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Google’s CEO Says AI Isn’t Making Search Quality Worse – But Is He Right?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has dominated headlines in recent years. This includes the world of search, where an ever-evolving array of innovations continues to change the way we source information.

A perfect example of this was the Google I/O 2024 conference. Here the company unveiled more than 100 updates, all of which pointed to a future dominated by AI – you can read our highlights and key takeaways here.

Prior to the conference, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, agreed to a sitdown interview with Bloomberg. He responded to questions regarding Google search, highlighting the current transition period and discussing the company’s success. But despite Pichai’s assurances, many SEO experts feel that search quality is declining. 

So, who’s right? Is AI improving search quality or making it worse? In this blog post, we delve into Pichai’s answers, assess the claims of leading experts and examine the evidence.

What Sundar Pichai Said About AI & Search

Sundar Pichai’s interview with Bloomberg was released on 8th May 2024, one week before I/O 2024. He spoke exclusively to Emily Chang, who presented him with a series of probing questions about the future of AI, competition from OpenAI, and most importantly, the quality of search. 

The full interview spans 24 minutes but the key issue was raised eight minutes in. Chang asked:

“Some leading computer scientists have said Search is getting worse, more SEO spam, et cetera. Do you see their point?”

Pichai’s response:

“Anytime there’s a transition, you get an explosion of new content, and AI is going to do that. So for us, we view this as the challenge, and I actually think, you know, there’ll be people who will struggle to do that, right?

So doing that well is what will define a high-quality product, and I think it’s gonna be the heart of what makes Search successful.”

He also addressed concerns about AI-generated content, saying:

“The challenge for everyone, and the opportunity, is how do you have a notion of what’s objective and real in a world where there’s gonna be a lot of synthetic content? I think it’s part of what will define Search in the next decade ahead, right?”

“People often come to Google right away to see whether something they saw somewhere else actually happened. It’s a common pattern we see. We are making progress, but it’s gonna be an ongoing journey, right?”

While Pichai admitted that AI poses a challenge, he appears to believe in the ongoing quality of Google search – a stance that is to be expected from the company’s CEO. In contrast, Danny Sullivan seems to take a different view. 

Contrasting Views from Google’s Danny Sullivan

Google Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, said he would ‘like to see us do better.’ This formed part of his response to a post on X, where he explained his thoughts regarding feedback from the March 2024 Core Update

His lengthy 959-word reply was posted on 13th May 2024, one day ahead of I/O, and it featured some interesting insights:

“I’ve spent a huge amount of time looking at the feedback over the past few months, diving deep into sites, writing up thoughts and talking with people internally. I fully recognise that there are ‘small’ or ‘independent’ or whatever you want to call them sites that are diligently producing great content but our systems aren’t recognizing it as well as they should.”

He added: “there’s also a lot of really poor content that our systems are indeed recognising.”

According to Sullivan, Google needs to focus on “the great content not well recognised” by offering “better guidance… better reporting. And some other things I’m pondering we might try.” Of course, this is not an easy solution – as he says, “I just can’t do that overnight, nor can I do it myself.”

Best Printer 2024: Tactics Versus Best Practice

If you’re looking for evidence of Sullivan’s statements, then you’ll be pleased to hear we’ve found it. 

In April 2024, The Verge released this satirical article. It’s a tongue-in-cheek yet thought-provoking piece that pokes fun at spammy SEO techniques – while also benefiting from these tactics. 

The article, which is about the best printers for 2024, features a title that’s just a string of keywords. It also boasts a blurry photo, a paragraph that contains nine links to other ‘best printer’ articles, and an AI-written section that was included for the sole purpose of meeting Google’s experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness (E-E-A-T) guidelines. 

It humorously showcases how Google often rewards content that follows certain patterns, even when that content may not provide the best user experience. And, as commenters highlighted, it worked:

“Just want to chime in, I thought I’d search “best printer 2024” in a private window on a random computer: This article is on the top. Congrats on SEO well-executed!”

Of course, The Verge is also a highly regarded, high traffic website. According to this overview from Semrush, the website has a domain authority of 82 and it was visited 41.88 million times in April 2024. 

However, it did get us thinking about the conundrum of SEO tactics versus best practice. Why? Because articles like this raise concerns about whether Google’s algorithms are genuinely prioritising high-quality, user-centric content. 

It’s a dilemma that many businesses face: Should they follow their instincts, focus on user-first strategies and adhere to Google’s guidelines? Or should they exploit loopholes by implementing underhand tactics that ultimately lower the quality of search results?

A common example involves bogus local SEO targeting. This practice involves businesses creating numerous location-specific landing pages, despite having no physical presence in those areas. 

While these strategies can provide short term advantages, effective SEO requires more than targeted pages; it needs a long-term digital strategy that goes beyond shortcuts, builds brand reputation and prioritises users by providing valuable content

Search Quality: Is It Really Decreasing?

So, with all of this being said, it’s time to answer the big question: Is the quality of search really getting worse? If Reddit threads are anything to go by, it would seem the answer is yes. However, it’s actually far more nuanced than a simple yes or no.

Screengrab from 22nd May 2024.

To address this question, we turn first to a German academic study. Published by Leipzig University in January 2024, this 16-page paper seems to confirm that the quality of Google search results has declined in recent years. 

The researchers analysed more than 7,000 unique search queries and came to the following conclusions:

First, with regards to the quality and types of content retrieved from Google search:

‘Although we cannot predict the rank of individual pages, at the population level, we can conclude that higher-ranked pages are on average more optimised, more monetised with affiliate marketing, and they show signs of lower text quality’.

Second, in relation to the impact of Google updates:

‘Google’s updates in particular are having a noticeable, yet mostly short-lived, effect. In fact, the Google results seem to have improved to some extent since the start of our experiment in terms of the amount of affiliate spam. Yet, we can still find several spam domains and also see an overall downwards trend in text quality in all three search engines, so there is still quite a lot of room for improvement.’

This study highlights the prevalence of affiliate link spam and low-quality spammy SEO content, both of which continued to thrive despite multiple algorithm updates aimed at curbing such practices. This includes the Helpful Content Update which Google released in 2022 ‘to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.’ 

As you would expect, this study sent ripples through the SEO community. This led to several debates on X, where some agreed with the study and others pointed out its flaws. For example, Glenn Gabe added that ‘they also ended the study in September of 2023, before several more major updates rolled out.’ While Ethan Lazuk asked: ‘But what’s the opposite of “SEO spam?” “SEO-assisted helpful content?”’

It’s also worth noting that this study was conducted prior to the completion of the March 2024 update. This included the spam update, which finished rolling out on the 20th March 2024. 

Two months later, in May 2024, Google began manually enforcing the site reputation abuse policy. This was a major step forward in Google’s mission to eradicate content designed with the sole intention of manipulating search. Hundreds of sites were hit during this initial wave, including major players like Daily Mail, Washington Post and Forbes – we covered the manual actions in this blog post

YMYL, E-E-A-T and SGE

However, it seems that search continues to be plagued by some common problems. For example, we’ve noticed platforms like Reddit, Quora and LinkedIn ranking prominently for Your Money Your Life (YMYL) terms. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see these kinds of websites ranking for these kinds of queries.

This in itself gives us pause for thought. YMYL content should be in-depth and thorough, feature accurate, high-quality information and be published by a reputable, credible source. In other words, it should align with Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines. 

According to Google’s ‘people-first’ documentation, ‘our systems give even more weight to content that aligns with strong E-E-A-T for topics that could significantly impact the health, financial stability, or safety of people, or the welfare or well-being of society.’ 

While there are experts who post on and utilise these platforms, the fact that sites like Reddit and Quora rank for YMYL terms raises questions; it points to a disconnect between Google’s guidelines and the actual results produced in the SERPs. 

At the time of writing this blog post, we were able to find several examples of Reddit, Quora and LinkedIn rising to the top of the SERPs:

Screengrab from 22nd May 2024 shows LinkedIn in position 4 and Quora in 5.

Screengrab from 22nd May 2024 shows Reddit ranking fifth for a retirement query, just in front of Legal & General.

In addition to E-E-A-T, we’re also starting to see the impact of AI Overviews. Formerly known as Search Generative Experience (SGE), AI Overviews display more comprehensive answers to queries. Depending on the search, these range from instructions on how to complete a task to a summary that includes relevant links. 

We’ve discussed this in more detail here, but to summarise, the introduction of SGE has been a point of contention for SEO experts and users alike. For example, while intended to enhance search results, there are times that Google has gone viral for getting it very, very wrong. E.g., when Google advised to drink ‘2 quarts (2 litres) of urine every 24 hours’ to pass a kidney stone. 

An Advertiser’s World

Speaking of AI Overviews, we’ve also seen numerous complaints regarding ads. The main concern? It seems that many people feel search results are declining due to the fact that ads are becoming more dominant in the SERPs. For most users, these ads are almost indistinguishable from organic results, which can make results pages more confusing and difficult to navigate.

A quick search revealed a lot of very disgruntled Reddit and Quora users. Complaints range from seeing the same ad over and over again to too many ads within search results:

Screengrab from 22nd May 2024.

A lot of these posts have one thing in common: They feel that Google is prioritising ad revenue over the quality of organic search. This is slightly unnerving, especially because this would mean Google is operating counter to its core values – that of providing users with high-quality, relevant and helpful results. 

According to the four principles in Our approach to Search, Google search aims to:

  1. Deliver the most relevant and reliable information available
  2. Maximise access to information
  3. Present information in the most useful way
  4. Protect your privacy

The good news? It does seem Google is aware of the concerns surrounding the quality of search. In fact, Pinchai briefly touched upon this in his Bloomberg interview.

He was asked: 

“You make a ton of money on ads next to the links generated by searches. If a chatbot is giving you the answers and not links, and maybe more answers than links sometimes, are we in the midst of an assault on Google’s business model?”

His reply:

“So we’ve always found people want choices, including in commercial areas, and that’s a fundamental need. And I think we’ve always been able to balance it. As we are rolling out AI Overviews in Search, we’ve been experimenting with ads, and the data we see shows that those fundamental principles will hold true during this phase as well.”

A World of Choice: Google Versus ChatGPT-4o

Speaking of chatbots, it seems like more users are turning to alternative platforms to source information. This includes AI-driven tools as well as social media sites like TikTok. One of the best examples of this is ChatGPT, a chatbot that has gained traction for its ability to provide detailed information at speed.

On 13th May 2024, OpenAI went one step further by introducing their most advanced AI model: GPT-4o. Unlike its predecessors, this desktop chatbot is able to search live web results, synthesise data from multiple sources and compile information into comprehensive overviews.

An example of this is its response to queries about UK interest rates. 

In May 2024, we asked: ‘Are interest rates coming down?’

Here was the answer GPT-4o gave us:

‘As of now, UK interest rates are expected to remain relatively high for the short term, but there are indications that they may begin to decrease later in 2024. Here are some key points:

  1. Current Rate: The Bank of England has held the base rate at 5.25% in recent meetings. This rate is expected to remain steady at least through the first half of 2024​ (XTB.com)​​ (Fidelity)​.
  2. Expected Reductions: Financial markets and economists forecast that the Bank of England might start cutting rates by the summer of 2024. By the end of the year, interest rates are projected to drop to around 4.25% to 4.65%​ (XTB.com)​​ (Fidelity)​. However, this is contingent on inflation trends and other economic indicators.
  3. Long-Term Outlook: While some analysts predict multiple rate cuts in 2024, reducing rates to about 4%, the consensus is that rates will remain above 3% for several years. The Bank of England’s approach has been cautious, emphasising the need to see sustained reductions in inflation before making significant rate cuts​ (XTB.com)​​ (Fidelity)​.

In summary, while there is optimism that interest rates will begin to fall in the latter part of 2024, they are likely to stay relatively high compared to pre-2022 levels for the foreseeable future. This cautious outlook reflects ongoing economic uncertainties and the need to ensure inflation is firmly under control before easing monetary policy significantly.’

This capability highlights a potential shift in how users seek information – and the figures speak for themselves. According to recent data, ChatGPT currently boasts more than 180 million users. It also attracts billions of visits per month, with 1.6 billion in February 2024 alone. 

Figures like this showcase the appetite for AI-powered search. When it’s done well, these products can inform and empower. They can provide answers and act as tutors, help to plan and complete tasks, or even proofread content and code. However, we also found many examples of ChatGPT fails:

Screengrab from 22nd May 2024.

The Evolving World of Search

So, what’s the final verdict? Will AI really improve the quality of search? Or are we destined for a future that’s dominated by ads and empowered by chatbots? As the world leader in search, we predict Google will achieve the former.

As of 2024, Google holds the largest share of the global search engine market by a significant margin – outstripping competitors like Bing and OpenAI. And despite revenue generated from ads, Google’s mission remains the same: ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’

That being said, internal acknowledgements, academic studies and real-world examples all point to ongoing challenges in maintaining high-quality search results. While Sundar Pichai remains optimistic about AI’s role – and its ability to enhance and improve search results – the current reality is more nuanced.

Google’s comprehensive ecosystem and technological advancements have always pushed the boundaries of search – and its continuous AI innovations are no different. Going forward, it’s clear that Google must balance the integration of AI with its user commitment. For business and website owners, it will be critical to stay informed, keep up with algorithm updates and be prepared to pivot.

Do you have questions about the quality of search? The future of SEO? Or how to prepare your website for this AI-powered age? Then get in touch. Here at Another Concept, our organic search experts are perfectly placed to help you navigate these challenges.

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  • Marcus Hearn

    Marcus has spent his career growing the organic search visibility of both large organisations and SMEs. He specialises in technical SEO but he’s obsessed with curating strategies that leverage expertise and unlock potential.

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