Have search engines become useless? And Google, in particular

Have search engines — and Google in the first place — become useless? At a time when more than half of Internet searches deliver no clicks, it is time to ask a question which may seem counterintuitive but is, in my mind, crucial: What is the use of search engines and isn’t it time we moved on to something else? Here is the result of my research, which will demonstrate that you should blame yourself, and no one else, for the current state of the Internet.

Have search engines become useless?

Have search engines become useless? And Google, in particular
There is something broken in the Internet world. Search engines may even have become useless. Let’s find out why

As far as search engines are concerned, I have already answered that question. I have already switched to DuckDuckgo (or duck.com for short) for more than six months and going back is not an option. I’m not alone, although the number of users of this engine is still low (approx. 5 million users worldwide, half of them in the US). When I read James Temperton’s article in Wired UK (see below), I decided to take the plunge. After all, by 1997, few users had given up Yahoo! for Google. So we can give them some time too.

Important notice: I would like to make it clear that my approach is not motivated by European jingoism, as I have explained here, nor even by the desire to take control of my data. Honestly, I don’t think that any of the Internet giants have used one-tenth of the data that was stolen from me by good old European so-called GDPR-friendly businesses. My motivation is, in fact, that of a broader vision of freedom of expression, of the Internet as a common good for humankind, and of universal access to information.

The market shares of search engines in the USA in 2020: no comment!
The market shares of search engines in the USA in 2020: no comment!

When opting for DuckDuckGo, my first impressions weren’t that good, to be honest. It was a bit like when switching from an English car to a European one. I had to get used to the fact that the steering wheel and the gear lever weren’t quite in the same place. But I got used to it very quickly because the differences are not that significant and the tool is well designed, the search engine is swift, without too many bells and whistles and the search results were relevant.

Is DuckDuckGo making other search engines useless?
Is DuckDuckGo making other search engines useless? It could be. It is well designed and fast. A bit like Google in its early days. And it offers a rather large list of choices (Web/Wikipedia/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook etc.) [duck.com to access it]
Granted, image results are a little behind Google, and it happens once in a while that I go back to images.google.com. I admit to it, but it won’t last.

Search result relevance — however subjective — is, in my opinion, the main reason for staying with Google. None of the search bots I had tried before had been good enough for me to stay with them. Moreover, DuckDuckGo doesn’t show results from Google (unlike Startpage, which only removes the tracking from Google but still uses their results. They even pay them to do that!)

Ecosia plants trees (that’s pretty cool) and it’s not a bad engine, but they mainly use Yahoo! Bing and Wikipedia, so the sources are less diverse than DuckDuckGo which is more exhaustive. Bing, which also has its qualities, is not necessarily among the best. This isn’t just because of its technology, but because webmasters are mostly reluctant to be indexed by them.

In terms of usage, I even find DuckDuckGo better than Google: the language and country selection (France/ROW) is more intuitive, and the search window selection is more accessible. Google requires four clicks to change countries and languages. I use two main tongues and less frequently, a third one. I don’t call Google user-friendly in that respect.

With DuckDuckGo local search (French in the above picture) is one click away. With Google, it takes 4 clicks with drop-down menus in between. Switching between languages and countries is a lengthy process that has become completely unwieldy. Well, no one speaks two languages, do they?!

DuckDuckGo (or Duck.com for short) uses a mix of results from a “compilation of “over 400″ sources,[8] including Yahoo! Search BOSS, Wolfram Alpha, Bing, Yandex, its own web crawler (the DuckDuckBot) and others. It also uses data from crowdsourced sites, including Wikipedia[…].”

As with Democracy in which every vote counts, every search, every user counts, and if you use everyone’s tool, its predominance shouldn’t come as a surprise to you.

In a nutshell, my main issue was to find a usable search engine and DuckDuckGo did the job.

That said, DuckDuckGo isn’t perfect either- there has been some controversy about their favicon storage – but it’s not really a major problem.

Let’s rejoice about having found a proper search engine in working order, free and almost ad-free (it resorts to Bing Ads but also allows you to remove ads. As for me, I’ve never seen any, except once or twice, even if that’s where they get their funding from).

see the list of alternative search engines in 2020

Changing search engines can make a difference with the Internet landscape

I won’t try to force you to ditch Google, nor even can do. Yet, you will find out in the following lines, that such a change has had a serious impact, especially with regards to the data collected by Google along my Web journeys (i.e. 10 to 15 hours a day, 6 days a week at least for the last 25 years).

And perhaps you should also ponder that change since Google is increasing its pressure on CPC and Ad costs (see Semrush report per below). To top it all, the US has just launched antitrust litigation against Google.

But let’s go back to the original question because after all, all I did was to replace one engine with another — virtuous at this moment but perhaps not tomorrow — and the initial question was: “Have search engines (and above all Google) become useless”?

One: half of the Internet searches no longer result in clicks

This is quite something. As of today, half of Internet search results no longer generate clicks. So what of it?! You may ask. Quite simply, it means that if searches no longer lead to Websites, Web publishers will soon go belly up.

Not only content publishers like us, but also retailers. Why bother searching for information all over the place when you can find it with Google. In other words, it’s a return ticket to the world of information control. The main difference is that it’s carried out on a global level, and we aren’t talking about 1984-style State-driven control but a private business making choices on our behalf about what information we should or shouldn’t access.

I’m not sure it’s worse, mind you. I’m not a great fan of totalitarian states. I’m not sure it’s any better either.

In short, here again, Internet users vote with their mice. For a complex but open and free Internet, or a closed and proprietary Internet. It’s your choice.

Two: a search engine or an advertising engine?

Moz demonstrates the second point in a post where they ask the question: who are Google Ads made for? Certainly not for users and even less to satisfy lawmakers on disclosure practices in advertising.

By gradually removing the distinctive elements (see the montage above based on Moz’s article) from online advertisements, Google is increasingly confusing users and turning its search engine into an advertising engine.

The pile of paid results on top of free search results is sometimes so intrusive that you sometimes have to scroll once to find where the real searches are.

Three: CPCs are skyrocketing

Google CPC prices going through the roof is hardly something new. Once again, users, in this case, marketers vote with their mice. There seems to be no end in feeding the fat cat. If you want to see the damage done, take a quick look at the table from the Semrush study of 2020.

[click to enlarge] CPC costs in some industries such as insurance or marketing are just insane. Buying a keyword in a sought-after high-tech field will quickly cost dozens of euros per click. Visionary Marketing thus saves more than €1,000 excl. VAT in daily investment costs. SEO and quality content are expensive, but they are, in the long run, highly profitable

Four: users want to find before they searched

As stated in number one, most searches aren’t searches; people are merely checking a quick result in position zero, aka SERP zero (regardless of its accuracy). James Temperton begins his Wired article with this point too: people do not search anymore.

I have also realised this in the business schools where I work (here we are talking about highly educated students). As I like to ask my pupils tons of questions – it keeps them awake and helps me probe their knowledge of the Internet – I have seen reflexes change in recent years.

Whereas 3 or 4 years ago it was necessary to keep tabs on them (“don’t Google this, use your head!”), I realise that, nowadays, nobody in the classroom is looking for anything anymore. “Who created Wikipedia? “… radio silence. And no one thinks of searching the Web for the answer.

Careful here! I’m not trying to say that 21st-century people are stupid and that before, schools were chock full of geniuses. There is no ground for stating this, and we have no reliable basis for comparison. Also, knowledge has changed a lot, and many new concepts have emerged.

In fact, we know precious little about intelligence. Intelligence is hard to define and measure. IQ doesn’t mean much; its measurements aren’t steady nor comparable. There is a whole debate about this, and even experts disagree.

More than “stupidity”, which doesn’t mean anything because it is a subjective notion, one should rather talk about apathy, a much more factual concept.

I merely want to point out that researching information, an exercise that the old ones and I’m one of them now, learned though the perusal of encyclopaedias, is not part of people’s habits anymore.

In a way, it’s like music on Spotify (or Qobuz as far as I’m concerned). I have access to the entire catalogue — especially classical music — but I tend to discover far fewer different and original artists now than I used to when I regularly visited record shops or was borrowing records from my friends and went to the public library on Saturdays.

Connected speakers will put a final nail in that Internet research coffin. The Internet, and not curiosity, killed the cat.

  • Hey, Google! Give me the answer I’m no longer looking for!”

Five: Google search results are not better anymore

DuckDuckGo, or Ecosia or any other alternative search engine, performs at least as well as Google and even allows you to find different sources.

In 1997, when Google was launched, I was one of the first to praise it. Its minimalistic interface, convincing results, absence of distractions, all of that made it a gateway to the world’s knowledge. I had spotted how powerful that tool way before it became universally used.

Then all the other engines, by our fault, finally disappeared. The little that was left was not worth much. They finally went belly up for good. We know the result: 92% share (and still, the 8 remaining per cent include access by third-party applications that shouldn’t be counted).

But here, I found one. Duckduckgo (see above), yet another American search engine, does at least as well and even allows you to find different topics than those found with Google.

I know it’s lost a battle from day one, people will say…

  • “Yes, but Google works fine!”

OK, if a website is being excluded from Google, it means sudden death for its publisher. Users made that possible.

Six: the Internet is (or used to be) a common good it now belongs to private businesses

To be precise, as far as search engines are concerned – and therefore, the advertising revenue associated with it – one and only one private company.

Statistiques par digital information world

So is the Internet still a common good? A place where one can still create freely for the benefit of all? Including businesses, and especially small businesses? Not quite anymore. And in many countries, it is so controlled that its very existence is threatened in the very short term.

An Internet smothered by authoritarian states or one by a de facto monopoly, not many reasons for rejoicing.

Here again, if users find that great… let them check the following point.

Seven: users, all using the same tool, are shooting themselves in the foot

Moteurs de recherche Obsolètes
Googling by Jef Lofvers on his superb donthitsave.com website

They only have themselves to blame… unless they get a grip on themselves.

Now things are getting even worse with all users throwing themselves into Chrome’s arms with great delight (especially because Android is prevailing on mobiles), and this is not making things any better at all.

Now Google, through its users’ own fault, controls the whole chain, like Carnegie Mellon who at the end of the 19th century mastered steel, coal and the railroad to transport them (so that no competitor could have its products hauled without incurring hefty costs and paying for the monopoly thus created).

Search engine stats. Beware! Huge bias as those numbers encompass mobiles.

useless search engines
Technically, Google, because it controls both inventory and sales and the vehicle of the sale is a monopsony and a monopoly – drawing from Economix How our economy works and doesn’t work – 2012

And with Chrome’s dominance, things aren’t getting any better. It is therefore urgent to switch from Chrome to Firefox, Safari or another. By the way, changing the default search engine (guess which one on Chrome and all major search engines) isn’t a piece of cake.

useless search engines
Changing the default search engine in Google Chrome. No less than 3 clicks and a lot of digging and even IT savvy is required. In other words, it is an impossible task for Joe Bloggs [click on the image to enlarge it]
Edge’s market share is growing at the moment, but there is still room for improvement. And should dominance change sides, switching engines will be once more recommended.

Please note, however, that the browser war is much more vivid on personal computers than on mobile phones due to the ultra-dominance of Android.

In fact, all browsers are equally good, and Chrome is no better than the others, it is even considered as a resource hog by Joanna Stern. The thing is that many developers want to save themselves trouble. They will thus require you to switch to Chrome to use their Web Apps.

useless search engines
One example, among many others: Zencastr refuses to run on anything other than Chrome or Firefox. Fortunately, it works very well on the latter.

In short, the choice of browser means something in terms of search engine use. Changing engines is easier on Safari, for example.

useless search engines
The choice of a default search engine on Safari is made in just one click. [click to enlarge]

Eight: tracking

Privacy is the point that bothers me the least, especially since users are in charge of their data if they really want to. But here again, do they really want to do that?

Theoretically here’s what Google knows about me: “My name, gender and date of birth, my personal mobile phone numbers, my last Google searches, the websites I visited, that I turned on the lights in my room last night, exactly where I’ve been for the last few years, that I like American football, games, jazz, audio equipment, my favourite food and drink.., where I work, where I live, the YouTube videos I’ve watched and my YouTube searches, every time I used my voice to interact with Google Assistant (with recordings of my voice)”.

useless search engines
What does Google really know about me? Not much actually because I only disclose what I want to. I still have my personal email box on Gmail though, yet as I access it through Outlook and Apple mail apps, ad targeting is not for me.

But it is in fact possible to remove a substantial part of one’s Internet traces, including those left on Google. If only users weren’t so lazy. They do complain about tracking but, in fact, they are in charge.

The activity controls menu on your Google account. For my part, everything’s erased after 3 months, but there’s not much to delete there, except maybe some of the Google maps searches (still way better than Apple maps or open maps).

Nine: most worthy searches come from private databases

Most of the material I rely on – except for articles like this one – comes from private databases, the content of which is not indexed by search engines.

The Guardian, WSJ, Les Echos, other news resources from around the world, reports from analysts such as Gartner, Forrester IDC and others, PR agencies that provide us with interesting market data and suggest interviews.

This is what one calls the Deep Web, but Joe Bloggs will most probably never hear of it.

The dream of a universal Web, a common good of humanity, is probably definitively over. The only remainder of free research is Wikipedia. Their constant requests for subsidies to finance their costly hosting resources show that the common good – whatever its limits – may not last forever. If you haven’t already done so, donate to Wikipedia!

Ten: I have probably wasted my time with this piece

I have spent a few long hours writing this article and researching the sources of the figures I have included here. Yet I know that this work is absolutely useless. By the time I have closed the lid of my computer and pressed the publish button I will hear, as usual, the majority of users tell me that they are delighted with the situation as it is.

— “Google? Well, it’s convenient, isn’t it?”

What do you want to add to that?

In conclusion, search engines may not be completely useless, and it may not matter much.

Unless users get a grip on themselves, nothing is likely to change in the future unless American litigators get their act together in the lawsuit against Google.

Certainly, there is a lot of whinging here and there, and particularly in Europe. Yet, all may not be lost after all.

Search engines are not the alpha and omega of knowledge. At least, I hope you haven’t thrown away your books – even your eBooks – this is where knowledge hides and must be found. The current Internet landscape is most probably the result of the complacency of Internet users; Internet giants are merely making the most of this.

After all, it is up to us to vote with our mice. As citizens, as business people, marketers and business leaders who are now the victims of monopolies which we helped to create. And I’ve only mentioned one of them.

And now, I invite you to read James Temperton’s entire article entitled I ditched Google for DuckDuckGo. Here’s why you should too | WIRED UK

Yann Gourvennec
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