ideas are gone too. It's all thanks to the uncontrolled thirst for advertising.

Let’s walk through the experience of someone doing a simple Google search for “how to control poison ivy”.  The desired outcome would be to find a great testimony of someone who dealt with this personally, who goes on to procedurally list the approach(es) that worked for them.  

What you actually get: 

  • The first result will be some company peddling their weed control poison 

  • Followed by a bunch of weird “People also ask”  items with dropdowns that may or may not provide the answer to your actual pursuit. 

  • Further down the SERP, you are immersed in a mine of “sponsored” pages with AI generated articles. Unless you fancy yourself a prospector, you can most likely simply discard the first 5 or so results in the Google SERP, which are “sponsored” garbage.

  • By the time you hit “bottom” (wherever that is), you have lost hope in finding anything from a real person without some kind of bias.

Now, let’s say you, dear victim of post-modern web search, find and click on a promising result with an abstract showing, what appears to be, an answer to your question.  Buckle up, my friend.  Here’s what awaits you:

  1. Site cookie acceptance dialog

Ahh yes, thank you so much GPDR, for making sure my privacy is respected.  Every single site uses third-party cookies to track my data for, you guessed it, more advertising. But like Batman, the GPDR is here to ensure the safety of Europeans (and by extension, the world) by enforcing all to click on a full page modal dialog (note: created by the very site designer who wants to track you).  You get to choose:  “Accept cookies”, “Leave Site”  (AKA “Get bent, content is not available if we can’t track you”), or sometimes most favorably, “view without accepting cookies”. When you select this option, the site may come up in its entirety and not track you! At least… not using cookies.  If you trust them.  People who just want to read a couple of sentences of content, without reading and thinking for a whole minute, are trained to simply click “accept”.

  1. Great, you’re on the page.  Wait, here’s a popup in your face about cookies!

Do you want the site to send you notifications? Goodness lord, do NOT click yes on this. The result is pretty much akin to installing a malware taskbar into your browser in 2009.

  1. Okay, you are reading some of the article.  Every blog-type article that ranks in the SERP seems to necessarily start with 2-3 paragraphs of awkward and formulaic cursory BS about why people search for what you searched for, all the things that happened when they tried to fix it the wrong way, etc… I’m guessing, to satisfy some unwieldy SEO requirement.  Scroll, scroll scroll!

  1. Been here for 10 seconds? Decide whether you want to sign up for our newsletter! Again, a modal dialog box that you can’t look past. Disclose your email or (find a way to) close it.

  1. Now… This article is actually getting good. You are close to getting real information, you can feel it!  Oh, hey, wait, it’s: Videos That Start Automatically!  Like Space Invaders, videos and other popup ads descend on you with increasing aggression over the next 30 seconds or so, narrowing your view inside an already minuscule viewport (assuming you had the audacity to do this on a phone). These abominations turn your quest to find urgent information about poison ivy into a horrible game of Whack A Mole. But harder than that, as you have to find and then tap a tiny (and intentionally obscured) ‘x’, in order to close the video/ad popup that obscures what you are trying to read.

  1. Read a single glorious paragraph, and you will be rewarded with a chunk of random affiliate links and ads.   Was that the whole article? Is this the end?  Oh wait, no! There's another paragraph.  These places make Geocities and Tripod websites of the early 2000s look organized and well presented. It’s certainly reminiscent of the unanimously dark period of the WWW, when everyone was implementing their site with frames - certainly at least as offensive, if not more for its brazenness.  And we are not talking about hokey tabloid sites here, this is happening on trustworthy local news stations, local forums and bulletin websites, even school websites, trying to compensate for their insatiable SEO and web hosting costs.

What happened to the authentic articles and blog posts, written by the lowly peer web denizen of yore?  They are all but gone, as Google search algorithm continues to raise the bar for such simple sites to be included in the SERP with any reasonable ranking…  Leaving only the most insidious ones, created by a team of corporate content creators who are backed by a department full of SEO engineers who only have one job: to make this page go to the top. Yes,  a SERP for a given keyword set contains only one top result, and getting to the top is a zero-sum game.  With heavy competition for SERP dominance, it's a race to the bottom as companies copy each others' successful approaches, using them to shill their wares by sprinkling misinformation and links that serve only to redirect honest visitors.  Google Panda (2011, 2021) was, ironically intended to address over-optimized, ad-ridden sites, but instead appears only to have resulted in new spins of canned websites in which ads are carefully disguised as content… At least, in ways that are not outwardly apparent to a dumb web crawler.

It is painful, although not entirely unexpectable, the degree to which Google is a willing participant in this parade. They have answered the fierce call by shareholders for revenue growth by turning the SERP into a 10 ring circus. Searches that once yielded several page results at the top, with useful summaries and first hand authorship, now look as bad as any social media site - as videos, news items, shopping links, and irrelevant “People also ask” Q&A style items (ostensibly based on others popular searches, but triggered by a single stupid keyword in your search). These oddities appear in our faces, and feature sales-driven hyperbole and propaganda that panders to the most vulnerable among us. Every click feeds the bottom line of these advertisers, and in doing so, strengthens the machine to further pollute our attempts to gather useful and simple facts.

To what refuge have people turned as this debacle has unfolded?

Any refuge in this trying environment has experienced its ups and downs.  Take, one website where users developed and willingly invested their knowledge, and created a brain trust. Now reddit is slapping them in the face, by asserting uncompromising control and issuing a litany of new restrictions based on ensuring that information on Reddit is used only for their benefit, which boils down to ad-driven revenue.

High performance AI chatbots have recently surfaced, and people are desperately flocking to them as an alternative.  What’s not to like? Finally you can again ask a question and get a straight answer, (ostensibly) without being bombarded by ads! Even if it’s wrong, or based on a biased point of view.  These nascent tools have been rushed to the people before any effective ethical guardrails can be put in place.  It’s difficult if not impossible to know the source, or whether they are correct. The whole thing subsists on datasets that take massive liberties on  privacy and intellectual property rights. What’s worse, it’s a safe bet that If not now, very soon, the responses will be just another advertising circus.

What is there to do?  

Get back to the fields!  Start your own website! Write that blog post.  Keep content alive, and don’t let the web consist solely of advertising.  Let's form a web ring, like it’s 1997!  A new kind of search engine is needed, one that looks at the web a different way.  One that isn’t driven solely by advertising.  One that doesn’t squander the quality of its performance for the sake of shareholder value.  Bring back community-driven, crowd-sourced spirit. Wikipedia has done it with the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia.  Let’s do something like that with web search!


commoncathode said…
Well said! That last paragraph made me smile.

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