Google: When Search Results Suck, It's Because We're Stupid

Mar 23, 2012 • 8:44 am | comments (26) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Google Search Engine

Google Stupid vs Money - Stupid Is as Stupid DoesRyan Moulton, a Google software engineer working on search since 2006, is extremely active on HackerNews. He recently responded on HackerNews to a story named Paul Graham, the Commons, and How Google Stopped Being Google where they wrote:

They tweek results based on the amount of revenue they are likely to bring in.

Ryan Moulton's response was filled with emotion and hurt when he said "this is entirely false," adding "I wish misinformed people would stop parroting it." Ryan explains, what Googlers have explained time and time again, that there is an "extremely rigid firewall" between the free organic search results and the ad side. He adds that those involved in "search don't even see metrics on how their changes effect ads, let alone make decisions based on them."

Ryan then explains that when search results "suck" it has nothing to do with "perversely smart at funneling you into money making opportunities." But rather it has to do with Google's "system is too stupid" to get the right result.

He is hurt and I believe him when he writes this. Ryan then goes on to add:

Look, I've worked in search at Google for over 5 years. I know all of the signals that determine how results are ranked and most of the details about how they are used. I know all of the metrics that are used to evaluate and tune ranking. I know nearly everyone who works in ranking, and I've seen a decent fraction of the launch decisions and the metrics supporting them. I'm telling you, with no caveats, that we don't make ranking decisions based on statistics related to revenue. If that doesn't convince you, then I don't know what would.

He knows "all of the signals" - wow, I didn't know one person knew them all. But the bigger side of this story is that Google really doesn't seem to let money influence their organic search results.

I work with engineers daily and reading this seems like he is an engineer fed up with allegations from people who simply do not have the facts.

Forum discussion at HackerNews.

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03/23/2012 12:54 pm

Look, I trust this guy, I'm pretty sure the 10 results per page, the organic ones are determined by an algorithm dating back to the days when Google wasn't selling ads, tweaked each day/week to take into consideration what changes on the web. Then there's the team that loads other stuff under, above, into, on the right and soon on the left side of those 10 results. The second team is the one who should come forward and explain how Google does no evil :)

Dejan SEO

03/23/2012 01:16 pm

Barry, you now have to do an interview with Ryan Moulton.

Michael Cropper

03/23/2012 01:54 pm

I wish he could pop by my blog post and finalise the list of 200 ranking signals which have been generated by the SEO community: (please feel free to add more to the list!) :-) 

Joseph Rega

03/23/2012 02:12 pm

Excellent story Barry. What I don't understand is that if their decisions aren't based on revenue, why don't they release keyword data in Google Analytics?

Angry at Thieves

03/23/2012 03:57 pm

BS, results are tweaked at Amit Singhal's level. The coders know jack, as VPs of search and Adwords "talk" How come Google never made a mistake that lowered their revenue? One quarter, shoem it to me. Fool me once shame on you, fool me again...

Ron McCoy

03/23/2012 06:36 pm

The way I see it Google's goals for improving organic search and generating paid advertising revenues are complementary, not opposing. The better their organic search results the more users and traffic they'll have ... and the more opportunities there are for selling advertising. 


03/23/2012 07:04 pm

How delightfully irrational.


03/23/2012 07:05 pm

"I work with engineers daily and reading this seems like he is an engineer fed up with allegations from people who simply do not have the facts." He doesn't have all the facts either, or is not telling them. "But the bigger side of this story is that Google really doesn't seem to let money influence their organic search results." Um, no Barry, you are clueless. Google does not manipulate results on a site by site basis but on a macro level. For example, their brand bias fits perfectly well with their "Buy Adwords" push. People also have biases in trusting brands more than they should and a good search engine would account for that. Google goes the extra mile--in the opposite direction because they are an advertising company. How many times an algo that was supposedly tested and approved was reversed because brands were hit? Lots of times. Or their campaign to target affiliates as "better for the users"  when it's not true since many times affiliates have lower prices than the store. and I can go on.

Larry Page

03/23/2012 08:54 pm

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is "The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention", a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. A good example was OpenText, which was reported to be selling companies the right to be listed at the top of the search results for particular queries [Marchiori 97]. This type of bias is much more insidious than advertising, because it is not clear who "deserves" to be there, and who is willing to pay money to be listed. This business model resulted in an uproar, and OpenText has ceased to be a viable search engine. But less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from "friendly" companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline's homepage when the airline's name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

Barry Schwartz

03/23/2012 08:56 pm

Fake Larry Page.

Larry Page

03/23/2012 09:07 pm

Duh, but this was from PageRank paper so it's really from Larry Page.


03/23/2012 09:12 pm

Larry Page disagrees with you: "For this type of reason and historical experience with other media, we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers." Search for a top keyword and all you see advertisers even when a price comparison would be the best result FOR THE USER. Google, as Larry Page predicted, is biased towards their advertisers, something Google's earnings show with each update.

Ron McCoy

03/24/2012 03:37 am

If intentionally degrading organic search quality would actually enhance paid advertising revenue then assuming it's legal and ethical wouldn't Google management be hard pressed to do just that? That is assuming their goal is revenue maximization. I don't see that happening ... killing (or stifling) the goose that laid the golden egg. It still seems to me that as organic search goes so goes Google and much of its value proposition, although that may be becoming somewhat less the case as the company evolves.

BS it is

03/24/2012 10:02 am

Yes, engineers usually seem to be offended by any suggestion their job is anything but pure, objective professionalism done with the greatest integrity. Nowhere more so than in the wilfully blind community of Google coders, who, judging from most of their comments throughout the years, are conveniently ignoring the bigger business issues regarding Google, which they would have trouble explaining away. Such technical types usually forget that while they themselves might put in their professional best within the frames set (and thus feel put off by all this "misinformation" out there), the frames themselves, never really questioned by them (that's not their job, you know) might be skewed in the first place.

Bing User

03/24/2012 03:41 pm

 Are you sure those 10 "organic" listings are still there?  I have trouble seeing them on some queries.  You wouldn't be referring to the YouTube, Google Images, and Google+ listings, would you?  ;)

Vikas Singal

03/24/2012 07:30 pm

Barry, It gives me right feelings for Ryan. I do understand it like this...The better Organic results they give...the more ad revenue is liking to come up...So fixing organic issues ..or changing algorithms some time can give bad results ..buts they ( Google) really intend to provide good search wonder why !!


03/24/2012 07:47 pm

I'm willing to accept this, for a simple reason: Google admitted quite a while ago that they don't actually understand SEO:

Web Guy

03/24/2012 11:56 pm

Moulton, if this new panda thing improved the SERPs, but resulted in a halving of profits, do you really think they wouldn't change it back? Every update so far has made Google a lot more money and webmasters are complaining of losing their livelihoods. "In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want but Google's ad chief said that sometimes ads provide the best answer. How convenient for "unbiased" Google.


03/26/2012 01:50 am

Although I do not know what you say.But it looks like a great look


03/26/2012 02:57 am

yeah i strongly agree with Web Guy.  How did it happen in Panda that Google decided to switch up the rules with its competitors (a.k.a content farms) who happened to be sucking money away from Google with easy answers (and Google content ads).  How is it that Google is progressively putting blinders on SEOs so that people will turn to Google.


06/03/2012 08:55 am

If you(a search engine which I know you are not but I do not know how to complain about these engines) could understand emotional searches...what I mean is they need to learn when I group my thoughts that they are not just individual words that add up to nothing! Everybody feels and everybody thinks and when you are thinking you search...www. is a friend that most people use. So when I type a phrase or a gathering of words I need to know that the sum is not mathematics but rather language arts...

Grille DeVille

06/19/2012 02:32 pm

Google used to be incredible good at giving me relevant results of my search queries. Sadly it has become more and more useless by trying to be too "smart" and give me lots and lots of irrelevant results. It's almost to a point where I have to put quotation marks around every single word, even then it ignores it and give me tons of irrelevant results for words I did not want to search for.


12/02/2013 12:13 am

No your Stupid! I hate Google search...if I put in a search for "SEEDS" why in the world would it come up with "THEATER GROUP"? How does that make one letter of sense? It doesn't!!! Everything is now based on Money...Guess the theater needs money...too bad I need a real SEARCH engine...ya know one that searches what I am looking for


12/26/2013 04:54 pm

Google makes assumptions about searches and that's the problem. Certain words with multiple meanings will simply fail outright because it's always assuming results are for the popular meaning of the word. Even adding "complementing" search terms to try and push the alternate meaning to the top often fails. It also omits search terms at will - I'll enter 3-4 keywords and even with "" around certain ones it will not be in the document or the cached version simply because Google has decided it knows better than I what words I am searching for.


03/11/2014 10:29 pm

I think all the brilliant Google employees, the ones behind the better search engine features like Search Within Results, which is no longer used now, have left the company. Google Instant was a joke and now I type in keywords and get phonetically synonymous sounding words coming back no where near I need. It is a bloody nightmare annoying as it is, people live with it because $oogle knows they are the only kid on the block with the best database other than Bing which can't even drill down by date further back than one month for some odd reason.


03/11/2014 10:32 pm

Now in 2014, the FCC is rewriting the Net Neutrality rules. There is a belief that the new rules could cause Google rethink its algorithm. They apparently modified the search algorithm last year and made big deal out of it. This new search pattern could even be obsolete if the FCC has its way.

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