Has Google Gotten Worse? Here’s What New Data Says
“Google is getting worse” is almost a meme at this point. Go into any forum or subreddit that mentions search results, and you’ll find someone complaining that SEO has ruined Google Search.
Joke’s on them. SEO has been ruining Google Search for 26 years.
I was there for keyword stuffing, cloaking, and link farms. The idea that Google is somehow getting worse is a claim I’ve rolled my eyes at in both my official capacity as a marketer and as a consumer.
Like everyone else on the internet, I want to insist I’m correct in the face of evidence that I’m not. So, I turned to one of the smartest SEOs that I know and asked her who was right.
But first, let’s take a look at what the study actually says.
What the Data Shows
The claim comes from a longitudinal study by researchers from Leipzig University, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (ScaDS.AI).
“Longitudinal study” is a fancy way of saying they observed variables over time without trying to change those variables.
In this case, they observed 7,392 product review searches on Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo over the course of a year. Think of searches like “best headphones” or “best budget bidet.” (Don’t judge me!)
Their results suggest that search-optimized affiliate content is overrepresented in search results.
“We find that the majority of high-ranking product reviews in the result pages of commercial search engines (SERPs) use affiliate marketing, and significant amounts are outright SEO product review spam,” the report states.
They also found that– perhaps unsurprisingly– there’s an “inverse relationship between affiliate marketing use and content complexity.”
That’s a polite way of saying that most affiliate content is hot garbage.
Okay, I admit that’s not a good look. But it’s focused on product search. Maybe affiliate garbage is what people want when they search for a product. After all, if nobody clicked it, Google would put something else in its place, right?
What about informational searches?
Search Quality on the Wider Web
“When we’re losing, it’s not because of spam,” says Amanda Sellers, HubSpot’s Manager of EN Blog Strategy. “It’s because of topical authority problems.”
I’d asked her if over-optimized affiliate content is winning on educational searches, too.
Until recently, Sellers led the Historical Optimization team for HubSpot’s blog network. Her team was responsible for knowing exactly what content ranked higher than us in the search engines– and why.
If we were losing ground to affiliate crap, she’s the one who would know.
Sellers explains that when Google lowers the rank of a HubSpot blog, it’s not because the search engine is putting affiliate garbage higher. It’s more likely that someone else simply has more authority for that subject.
“In other words, HubSpot is writing about a problem that HubSpot doesn’t need to be writing about,” she says. “Or, at least, where our competitors are better aligned to write about. Basically, we’re not delivering the goods that the searcher is looking for.”
That seems like the opposite of Google getting worse, right? Feeling more confident, I asked Amanda point blank if she felt Search had gotten worse.
“Has Google Search gotten worse? I have no doubt that that’s true,” she says. “Particularly in verticals that are less competitive and where AI content can very easily rank.”
“But is it going to continue to get worse? Perhaps this is a really optimistic view– and I’m giving Google a lot of credit– but we’re seeing Google take action. And while they don’t always get it right, they are working on this problem.”
She brings up a good point. Search results aren’t set in stone. They change over time. So, did the study show that that change was for better or worse?
SEO Over Time
“Google results seem to have improved to some extent since the start of our experiment in terms of the amount of affiliate spam,” the report concludes. “Yet, we can still find several spam domains and also see an overall downward trend in text quality in all three search engines, so there is still quite a lot of room for improvement.”
That squares with my experience. Link farms worked until they didn’t. Keyword-stuffed content clogged the search results until Google figured it out.
“Third-party content. Content mills,” Amanda adds. “This has been a model for a really long time. That’s why we’ve seen multiple algorithm updates from August [of 2023] moving forward.”
As long as search engines have limited space and an algorithm that decides what goes there, someone is going to try to game that algorithm. Then Google is going to update that algorithm.
So, is Google getting worse? In answering that, the researchers give what is perhaps the best definition of SEO I’ve ever heard:
“SEO is a constant battle and we see repeated breathing patterns of review spam entering and leaving the results[.]”