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Researchers confirm what we already knew: Google results really are getting worse

'Search engines seem to lose the cat-and-mouse game that is SEO spam,' says study

Updated No, it's not just you - search engine results really are getting worse as the internet is flooded with low-effort garbage from SEO farms and affiliate link sites, a group of German researchers has concluded. 

The boffins made their determination after spending a year reviewing results for 7,392 product review queries on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo, which they said is the first systematic review into the question of worsening search engine result quality. 

After poring over countless links for the past year, the team has concluded everyone complaining about Google's declining quality seems to be correct, and things are probably only going to get worse with the advent of generative AI - just like we predicted. See the above-linked study for the full details, including comparisons between Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Google.

"We can conclude that higher-ranked pages are on average more optimized, more monetized with affiliate marketing, and they show signs of lower text quality," the researchers wrote. They  also found that while a small portion of product reviews use affiliate marketing, the majority of search engine results do use the tactic, which is only adding to the problem of glum search engine results page (SERP) quality. 

"All search engines have significant problems with highly optimized (affiliate) content … we further observe an inverse relationship between affiliate marketing use and content complexity," the quartet of academics from Leipzig and Bauhaus universities and the Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence concluded. 

In other words, the more loaded with affiliate links and search engine optimization (SEO) strategies a page is, the worse it gets. Those pages are everywhere, and so results are generally getting worse.

Along with that, the researchers determined that all three search engines are prone to being gamed by large-scale affiliate link spam campaigns, and their efforts to subvert such manipulation through algorithm updates have, at best, "a temporary positive effect." Google's targeting of SEO and affiliate spam appears to be the most effective, the team found. 

Regardless, "search engines seem to lose the cat-and-mouse game that is SEO spam," the researchers conclude. 

Bad results getting worse thanks to generative AI

If you're surprised by these results, you're probably not using the internet much. 

Lots of digital ink has been spilled in recent months over Google falling prey to mass spam campaigns, while reports from other outlets have detailed how Google's dominance has shaped the modern internet and left it full of low-quality, spammy content optimized to get it to the top of a SERP - not make it useful for humans. 

Google even claimed in 2022 that it was updating its algorithm to prioritize "people-first content," but as the researchers found, those efforts have been in vain as SEO experts and spam factories have simply figured out how to game the newest tweaks to the system.

Now, with the advent of generative AI able to pump out low-quality copy in an instant, the internet is only on pace to become further flooded by garbage. 

The researchers found that spam domains are still rampant on SERPs, and that there's "an overall downwards trend in text quality in all three search engines" while at the same time "the line between benign content and spam [is becoming] increasingly blurry - a situation that will surely worsen in the wake of generative AI." 

"Dynamic adversarial spam in the form of low-quality, mass produced commercial content deserves more attention,"  the researchers argue. How to combat it isn't necessarily clear, though. 

The paper doesn't make any recommendations because static evaluation of the kind done for the paper simply isn't sufficient to develop a counter strategy, the team said. 

The paper notes that future efforts will be toward that end, though whether the window is still open to save online search from becoming a total nightmare remains to be seen.

Janek Bevendorff, research assistant at Leipzig University and an author on the paper, told The Register that it's hard to say whether there's an easy way out of the current online search predicament in which we find ourselves. 

Bevendorff said that search engines should be more careful in selecting what pages to promote if they come from sites that produce high volumes of content, and that "thin affiliates" filled with repetitive, low-quality content are already flagged as spam by Google. 

"Affiliate marketing itself is in part responsible for what online content looks like now," Bevendorff said, but noted that "banning it entirely is probably not a solution," as many authentic sites use the tactic, and SEO optimization, as an important revenue stream. 

"In the end, it may remain a cat-and-mouse game," Bevendorff opined. 

Google hasn't respond to our questions for this story. ®

Updated to add

"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," a Google spokesperson told The Register post-publication.

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

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