Something that's impossible for me to ignore these days is just how degraded internet search engine results have become compared to 5-10 years ago. Many other people have noticed this trend to
I was directly confronted by this when helping a friend with some technical details for their Shopify site. I wanted to do something rather simple but it was almost impossible to get good search results for what I was trying to do. I came across pages and pages of SEO-ed-to-death results and paid advertisements, none of which actually helped me solve my issue.
Once upon a time I remember being able to carefully concoct a search query to find exactly what I wanted quite quickly. Unfortunately most popular search engines actively thwart this these days, because a less efficient search process means users spend more time on the search engine looking at advertising. User frustration is sold to advertisers who are the real customers for the search engine companies.
Carefully crafted searches used to work because the search engines searched more literally for what you put in the search query, not results for terms similar to what you put in. As time went on the search engine providers have increasingly lent on their advertising revenue streams to make more money. To do this they need to throw up results for a lot of things, even if those aren't useful for the user, because more results means more eyeballs on advertising and more eyeballs on advertising means more money for them. At least that's the thinking and in fairness over the short term this can somewhat work. But eventually users get sick of being bombarded with advertisements and start to seek out competing search engines that actually give them what they want, or more accurately give at least the appearance of what they want. This is what led to the demise of yahoo.com as a search engine, at one point it was basically the top of the search engine game, the abomination of the home page was something that you just had to overlook because the search results were good relative to the competition. At least this was the case for a while, a newer generation of search engines including google came along that gave results that were just as good but had less obvious advertising. Users started to flock to those other services and advertisers followed suit. Yahoo.com search traffic collapsed in the next few years.
Unfortunately what's happened now is that all the search engine results are just full of crap. Searching for any term that has significant advertiser money involved is now frequently a shitshow. You get overwhelmed with a huge number of SEO-spam pages, pages that have no content of value but are explicitly designed just to rank highly on search. Once upon a time parasitic spammers who called themselves "content writers" would manually write out this crap and get paid some rate per hour to do so. Because humans were involved and were getting paid per hour this meant only the most economically lucrative search terms were targeted by this non-content clickbait cancer. However as time has gone on "innovations" in natural language algorithms have allowed programmers to automate the production of net-negative-value spam. This has greatly increased the number of keywords that have turned into search wastelands.
Remember how back in the day if you searched for something really specific you'd get a page with a "no results" found. These days that happens so much less often, even if there aren't any legitimate results for your search term.
The "advanced search" option was the defining feature of what I call the golden era of search engines. At one point this was a prominent button that you could click on with many search engines. Now it's very much hidden, if it is even offered at all.
This feature directly allowed more sophisticated users to find what they wanted and quickly. This is very different from today where the search engines prioritizes finding what the advertisers want people to see.
"Advanced search" options started to be progressively more hidden and some advanced search options started to die off a few years back.
We started to see various power user friendly features being removed silently. These days I encounter people who never knew this feature existed.
While I was doing the research for the article about Soil Types in Collingwood I found the lack of a keyword exclusion filter especially annoying. I was trying to search for "punt creek" as I had heard people refer to the old creek by this name. There's a place called "Punt the Creek" in Colorado USA, but this wasn't what I wanted to find results for. In the past you could have cooked up a search term like
Punt Creek -Colorado where the minus sign would exclude results that had the keyword Colorado. Doing this today on Google had almost no impact with many results from Colorado showing up.
Previously you would be able to use quotation marks to search for an exact phrase. Searching for
"Punt creek" came up with all sorts of results that did not contain that exact phrase. If I'm trying to do an advanced search I'd much rather get no results than time wasting results.
Search engine optimization
When I first saw search engine optimization being offered as a paid service I knew bad things were coming. This is because if attention is scarce people will lie, cheat and steal to get your attention. I knew it was only a matter of time before websites started to actively reduce the usefulness of search engine results for everyone in order to drive traffic and search engine rankings to specific sites. Back then the search engine companies had an arms race to try to keep getting relevant results and filtering out the parasites that were gaming the system to rank highly in results without earning it.
As time has gone on it seems this battle has been lost, so the search engines themselves are just collecting the money directly. Now you pay for results directly to the search engine companies because in many cases this is cheaper than paying a SEO firm for the same sort of service. Creating a "pay to play" environment has greatly degraded the search experience for users.
Searching from the browser "address bar"
In a time long ago people created web browsers so that people could browse the internet. Modern search engines simply didn't exist at the beginning of the internet, to find things you either needed to know the address already or find it via various web sites. In the beginning of the internet there were a number of directory sites that were basically curated lists of hyperlinks to other sites. This era was before the ascendancy of major search engines.
In the past if you wanted to search you went to the "address bar" in your search engine to type first type in the URL of the search engine which would then load up the landing page for the search engine service, only then would you be able to type in your search query. A later feature was the introduction of another user interface text input box where you could type in a search without having to go to a search engine website first. Around the same time there were a number of scams where people would install search engine bar extensions that would be packed with malware.
When google released the Chrome browser they introduced a feature that allowed you to directly search for terms in the address bar, of course this defaulted to the default search engine offering from Google.
Firefox followed suit later as well by offering search from the "address bar", eventually the distinct user interface element for the search engine disappeared entirely. Google actually sponsored the Firefox browser project for a long time, and part of this lucrative sponsorship deal was that Google would be the default search engine that Firefox browsers went to. This deal results in Google paying Mozilla around half a billion US dollars a year which shows just how powerful the search engine industry is for revenue from advertising. The vast majority of Mozilla's (the organization that makes the Firefox browser) revenue comes from the Google search deal and the organization has a very significant amount of cash reserves as a result. It might seem strange that on desktop and laptop platforms that the biggest competitor to Google's Chrome web browser is funded by Google's search engine deal. But ultimately Chrome exists to funnel eyeballs (and user data) to Google's highly lucrative search platform which generates massive revenues from advertisers. Much is the same with the Android platform, it makes searches go to Google by default. Google also pays Apple to have their searches be the default there, and pays Apple a lot for this privilege.
Sometimes I chuckle at the contrast between the antitrust action against Microsoft regarding internet explorer compared to this situation.
Over time users increasingly got used to using the "search bar" to search the internet hence using whatever the default search engine happened to be. This reduction of a few clicks and a page load really did influence user behavior and these days few people go to the search engine URLs directly before searching.
This change led to an erosion in the number of people who would use advanced search options because they simply weren't exposed to it. It also led to a situation where a search engine would only be popular if it could be used directly from the address bar.
Let me google that for you
Behind most funny jokes is some element of truth or observation. As a result seeing the way jokes and humor change over time is a really good way to see how attitudes on things have shifted.
At one point in time I remember people sharing links to a URL called "let me Google that for you", this website basically just took a term then did a Google search for that term. The whole thing was made on the premise that someone could find what they were looking for with a simple search term and existed as a snarky way to point this out to them. The term "let me Google that for you" is interesting on a number of levels linguistically, the term wasn't "let me use a search engine for you" but rather explicitly called out one search engine. The usage of the phrase started getting more popular some time around 2007-2008, then in late 2008 the "let me google that for you" website popped up. The site that did the search redirect says this:
LMGTFY - Let Me Google That For You. For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than to Google it for themselves.
This at the time was somewhat funny/amusing because Google could actually find things and many people were simply too lazy to look for themselves. This quickly became an annoyance on online forums with many sites banning use of the link entirely in response to its overuse. Notably in another commentary on how the internet has changed in the last 15 years this site doesn't even load anymore without a warning that the encryption settings are broken.
In 2023 if you sent someone a LMGTFY link you would either be a complete asshole or someone who just woke up from a multiple year long coma.
The reason this concept is no longer funny is because the base truth behind the joke no longer holds, it's no longer easy to search for many search terms on Google these days.