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Complaints by users of the declining quality of search engine results contain a seed of truth, according to a recent study released by a group of academic researchers.

The researchers from Leipzig University, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and ScaDS.AI — all in Germany — concluded that “all search engines have significant problems with highly-optimized (affiliate) content.”

In their paper titled “Is Google Getting Worse? A Longitudinal Investigation of SEO Spam in Search Engines,” the researchers, by monitoring Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo for a year on 7,392 product review queries, found that although they could not predict where individual pages would be ranked, they could conclude that “higher-ranked pages are on average more optimized, more monetized with affiliate marketing, and they show signs of lower text quality.”

One of the problems with the study is that it’s confined to product reviews. “Think of it like this: if you only walk down one aisle in a big store, you’re going to miss a lot of other stuff in the store,” said Nazmul Hasan, founder and CEO of Microters, a provider of digital marketing and software development services.

“The study mostly found websites that are trying to sell things, often with special links that make them money if you buy something,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This means they were more about selling than just giving good, plain information. It’s a bit like when you ask for help, but everyone just tries to sell you their things instead.”

Google Improving

“This particular study looked narrowly at product review content, and it doesn’t reflect the overall quality and helpfulness of search for the billions of queries we see every day,” Google spokesperson Ned Adriance said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld.

“We’ve launched specific improvements to address these issues,” he continued, “and the study itself points out that Google has improved over the past year and is performing better than other search engines.”

As part of their study, the researchers examined whether changes made by search engine companies improved the overall quality of results. “Google’s updates in particular are having a noticeable, yet mostly short-lived, effect,” they wrote.

“In fact,” they continued, “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,” they added, “we can still find several spam domains and also see an overall downward trend in text quality in all three search engines, so there is still quite a lot of room for improvement.”

Promoting Conspiracy Theories

Adriance also maintained that numerous third parties have measured search engine results for other types of queries and found Google to be of significantly higher quality than the rest.

For example, in a paper titled “Where the Earth Is Flat and 9/11 Is an Inside Job: A Comparative Algorithm Audit of Conspiratorial Information in Web Search Results,” researchers at the University of Zurich and the University of Bern in Switzerland and the Leibniz-Institut für and Sozialwissenschaften and University of Konstanz in Germany found that “all search engines except Google consistently displayed conspiracy-promoting results and returned links to conspiracy-dedicated websites in their top results, although the share of such content varied across queries.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported, “For many terms, Bing and DuckDuckGo surfaced more untrustworthy websites than Google did, when results were compared with website ratings from the Global Disinformation Index, NewsGuard and research published in the journal Science.”

“Search results on Google also included some untrustworthy websites, but they tended to be less common and lower on the search page,” it added.

Driving Clicks, Not Quality

The Leipzig and Bauhaus researchers also found that only a small portion of product reviews on the web use affiliate marketing, but most search results do.

They also observed an inverse relationship between affiliate marketing use and content complexity and that all search engines fall victim to large-scale affiliate link spam campaigns.

“Affiliate sites want to drive clicks,” explained Greg Sterling, co-founder of Near Media, a news, commentary, and analysis website.

“One could argue that higher quality sites create more trust and would ultimately be more successful,” he told TechNewsWorld. “But many affiliate marketers appear to be quickly generating sites and pages in an effort to rank and drive clicks rather than focusing on building quality content for the long term, which takes time and money.”

“Imagine if you got paid for every word you wrote for a project. You might write a lot, but it’s not all going to be great stuff. That’s what some affiliate websites do,” Nazmul explained. “They make a lot of articles to get people to click and buy things through their links, so they make money.”

“They care more about selling than really giving you the useful info you need,” he continued. “It’s like those annoying ads that pop up and promise great things but don’t really deliver.”

AI Contributes to the Problem

The researchers also noted that the line between benign content and spam in the form of content and link farms is becoming increasingly blurry — a situation that will surely worsen in the wake of generative AI.

“AI is going to throw a wrench into the system because its writing component is sub-par, and even the research aspect has proven to be wrong at times,” observed Baruch Labunski, CEO of Rank Secure, a website development and search engine optimization firm, in Toronto.

“This will continue to lower the text quality while pushing out more spam,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The amount of low-quality text will continue to pollute search engines until the search engines decide to raise the standards and set new ground rules.”

Sterling explained that huge amounts of “acceptable” content can be created and quickly spun up with AI. “It’s cheaper and easier than using humans or trying to build a brand,” he said.

Artificial intelligence can be used to create articles really fast, added Nazmul. “This can lead to more web pages that might look good to search engines but aren’t much help to you,” he explained.

Vigilance Needed

Sterling argued that search engines need to be constantly vigilant about the quality of their search results. “They have to adapt their algorithms to address evolving spam tactics quickly,” he said. “Google has that capability and will be using AI in the background in service of that objective.”

“But,” he continued, “there also should be a human editorial dimension — such as Google’s ‘quality raters.’ This is partly why you see Google shifting more toward forums and social sites, such as Reddit, in search results as a way to ensure more authentic results.”

“Low-quality content and spam will continue to be a major problem going forward,” he added. “This is why some people are turning to TikTok and Reddit to get direct information from real people instead of using search.”

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