2022-04-27 Contemporary Google-fu

Google-fu has been important since the dawn of the modern internet. Except nowadays, simply knowing how to search for answers is in no way enough. It could even be dangerous sometimes -- this article shows an example of how Google search results are filled with questionable health advice produced by marketing teams -- and without the ability to filter them out in your brain, it is very hard to extract anything useful from such searches.

It is not limited to just health-related queries. Even when I try to enter programming-related search terms, a large part of the result would be websites that do nothing other than copying content from legitimate websites like GitHub and StackOverflow, and somehow they rank higher among the results than the real deals. What's worse is that one wrong answer would echo through all of these copycats (or "content farms") to generate pages upon pages of nonsense. Granted, a wrong programming answer will probably not kill anyone, at least not immediately, but others can, such as the aforementioned health-related case. Imagine how many people have been robbed of their life savings or even their lives due to questionable search results.

What's the most infuriating for me is that Google made an attempt to make retrieving useful information from the atrocious search results easier by showing a "People also ask" for answers to related questions commonly asked, which sounds great as it saves a lot of manual filtering... But of course SEO people found their way again. From my anecdotal experience, most of the time, answers in this section do not even actually answer the given question at all, but rather they are filled with nothing but vague marketing speech -- just like the rest of the results.

I, of course, understand that all of this is due to SEO -- the only way for companies to gain visibility on search engines among millions of search results. But if useless and harmful information end up benefiting the most from the algorithms, I would argue that the algorithms used in modern search engines are fundamentally flawed. When a metric becomes the target of optimization, it ceases being a good metric, and the search engines are no exception to this rule. I could talk shit on people who fall for these SEO-oriented content farms for days, but at the end of the day, I think it's just sad that we need to learn how SEO works to discern SEO content from "real" content. But again, I have no idea on how to design an algorithm that cannot be exploited this way. As long as the algorithm has any slight trace of stability, someone somewhere will eventually start to exploit it for their own benefit. Maybe this is the price we have to pay to live in the information age, or maybe there is a way -- it's just that we are too busy with our own benefits to find out.

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