Your Google Searches Are Quietly Evolving. Here’s What’s Next

Changes to the way Google handles search rankings are intended to push up content from real people, not content farms optimizing content for search engines, and that works in tandem with other efforts like improving results for product-review pagesSullivan says.

Not that there’s anything wrong with SEO, the practice of optimizing web pages so they’ll rank higher in search engines. “It helps us locate and understand relevant content,” Sullivan says, “SEO isn’t some special method to appear in the top results. The key thing is what our advice to anyone has long been: Create helpful content for people, not search engines.”

How Big a Problem Is Spam?

It’s about a 40-billion-a-day problem. That’s the number of pages of spam and malicious content that Google Search discovers every day. Sullivan says that Google’s continued efforts filter out about 99 percent, but the volume of malicious and spammy content is ever increasing.

Google uses an AI-based spam prevention system called SpamBrain, which Sullivan says led to identifying six times more spam sites in 2021 than in the previous year.

Should I Worry About Malware in Google Ads and Results?

This year, there’ve been several high-profile incidents of malware creeping into search engine ads, including a recent one involving an ad for Google’s failure to curtail some types of misleading ads, including some for antiabortion information centers and ads for fraudulent services purporting to be run by the governmenthave drawn criticism.

As with spam content and Search, Google Ads is in a constant battle to get rid of malware content and bad players. Google Ads liaison Ginny Marvin says that Google Ads engages in this by “verifying advertisers’ identities and identifying coordinated activity between accounts using signals in our network.” She says their efforts involve automated systems as well as human reviewers to try to monitor for abuse in over 180 countries. It’s a big task. “To provide a sense of scale of our enforcement efforts in 2021, we removed over 3.4 billion ads, restricted over 5.7 billion ads, and suspended over 5.6 billion advertiser accounts,” she says.

But it’s not perfect. Marvin says that it helps to understand where and when ads actually show up in search results. Users who think they might be clicking on something suspicious can first click on the three dots next to the ad and select “About this Ad,” which includes information about the advertiser and why they were shown the ad. Advertiser pages show the other ads an advertiser has run in the past 30 days. If it’s something harmful, users can report the ad in question. And Google’s recently launched My Ads Center gives users more control over what types of ads they see. You can block sensitive ads and personalize the types of advertising that will be shown.

Some advocates say that’s not good enough. Katie Paul, the director of the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project, says that Google has been warned for years about these problems and has not taken action on a large scale to eradicate malware and misinformation. “We have repeatedly pointed out that there is harmful content or flaws with the material that is surfacing in Google’s search advertisements, and everybody seems to get the same response again and again without Google actually addressing the problem,” Paul says.

Are Google Shopping Retailers Legitimate?

If you’re already powering through your holiday shopping list, you may have on occasion spotted deals on Google Shopping results that seem too good to be true. For instance, shopping for a specific in-demand video card might yield a bunch of results that are aligned in price, and one or two from a website you’ve never heard of where the price is so heavily discounted it seems suspicious.

That’s a challenge for Google, says Matt Madrigal, vice president of merchant shopping. “We are always adapting to keep bad merchants of listings off our platforms, and it’s an area we’re heavily focused on as we scale the number of merchants and products listed on Google,” he says. “There is no finish line in fighting fraud.”

Madrigal says merchants are subject to, among other policiesones that are specifically forbidden misrepresentation and counterfeit goods. As with Search and Ads, automation and human review are involved in vetting these vendors. But Madrigal says that Google Shopping is also relying on feedback from users to identify suspected fraudulent sellers. Google doesn’t have a direct way to report sellers on its product carousel pages, but it has a general shopping support page with a virtual agent where users can report bad players.

As with Google Ads, Paul says that this trend of asking users to police the system is troubling when the company has the resources to hire more content moderators and experts. “We see this same cookie-cutter response from Google,” Paul says. “Like Facebook, we see companies saying, ‘Report this information when you see it,’ but at the same time this multibillion-dollar company puts the onus back on users to clean up their own search platform, their primary profit mechanism.”

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