April 15, 2024

Google search falters due to AI spam, algorithm update yields ‘worst results’ in at least 14 years: SEO executive

It increasingly seems that Google search no longer works as it used to.

The search engine that has become a 21st century staple in virtually everyone’s lives, used billions of times a day, is struggling with the unintended consequences of a recent update. Basically, everything is spam. Welcome to the age of web search spam.

“These are the worst quality results on Google that I’ve seen in my 14-year career,” says Lily Ray, senior director of search engine optimization at digital marketing agency Amsive Digital.

Pop-ups, fake product ads, and links that are sure to download unremovable malware are common on the Internet. But you don’t usually see them interspersed between websites on Google. With billions of searches a day on countless websites on the Internet, Google can only catch a limited number of these scammers before they reappear like a game of digital whack-a-mole.

“Right now, it looks like the scammers are winning,” Ray says. Fortune.

Essentially, what happened, according to Ray, was that Google released an update to its algorithm that boosted user-generated content higher in its search results rankings. The idea was that when users asked a question, they could see answers from other real people who might have the answer, further democratizing the web and moving control authority away from, say, news sites like Fortune. Google called this the Hidden Gems update, rolled out in a series of changes from May to November 2023, because it was apparently supposed to find the best answers on the internet, regardless of who posted them. So if a user were to search for “what is the best used muffler?” or “how do I know if my homebrew has gone bad?” they would find answers from other people who had car problems or were more experienced homebrewers.

Instead, what ended up happening is that unscrupulous sites realized they could take advantage of the new policy by placing spam links in places prioritized by Google’s new algorithm, according to Ray.

“Google Docs, Google Maps, Linkedin, Reddit, anywhere you can imagine there being a forum, spammers take advantage of it,” Ray says.

A recent study by researchers in Germany examining the quality of product review websites, previously reported by 404 Media, is in line with Ray’s claims. According to the research, the pages ranked highest in the searches they performed tended to have lower quality text and more affiliate links intended to monetize those sites. However, Google’s search quality surpassed that of its competitors Bing and DuckDuckGo. The company also had the most effective mitigation tactics compared to other search engines, although spammers would eventually find ways around them as well.

As Ray told Gizmodo about the state of web search: “I’ve never seen Google in such disarray.”

‘SEO parasites’ leak from legitimate web pages

The reason some bad actors thought it was worth spamming the new search update was because of something called affiliate links. They are a common online practice whereby a website may earn a commission if a product is purchased after clicking on a link that appears on one of its pages. If a website with many affiliate links can reach the top of Google search, that can be quite lucrative for whoever owns that website. And scammers try to take advantage of the rules to try to sell worthless products through links on useless websites.

Simply reaching the top positions on Google is a business in itself known as search engine optimization or SEO. Last year, SEO was a $76 billion business, according to market research company IBISWorld. It’s another very common practice for virtually any company that has an online presence (including all the stories this journalist publishes on fortune.com). SEO has become a fundamental part of most online marketing and is considered a specialty in the world of advertising. When done right, it ensures that the most relevant information appears in the most visible places on Google.

For example, people who live in an area where a hurricane is expected to make landfall would need reliable sources of weather alerts, such as the National Weather Service or a local media outlet, at the top of their Google searches. The annoying side effect is that many search results now look the same. A simple search for something like “best sheets” brings up dozens of the same article with titles like “The 8 Best Sheets of 2024” or “The 22 Best Sheets” or the more colorful “These Are Our Favorite Sheets.” to catch some Z’s.”

Critics of SEO would say that it has turned online search into a homogeneous experience where all results reiterate the same information. filter world, a new book of New Yorker Editor Kyle Chayka argues that by now, roughly 30 years into a world changed by the Internet, the power of the algorithm has gone beyond culture to turn countless everyday experiences into “feeds,” for example, the eerily similar aesthetic of the cafes around. the world. On the other hand, supporters would say it’s a way to reward the best websites, particularly if they are small businesses that may not be able to afford large advertising budgets for paid spots at the top of Google search results.

“Billion-dollar search engine companies’ constant struggle with SEO affiliate spam should serve as an example that web search is a dynamic game with many players, some with bad intentions,” the authors write. of the study.

A Google spokesperson said the study was flawed in that it only looked at certain search terms. “This particular study took a close look at the content of product reviews and does not reflect the overall quality or usefulness of Search for the billions of queries we see every day,” they said. Fortune in an email.

Another problem that caused the quality of Google search results to decline, according to Ray, is what she calls “SEO parasites” that are “shaking up the big publishers.” This occurs when a trusted website rents space on its site, and essentially its domain name, to third parties for sponsored content. These third parties take advantage of the traffic and respectability of the main site to populate their sponsored posts with affiliate links. It’s technically allowed, but it’s not a great experience.

“People are exploiting Google’s loopholes,” Ray says.

The study by German researchers also found that the prevalence of affiliate links could be related to lower quality websites. “We further observed an inverse relationship between the use of affiliate marketing and content complexity, and that all search engines are victims of large-scale affiliate link spam campaigns,” the study says. “However, we also notice that the line between benign content and spam in the form of content and link farms is becoming increasingly blurred, a situation that is sure to worsen in the wake of generative AI.”

From the early days of AI, watchdogs warned that it could be used to facilitate scams. AI-generated voice recordings could impersonate people or their loved ones as part of a ruse to gain access to their banking information or medical records. While in the case of online searches, AI allows scammers to create the kind of junk content that saturates Google search results on an unprecedented scale.

A Google spokesperson said Fortune still publish in X de Ray highlighting Google’s handling of a complaint about suspicious content hosted on a Harvard University URL, stating that the company was working to “take steps to better deal with content of this nature from third parties.” The Google account also specified that “it was likely a case of the site not knowing this content had been placed rather than an intentional attempt to host the content.”

Google also acknowledged in its statement to Fortune that it has “released specific improvements to address these issues.” [highlighted in the study].” Google noted that the study itself indicates that Google Search has improved over the last year and is performing better than other search engines. “More generally, numerous third parties have measured search engine results for other types of queries and found that Google has significantly higher quality than the rest.”

Ray agrees that Google is aware of the problem and is working to fix it, likely through a combination of user policy and algorithm updates. “Google usually gets it right,” he says. “It just takes time.”

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