You use search every day. How has it changed you? And how is it changing?
At the end of September, Google – you know, that corporation worth US$1.3 trillion, which probably hosts much of your personal interaction, photographs and work files – announced some changes. Specifically, the changes were to its search engine, one of those rarefied products so ubiquitous that its use has become a verb. According to tech publication The Verge, there are now (or will soon be) options to search with voice notes or photographs, more videos and images are appearing in search results, and Google Maps search functions are making it easier to see what events or locations are trending in a neighbourhood.
Google’s search executive Prabhakar Raghavan has said that younger internet users tend to use searches on social media – where Google has no major foothold – rather than Google search, especially for topics related to travel, fashion and food. A bevy of articles back this up, asking whether Google is dying, talking to young people who have ditched Google search for TikTok, or getting journalists to try using TikTok as their exclusive search engine.
The changes steer Google in a more visual and vibes-based direction and are designed to make it more attractive to that younger generation. As little as a year ago Google search may have seemed indomitable, but the rise and rise of TikTok is changing how people expect to access information; the ability to retrieve highly specific information quickly may no longer be enough to guarantee Google’s supremacy.
Google has been optimised – but for whom?
If TikTok is a threat to Google, then its own algorithm is too. If you’ve ever complained about searching for a recipe and having to wade through a novel-length backstory to get to the actual instructions, that would be because the recipe writer has found that they get higher search results if their posts are longer and have more photos and headings. It’s not just independent food bloggers: search engine optimisation (SEO) is a lucrative industry where human writers divine what kinds of content the Google algorithm likes and then fill their clients’ sites with it. Why does an electricity company, for example, have a blog? It’s because of SEO: most of this writing isn’t really meant for humans to read, it’s for the Google search indexing bot.
“The higher your brand appears on the search engine results page, the greater the number of people visiting your website,” says Hannah Kingston, an SEO expert. She compares SEO strategies to Monopoly: hitting the right keywords in the right way improves chances of appearing at the top of search results.
SEO might be good for a business’s bottom line, but it doesn’t necessarily lead users to better information. Regular updates to Google’s algorithm and functions, like adding the “questions” feature, are intended to give users the information they actually want, but also to keep them on Google’s pages, looking at Google’s advertising, for longer. Tactics like cramming websites with keywords or links to other pages is no longer enough to float to the surface of search results.
Kingston, who has never used “blackhat” tactics like keyword cramming, is convinced these changes are good for users. “Google is working on the basis of expertise, authority and trust, and truly, it is working for and by consumers over brands. This means that we as the SEOs maintain integrity while amplifying and supporting the brands we work with,” she says.
But not all of those in the SEO business are so generous. “I think SEO is a zero sum game – it doesn’t make the internet-using public any better off,” says a content writer who asked to go by the name Judas Iscariot to protect his commercial relationships with major clients. “A lot of companies are pushing shit with a high SEO budget and perform well.” Iscariot has written website content for years, and now largely outsources the work to other writers – and, recently, to AI.
“It’s dreary work, it’s not stimulating, it feels demoralising to have to do the work yourself,” he says. When he can’t outsource writing, Iscariot has to work at the coalface of the content mines himself. In bathroom breaks from his day job, on flights and during more tedious phone calls, he taps out pieces of writing for the machines (and maybe some people) to read. While some in the industry are excellent writers, and savvy about SEO, he says that many just copy what others are doing and hope it will have results. “Some companies aren’t thinking about it. They see others doing blog posts and think, I guess we should do blog posts.”
Perhaps the dominance of insipid SEO writing – content that isn’t really about what real humans want at all – makes searching on social media like TikTok more attractive. At least watching a restaurant recommendation or news video will show you the person giving you the information, not a faceless website. While many companies that use SEO are legitimate, there are dodgy players, so people find workarounds to make searches more effective. An increasingly popular option is to add the term “reddit” to your Google search, and hope that the denizens of the internet’s most popular forum might have addressed your query. This achieves the same thing as searching on TikTok or Instagram: a guarantee that your inquiry will be answered with real people who are not trying to meet clickthrough or conversion rates.
Joining our brains to the machine
Google’s search algorithm might have been designed by humans, but how it generates results is unclear to most people, pointing to a fundamental shift in our relationship to information. “We’ve learned to treat Google like revealed wisdom,” says Nicholas Agar, a professor of philosophy at the University of Waikato.
“Information tools are so powerful; you use them and you lose the capacity to know what it would be like to live without them,” he says. You can idly wonder about the prime minister of Greece, for example, tap a few keys, and have everything you could ever want to know about him instantly delivered to your phone.
Using Google requires trusting the knowledge that is mediated by the interventions of the search engine machine, Agar says. Before the search engine, only two decades ago, finding out the name of the Greek prime minister would have required an up-to-date encyclopaedia or perhaps something more relational, like asking your Greek friend down the road. In either case your relationship to the information and the source of its authority or lack thereof was clear. But online, a website might appear high up in search results because it’s accurate and useful, or because it’s spent a lot of money paying content writers to make it attractive to the algorithm.
“The new modes of storing and relating to information are less and less humanly interpretable and accessible,” he says: it might feel automatic to answer any moment of curiosity by entering keywords into Google’s clean blank box, but search is only possible if you trust the algorithm which finds the results. As the SEO industry shows, that algorithm can be exploited; and even though Google has renewed a commitment to tackling misinformation, its accuracy is far from unimpeachable.
Of course, Google’s keyword search isn’t the first information revolution that has profoundly shaped how humans access knowledge. The filing cabinet, for instance, turned an office’s piles of paper into a legible system of information, making workplaces more efficient; vestiges of this remain in folder-shaped icons on laptops, although university professors teaching computer science say that their students now struggle to write code in a nested folder system, because they’re so used to searching for what they need.
Agar highlights an even more profound shift in information dissemination: that of writing itself. “In a pre-literate society, people told stories to remember information; as soon as you have writing you aren’t developing amazing narrative skills so you can tell a story in a way you’ll remember. These changes have a cognitive effect.” The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates objected to writing because he said it would stop his students from remembering; ironically, the reason knowledge of Socrates’ teachings has endured is because his students wrote things down.
To Agar, the transformation in understanding heralded by the internet – through search, hyperlinks, and social connections – is ongoing. He’s seen the hold that TikTok and its provocateurs have over his children. “The changes are really rapid,” he says, a little wryly.
AI, meet search
Google’s algorithm has been controlling the delivery of information for more than two decades, but recent leaps forward in the ability of artificial intelligence signal more changes if the tech giant’s flagship product is to keep up.
There’s a fine line between Google’s algorithm, which absorbs reams of human information that it can catalogue and regurgitate at human beckoning, and artificial intelligence’s natural language learning models, which absorb reams of human information to generate new formulations they can regurgitate at human beckoning. But it’s clear that beyond TikTok, artificial intelligence is a new frontier for search. AI models like GPT-3, DALL-E, and MidJourney are getting increasingly sophisticated, able to write op-eds, generate images, and even simulate lost loved ones.
For writers like Iscariot, this means that his formulaic, dreary work that fills websites and generates high search rankings has an expiry date. “I’m very confident that copywriters will be out of work, it’s a terrible industry for anyone to get into right now,” he says.
Experimenting with using Open AI’s GPT-3 model, which uses natural language processing to generate texts based on which words are most likely to follow others, Iscariot has found that something that might take a human 15 minutes to write takes the AI only four. He’s already using the tool for simple tasks, like caption writing or short paragraphs.
His familiarity with AI writing makes him suspect that other businesses, and even local newspapers, are using AI tools in their writing as well, although there’s no way to be certain – seeming like a human is the point. Like Google, which began as a search engine before it became an everything company, the AIs and their corporate owners will innovate. “These large language models have some ability to perform a diverse range of text generation and increasingly have options to take input in different ways, audio recordings, pictures,” says Iscariot.
Agar, the philosophy professor, worries that we will be too unquestioning in our embrace of AI, just as we were with Google. “We will be so overawed by [AI] that we don’t question it, we’ll think it has to be right.”
Artificial intelligence learns from human information: there are dozens of stories about how it reiterates human biases, like tending towards western art and gendered ideas of who is a good employee. If search, which informs thousands of human decisions, needs to be transparent about its workings, so does AI as it is increasingly given the power to make decisions on our behalf. “We build the machines, and we tell them what to do – we need people who will explain when AI does something weird,” Agar says.
In the process of writing this article, I opened Google at least 30 times, searching for examples and facts, as well as distractions. I also used search interfaces on TikTok, YouTube, Google Maps and academic databases, which were not all perfectly effective but largely led me to the answers I wanted. I clicked through a lot of the frequently asked questions Google generates on searches, some useful but most not (it seems SEO content even targets searches about SEO). I trusted that the answers that came up were accurate. From my Google Pixel phone to the precious images stored on Google Photos to my many, many searches each day, I and millions of others are part of Google’s machine, which gives us so much and only asks us to look at a few ads to pay for it. And if the platform manages to adapt to the changes forced by AI and TikTok, I’ll be there, still searching.