Search is Beginning to Show Its Age

5 min read

I’m too young to remember a time where “Google” wasn’t a verb. With the ability to search the internet, we have changed the world from one in which information was static, locked up in libraries across geographies, to a single, simple, snappy interface where we can ask the world our questions. “What temperature should I set the over to for pizza?” or “When is the next Toronto Maple Leafs game?” or, most dramatic, “What is the meaning of life?”

Sure enough, Google (or any other search engine before they completely dominated the market) would spit back a tidy list of sources that could help us answer each of those questions. At first, the pages were ranked by how many external sites pointed to the page, and obviously, once this criterion became known, there was a flurry of web developers trying to increase this metric. If two websites agreed to link to each other, they would both get a boost in their search ranking.

Search engine optimization has since grown immensely in complexity, but the top prize remains the same; get more eyeballs to be on your website. For e-commerce sites, this may mean more sales, but for most sites it translates to more ad revenue. Even Google itself wants you to use their services not to sell you something, but rather to sell you to someone. A company selling socks, a fund wanting investment, or a charity asking for donations. All want your attention, and all want it now.

In the push to increase revenue even further, Google decided to allow sites to pay for that coveted top spot, rather than participate in the search engine optimization race. Suddenly, that original promise between the search engine and the user was broken; the top site isn’t the most relevant answer to the question, it is the suggestion of the highest bidder. During the initial rollout, the interface made it glaringly obvious that the search result was not organic. These days, a user might need a magnifying glass to spot the tiny Ad descriptor beside the site title. This is directly catering to advertisers, not to users.

The look of advertisements compared to genuine search results is so similar that recently, malicious actors have been buying ads that mimic download pages for popular software. John Hammond, a popular security YouTuber, has a video explaining how this occurred with the incredibly popular Open Broadcast Software. The hosts of 2.5 admins, a podcast, also covered this topic in a recent episode, and highlight additional methods that Google could do to take down these malicious ads (such as a minimum age for domains before they are allowed to be associated with an ad). Google is essentially getting paid to promote malware at present. This makes the search experience, and the internet as a whole, a more hostile, less trusting place.

This effect is being noticed. Navneet Alang, writing for the Toronto Star, equivocates searching the modern Google to “walking through sludge”.  Charlie Warzel, writing in the Atlantic, describes the current search landscape as typifying a “zombified internet wasteland”. Some of this may be due to the increase in noise (which is likely to only get worse), but the primary driver is the aging of search as a system, and the attempts to squeeze every last drop of value from it before it fades away.

With the explosion of interest in artificial intelligence due to the launch of Chat-GPT in November 2022, Google has declared a code red. Search as we know it is posed to change, and this will disrupt billions of dollars in current revenue flows. Instead of asking a question and having a list returned, we may soon ask a question and have an answer returned. The accuracy of this answer, how sources are cited, and the transparency about how answers are decided upon all remain up in the air, but the days of scrolling through blue links may be coming to a close.

Monetization is also unclear, and many leading companies are still in the process of figuring out how they will monetize in parallel with developing the technical capabilities of AI search further. Questions asked to a text model are 10x pricier for Google (or Microsoft) to run in comparison to Google search as it exists today. Will these tech giants be able to maintain their current level of profitability? Will costs spike dramatically for advertisers, but with more certainty that their ads will end up in front of the right eyeballs?

In all of this uncertainty, the biggest thing we can count on is that things will soon be changing, and fast. Once AI-assisted search is implemented, current search will seem more outdated and clunky than it already is. We have become so familiar with “browsing” the internet. Browsing really is an appropriate word because we, as users, have been the ones sifting through the “zombified internet wasteland”. This next era will instead bring a repackaged, cleaner and tidier version of this same underlying skeleton front and centre. Will this solve all the problems with the current state of things? Absolutely not. However, it will usher in a new way of thinking about how we seek information, ask questions, and evaluate evidence. With how fast the rest of the internet has been evolving, I say it’s about time that search caught up.