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Stephen Logan

Is Google Attempting to be too Clever with its SERPs?

21st Feb 2012 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

This is an open letter to all search engines regarding the results provided. Sometimes, all I want is a simple answer to a simple question. However, if I’m using Google, more often than not I want them to deliver a site that can deliver the required response.

Google though is starting to act like the smart kid in class. It always has his or her hand up before the teacher has even finished the question, primed to provide an elaborate response. That’s great for basic queries, which they generally get right, but the longer the search phrase is, the more it appears to struggle.

Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that Google is the dunce of the class, or unable to give decent responses to well-phrased questions. In fact it’s getting more intelligent by the day. However, it does sometimes feel like the search engine is just trying too hard to please.

Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of results that include multiple lines of Meta descriptions – 4 or 5 as opposed to the usual couple. Excessive Meta, punctuated by ellipsis and randomly highlighted keywords, isn’t just ugly, it’s also largely useless. Here’s a quick example:

Now the question posed is slightly difficult for a computer to understand. There are a lot of words to digest, which means that I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be able to provide the answer (it’s 1939 by the way); however, it should have the wherewithal to point me in the direction of someone who can. But Google doesn’t appear to know when it’s beaten.

As a direct comparison, here are the results for the same query on Bing:

These are by no means perfect, but they appear to have a far clearer understanding of the question and visually, appears far less cluttered to the user.

Some of the Meta descriptions stretch to four complete lines; mostly comprised of useless and unrelated information. Rather than giving precedence to actual keywords “win” “FA cup” and “Portsmouth”, the algorithm has picked up on insignificant terms like “do”, “did” and “will” (two of which didn’t even appear in the original search phrase).

Again, I don’t expect Google to magic up the answer, but I’d really like it to stop trying. If it’s already worked out which is the most relevant result, why must it then justify these reasons by (badly) piecing together the on-page content and dragging out individual words. Just give me Wikipedia or the Portsmouth FC website and I’ll work out the rest.

Of course, in this instance it actually gives me the answer, almost entirely by accident. But huge Meta isn’t the way in which Google is going to answer queries. Provide pre-programmed and pre-determined answers, such as the one below, where it can, but otherwise the most appropriate sentence or two within the Meta description will probably suffice.

Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive, but it does occasionally appear as though Google is trying to ensure that I never visit another website again. Unfortunately, like the smart kid in class, it still doesn’t have all the answers. Sure, 80, maybe even 90 percent of the time it is spot on, other results are inaccurate, overcrowded or possibly both.

In this case, Google’s brain needs to be able to catch up with its ambition. It would be great if it could use all of the knowledge at its disposal to provide answers, but it can’t – not yet anyway. My issues with their clunky Meta might be a little petty, in fact I might well be the only one with this particular grievance, but this is indicative of a wider issue with search engines.

Ever since Bing proclaimed that it was a “decision engine” (a tag it has since dumped) and the “computational knowledge engine” that is Wolfram Alpha came onto the scene, there has been an inexorable push from Google (and others) to offer more answers. They’ve dragged in video, added the latest news stories and used social data to propel the most relevant results onto the first page. As useful as this often is, it’s still a long way off understanding a searcher’s intentions, or indeed serving up intelligent answers.

SERPs descriptions may simply be a symptom of a much wider issue. Whether one day Google will be able to comprehend on-page content and offer results based on these findings remains to be seen, but I’m certainly no fan of the mess that is a modern Google results page.

If you have an alternative view and are perhaps a fan of the way the big G is sorting and presenting data, share your thoughts below. Maybe you think I’m well wide of the mark with my criticisms or that my assumptions are misguided; don’t be afraid to put me straight.

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