According to Google’s latest annual 10-K filing, over 85% of its revenue comes from advertising—yes, it’s actually listed as a risk factor. Seeing that, I recently landed on an analogy of what Google web search is like for professional researchers and info pros.
Imagine a taxi company that offers free rides anywhere you want to go. They’re practically ubiquitous, and a luxurious self-driving vehicle can be summoned on a moment’s notice. And did I mention that it’s free? How do they do it? Imagine that this cab company was owned and operated by a chain of restaurants and, regardless of where you wanted to be taken to, you would always wind up driving by one of their restaurants first. It’s a great service as long as you understand that, if you climb into the cab and say “What’s a good place for seafood around here?”, you will get taken to one of the taxi owner’s restaurants.
Just as the convenience of a free ride might be worth the detour by Sam’s Fish Emporium, so a general-purpose search engine designed to sell ads by providing a great search experience will be fine if you’re looking for the latest news, a how-to video, or a quick answer to a question. But we info pros need to remind our clients and patrons that Google is calibrated to handle most search queries well. In fact, an increasing number of Google queries are answered without the searcher doing anything beyond asking the question. Type a query like “restaurants near me” or “cheap flights to hawaii” and you’ll see a featured snippet or instant answer at the top of the search results. Speak the query to Google and she* will read you the one top answer. If a particular web page isn’t in the top five search results, most users will never see it, and we info pros have to remember to go to the third or fourth page of results to get past the most-SEO-optimized pages. (See the SearchEngineLand write up of a recent survey to see how many users click no more than one or two results and how many merely skim the snippets for the answer, and weep.)
I recently saw another SearchEngineLand write up, this time on the guidelines Google uses when human analysts evaluate search results for relevance. This is important, as these ratings affect Google’s search algorithm. The 166-page Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines discusses how to gauge E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness), an important factor in evaluating a page’s quality. While content with a high E-A-T rating is an admirable goal, Google’s example of a high E-A-T page is that of Visa credit cards. Perhaps a page on visa.com would be useful if you wanted to know specifically about Visa’s products and services, but as an info pro, I always look at a corporate web site with the assumption that it will be a less than impartial source of information and would prefer a neutral third-party source.
While Google (and my theoretical restaurant-sponsored free taxi service) is great most of the time, we need to continue to remind our clients of the difference between a general purpose search engine and a specialized value-added online service or other research tool that isn’t driven by delivering your attention to its advertisers.
*Why do virtual assistants always default to a female voice?