Your Google Searches Are Quietly Evolving. Here’s What’s Next

Nov 21, 2022 8:00 AM

Your Google Searches Are Quietly Evolving. Here’s What’s Next

We went behind the scenes to make sense of Shopping, Ads, and the changes that will shape your internet searches.

Colorful geometric shapes creating a spiral on a blue background.

Photograph: Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images

Except for the occasional cosmetic change to its homepage that might give longtime users pause, Google Search evolves without much notice. While Google says that Search is updated thousands of times a year to improve its results and user experience, those updates are invisible to the millions of requesters making billions of search requests a day in 150 languages.

We asked Google to give us some insights into what some of those changes are and how they’re implemented, and, as we enter the holiday season, we got curious and asked questions about Google Ads and Google Shopping as well. Here is what some of Google’s brain trust told us about the ways that Search and these other services continue to evolve out of sight.

While the systems that decide what’s relevant and reliable out of the billions of web pages out there are automated, deciding how those automated systems perform their functions requires a lot of effort from a lot of teams to tweak them. “Delivering great results at this type of scale and complexity requires many different systems, and we’re always looking to improve these systems so we can display the most useful results possible,” says Danny Sullivan, Google’s public liaison for Search.

Sullivan says that changes to Search go through a rigorous process before anything new is implemented. In 2021, Google ran more than 700,000 experiments that resulted in 4,000 improvements to Search. “Data from these evaluations and experiments go through a thorough review by experienced engineers and search analysts, as well as other legal and privacy experts who then determine if the change is approved to launch,” Sullivan says.

In addition to the tweaks to Google’s Search methodology, many changes to Search are meant to make it more contextual, and to allow users to search in what Sullivan describes as “more natural and intuitive” ways. For example, he says, multisearch on the Google mobile app allows users to snap a picture of something, add text to it, and search by image and text at the same time. Coming soon will be “multisearch near me,” which will do the same but yield local results; for instance, you might take a picture of a type of sushi and Google would help find a restaurant nearby that serves it.

Sullivan says Google is also focused on making some types of searches—such as exploring a new city—more visual, by highlighting work from content creators and the open web. That approach will also apply to a new feature that finds firsthand advice from real people, such as those who create instructional videos. The feature, currently labeled “discussions and forums” in Search, might also lead you to conversations where your topic of interest is being hashed out by experts (or those who believe they are experts).

One evolution you may have long noticed is that you get different search results on mobile than on a desktop. On mobile, fast-loading content that renders well on a mobile screen tends to rank higher. “We’ll give mobile-friendly content a preference over other content, assuming all things are otherwise equal,” Sullivan says. “We’ll also show you links that make sense to your device, such as a link to the correct app store.”

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Changes to the way Google handles search rankings are intended to push up content from real people, not content farms optimizing content for search engines, and that works in tandem with other efforts like improving results for product-review pages, Sullivan says.

Not that there’s anything wrong with SEO, the practice of optimizing web pages so they’ll rank higher in search engines. “It helps us locate and understand relevant content,” Sullivan says, “SEO isn’t some special method to appear in the top results. The key thing is what our advice to anyone has long been: Create helpful content for people, not search engines.”

It’s about a 40-billion-a-day problem. That’s the number of pages of spam and malicious content that Google Search discovers every day. Sullivan says that Google’s continued efforts filter out about 99 percent, but the volume of malicious and spammy content is ever increasing.

Google uses an AI-based spam prevention system called SpamBrain, which Sullivan says led to identifying six times more spam sites in 2021 than in the previous year.

This year, there’ve been several high-profile incidents of malware creeping into search engine ads, including a recent one involving an ad for Gimp.org. Google’s failure to curtail some types of misleading ads, including some for antiabortion information centers and ads for fraudulent services purporting to be run by the government, have drawn criticism.

As with spam content and Search, Google Ads is in a constant battle to get rid of malware content and bad players. Google Ads liaison Ginny Marvin says that Google Ads engages in this by “verifying advertisers’ identities and identifying coordinated activity between accounts using signals in our network.” She says their efforts involve automated systems as well as human reviewers to try to monitor for abuse in over 180 countries. It’s a big task. “To provide a sense of scale of our enforcement efforts in 2021, we removed over 3.4 billion ads, restricted over 5.7 billion ads, and suspended over 5.6 billion advertisers accounts,” she says.

But it’s not perfect. Marvin says that it helps to understand where and when ads actually show up in search results. Users who think they might be clicking on something suspicious can first click on the three dots next to the ad and select “About this Ad,” which includes information about the advertiser and why they were shown the ad. Advertiser pages show the other ads an advertiser has run in the past 30 days. If it’s something harmful, users can report the ad in question. And Google’s recently launched My Ads Center gives users more control over what types of ads they see. You can block sensitive ads and personalize the types of advertising that will be shown.

Some advocates say that’s not good enough. Katie Paul, the director of the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project, says that Google has been warned for years about these problems and has not taken action on a large scale to eradicate malware and misinformation. “We have repeatedly pointed out that there is harmful content or flaws with the material that is surfacing in Google’s search advertisements, and everybody seems to get the same response again and again without Google actually addressing the problem,” Paul says.

If you’re already powering through your holiday shopping list, you may have on occasion spotted deals on Google Shopping results that seem too good to be true. For instance, shopping for a specific in-demand video card might yield a bunch of results that are aligned in price, and one or two from a website you’ve never heard of where the price is so heavily discounted it seems suspicious.

That’s a challenge for Google, says Matt Madrigal, vice president of merchant shopping. “We are always adapting to keep bad merchants of listings off our platforms, and it’s an area we’re heavily focused on as we scale the number of merchants and products listed on Google,” he says. “There is no finish line in fighting fraud.”

Madrigal says merchants are subject to, among other policies, ones that specifically forbid misrepresentation and counterfeit goods. As with Search and Ads, automation and human review are involved in vetting these vendors. But Madrigal says that Google Shopping is also relying on feedback from users to identify suspected fraudulent sellers. Google doesn’t have a direct way to report sellers on its product carousel pages, but clicking through to an item description page allows you to "Report a listing." There's also a general Shopping support page with a virtual agent where users can report bad players.

As with Google Ads, Paul says that this trend of asking users to police the system is troubling when the company has the resources to hire more content moderators and experts. “We see this same cookie-cutter response from Google,” Paul says. “Like Facebook, we see companies saying, ‘Report this information when you see it,’ but at the same time this multibillion-dollar company puts the onus back on users to clean up their own search platform, their primary profit mechanism.”

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Omar L. Gallaga is a Texas-based culture and tech writer who was a longtime reporter, podcaster, and columnist at the Austin American-Statesman. He's written for NPR, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Texas Monthly, The Washington Post, and the pioneering TV-recapping site Television Without Pity.
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