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The day Google started to get worse: ‘We are getting too close to money’

Back in 2019, a group of company executives began discussing how to get users to do more queries. Since then, advertising revenue has been prioritized, according to critics

Google
Two people walk past the Google logo during a fair in Hanover, Germany, on April 22.Annegret Hilse (REUTERS)
Jordi Pérez Colomé

“I am getting concerned that growth is all we are thinking about.” That’s what Ben Gomes, the former head of Search at Google, wrote in an internal email in 2019. The concern was part of a debate that was opened when senior executives, worried about weak query numbers, decided to create a “yellow code.” This sparked the tech giant’s biggest internal alarm.

One objective of that yellow code was to increase the number of searches on Google. The ultimate problem they wanted to solve was to find a way for users to see more ads to earn more advertising money. This email chain between Google executives has come to light thanks to the monopoly case that the U.S. Department of Justice has brought against the company. Bloomberg reported on these emails last fall and, a few days ago, an article in journalist Ed Zitron’s newsletter — titled The Man Who Killed Google Search, which is based on those emails and provides new details — has sparked a huge debate in Silicon Valley.

Zitron’s story delves into the growing controversy about how Google’s search results have gotten worse. According to this narrative, the culprit is clear: short-term profit. In the email chain, the company’s Advertising department is clearly seen pressuring the Search department, which does not want to harm the user experience.

Since 2014, Google has maintained more than 90% market share in search engines. But the arrival of AI and the deterioration of its responses has put its leadership in question. In March, at a meeting of Google employees, senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan — who is now in charge of the Search and Ads, among others areas — warned that the company had to brace for change. “We can agree that things are not like they were 15 to 20 years ago, things have changed,” Raghavan said. “It’s not like life is going to be hunky-dory forever.”

Prabhakar Raghavan is precisely the person Zitron accuses of “killing Google search” for allegedly prioritizing economic benefit over good search results. But it is difficult to pin down a process as complex as sorting the web for billions of results to just one person. And, in response to the commotion caused by the article about Raghavan’s role, the company has issued a clear message: “As we have stated definitively: the organic results you see in Search are not affected by our ads systems,” it said.

But the debate that took place over various emails, in which the people in charge of Search tried to defend its integrity, hints that the company may have at various times prioritized growth over user experience.

The whole debate is fascinating, but there are several quotes that stand out. Shashi Thakur, who in 2019 was vice president of Engineering, Search and Discover, warned that “there was a good reason our founders separated search from ads.” Then, in a more limited message to his team, he wrote: “I think finance folks are running like chicken with heads cut off. I guess the free ride is ending and this is the first time they have to figure out how our business actually works.”

The most cited line of these emails is from Ben Gomes, head of Search, who responded directly to Thakur: “I think we are getting too close to the money,” he wrote in an internal email. “I think it is good for us to aspire to query growth and to aspire to more users. But I think we are getting too involved with ads for the good of the product and company,” he added.

It’s easy to reduce this debate to a single topic: more queries mean more ads and, therefore, more profits. Of course, from the user’s point of view, it is worse if you need three queries to find what you could previously find in one. Google, as a product, could get worse; but given its near-monopoly as a search engine, the danger did not seem very great.

Better one search than three

In an email that Gomes left in a draft — he only showed it to his team — he warned what could happen: “We could increase queries quite easily in the short term in user negative ways (turn off spell correction, turn off ranking improvements, place refinements all over the page). If we, as a company, want to go there, we should discuss that. It is possible that there are trade-offs here between different kinds of user negativity caused by engagement hacking. But I will say that I am deeply, deeply uncomfortable with this.” Indeed, Gomes felt so “uncomfortable” that a year later he left his position, which was given to Raghavan, who continued his rise at Google until today.

In a debate about this article in the Hacker News forum — a kind of social network for Silicon Valley engineers — the most popular response is from a former Google engineer, who argues that complexity, not money, has affected search results: “I know a lot of the veteran engineers were upset when Ben Gomes got shunted off. Probably the bigger change, from what I’ve heard, was losing Amit Singhal who led Search until 2016. Amit fought against creeping complexity. There is a semi-famous internal document he wrote where he argued against the other search leads that Google should use less machine-learning, or at least contain it as much as possible, so that ranking stays debuggable and understandable by human search engineers.”

According to this post, since Singhal left, complexity has skyrocketed, with each team launching as many deep learning projects as possible, just like any other large company in the sector: “The problem though, is the older systems had obvious problems, while the newer systems have hidden bugs and conceptual issues which often don’t show up in the metrics, and which compound over time as more complexity is layered on.” Finally, the engineer explains that they found an old bug that reordered the top results for 15% of queries since 2015. “I handed it off when I left, but have no idea whether anyone actually fixed it or not,” the user says.

In addition to this complexity, there are the thousands of SEO specialists who, on a daily basis, try to trick or confuse the Google algorithm so that their results are ranked higher, with the sole objective of achieving advertising revenue or links to e-commerce platforms. These types of sites have gone from being trustworthy companies — honestly trying to advise on which coffee maker or tent to buy — to pure spam. Everything is leading to a perfect storm in which one of the pillars of the 21st century — the Google search engine — is getting a glimpse at the end of its days.

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