The Utility of Google Search Was Sacrificed for Ad Growth

Ed Zitron read a bunch of the emails released in United States v. Google and believes the quality of Google’s search engine has been in decline since early 2019 thanks to new leadership:

These emails are a stark example of the monstrous growth-at-all-costs mindset that dominates the tech ecosystem, and if you take one thing away from this newsletter, I want it to be the name Prabhakar Raghavan, and an understanding that there are people responsible for the current state of technology. 

Because these are only a sampling of the emails released as part of that trial, they paint a necessarily incomplete picture, and one that is possibly wrong.

Zitron’s reporting focuses on similar themes to Megan Gray’s retracted story for Wired in which Google allegedly “alters queries billions of times a day”, each time making a “behind-the-scenes substitution of your actual query with a different query that just happens to generate more money for the company”. These claims were not actually proven in court, as far as I can figure out, but gestures toward them were found by Davey Alba and Leah Nylen of Bloomberg, and can be found in Zitron’s story:

A day later, Gomes emailed Fox and Thakur an email he intended to send to Raghavan. He led by saying he was “annoyed both personally and on behalf of the search team.” in a long email, he explained how one might increase engagement with Google Search, but specifically added that they could “increase queries quite easily in the short term in user negative ways,” like turning off spell correction, turning off ranking improvements, or placing refinements — effectively labels — all over the page, adding that it was “possible that there are trade offs here between different kinds of user negativity caused by engagement hacking,” and that he was “deeply deeply uncomfortable with this.” He also added that this was the reason he didn’t believe that queries were a good metric to measure search and that the best defense about the weakness of queries was to create “compelling user experiences that make users want to come back.”

This is not the same thing as what Gray claimed, even though it is along similar lines. Google allegedly sacrificed an update to its search engine which improved the quality of results for users because it was less profitable. This was done, according to these emails and documents, with cooperation between search and ads. And it could do all of this because Google’s management team knows it has a search monopoly and that does not come cheap.